“It was eerie to watch images of New Orleans’ flooding almost a year after the Baton Rouge flood,” Tam Williams, a videographer who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, told me. Every time it rains, she is a bit on edge, wondering if her city is going to flood again.
A week before the anniversary of last summer’s 1,000-year flood in Baton Rouge, rain inundated New Orleans, with more than 9 inches falling in only three hours.
New Orleans flooding on Aug 5, 2017 Video by Phinzy Percy
The Red Cross deemed the Baton Rouge flood, which occurred when over two feet of rain fell in 48 hours, the worst in the United States since Hurricane Sandy. It claimed 13 lives and damaged some 55,000 homes and 6,000 businesses.
Tam Williams and her family clearing their home after the flood in 2016 in Baton Rouge.
Tam Williams with a baby snake she found and rescued in her bedroom.
Williams vividly recalls that time. Her family's home took on a couple feet of water. The structure wasn’t beyond repair, but many of her belongings were destroyed. Things are getting back to normal for her and her family now, but she was left with a psychological scar, a fear of rain. “Every time it rains, I wonder if it is happening again,” she said.
Louisiana’s excessive rains last year joined a long list of extreme weather events in 2016, which resulted from long-term global warming combined with a strong El Nino weather pattern.
Williams thinks denying that humans are causing climate change is irresponsible. “Whether we want to accept it or not, the way we live has a direct effect on the climate,” she said. “To have people in power, in charge of policy, denying climate change, is crazy to me, even with clear evidence that’s what’s going on.”
Flooding in New Orleans
“We are in an era of climate change,” Cedric Grant, head of New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, declared in a press conference following the August 5 flooding that took the city by surprise. Grant was shifting blame from the city’s pumping system, claiming the pumps had worked to 100 percent of their capacity.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Grant’s statement was tone deaf, but insisted even with the city’s pump system working up to par, it could not handle that much rain. Thanks to its low-lying terrain, New Orleans sits as much as five to 10 feet below sea level and is prone to flooding.
Though Grant’s assessment of climate change is accurate, his statement about the pumping system was not, leading him to announce his resignation at an emergency city council meeting two days after the flood.
By that time it was revealed that in one of New Orleans’ flooded neighborhoods, the area’s pump system was working at less than 50 percent capacity.
But the faulty pump system’s role in the recent flooding doesn't negate climate change’s role in the deluge that stalled all activity in the city. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said rising temperatures driven by human activity made flooding in Louisiana at least 40 percent more likely.
Climate Activist Caught in the Deluge
“We need to stop talking about climate change as if it is something coming in the future,” Cherri Foytlin, head of the citizen action group Bold Louisiana, declared on a live recording last year as she drove with environmental journalist Karen Savage through the storm that flooded Baton Rouge. “The climate has changed.”
Floodwaters rose quickly as they made their way back from Mississippi to Foytlin’s home in Rayne, Louisiana, northwest of Baton Rouge. En route, they decided to wait out the rain in Denham Springs, but changed their minds as the water continued to rise.
Cherri Foytlin in Denham Springs Trying to Make Her Way Home. Video By Phinizy Percy
During that storm, Foytlin's home took on over a foot of water. She still has not repaired all the damage because she doesn’t have the funds to seal her floor, but is glad she didn’t. Her home flooded again a few weeks ago and she would have had to rip up whatever had been installed.
“By not really dealing with the issues of climate change, they are setting us up to fail,” Foytlin told me during a recent phone call. She is sick of hearing politicians praise the resilience of Louisiana’s residents after a storm. “Resilience” to her is code for ‘We are going to continue to allow this to happen to you, and then pat you on the back and tell you about what a great job you are doing bouncing back.” She believes that “by not really looking at climate change, things will only get worse.”
Foytlin’s daughter Jayden is one the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought by a group of 21 youths seeking immediate federal action to prevent climate change. The flood reinforced Jayden’s stance that the time to stand up and fight back is now. “Being directly affected in my home made the case that much more important to me,” she told me.
Jayden Foytlin, one of the youths taking part in a lawsuit against the government for failing to protect them from climate change before the Climate March in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 2017.
The case however, was temporarily halted. The Trump administration petitioned for a review of the district court’s decision to allow the case to move forward. Julia Olson from Our Children’s Trust, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs, wrote in a press statement, “The U.S. government is trying to use every possible tool they can to avoid trial, because they know applying the law to the facts and science in this case will mean certain defeat for them at trial. If the Trump administration was at all confident it could defend itself at trial, it would be preparing for trial.”
In Louisiana, where the oil and gas industry are a driving economic force, politicians for the most part avoid the topic of climate change.
Louisiana’s Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards doesn’t doubt the climate is changing, but he is less certain about the role of humans, despite strong and repeated scientific evidence that humans are driving the recent warming. “The degree to which human conduct is impacting that change, I think, is somewhat debatable,” Edwards said on a radio broadcast in September 2016. When I recently asked his office about his stance, a representative responded, “The governor’s statement on climate change is the same.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu began taking a firm stance on climate change only this year, after Trump announced the U.S. would pull out of the Paris Climate Accord. On July 7, the mayor announced an initiative for the city to combat climate change, but many see this as more of a move to position himself in national politics.
During his two terms as mayor, Landrieu has hardly been a champion in the fight against climate change. “We need fossil fuels, we need to make sure we keep drilling, and we have to make sure we drill safety,” he told a radio show’s hosts. “When it comes to drilling for oil and gas, the debate is whether or not we do it safely, not to do it or not to do it,” he said on MSNBC in 2010.
His sister Mary Landrieu, former chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, despite her belief in man's role in climate change, has taken on the role of lobbyist for industry since losing her Senate seat in 2014. She is a spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners, the company that is proposing to build the controversial Bayou Bridge pipeline, which will arguably damage the state’s wetlands, making it more vulnerable to extreme weather events.
Foytlin hopes the state’s lack of action won’t lead to the destruction of Louisiana. “If the city or any other part of the state is flooded again, it is people of color who inevitably will be hit the hardest,” she said.
Empty home in Denham Springs, Louisiana, site of last year’s historic floods, on August 7, 2017.
The Baton Rouge 1,000-year flood's anniversary brings back the fear Foytlin experienced last year and is a reminder of why she does what she does, advocating for the environment. Like most others in southern Louisiana, NOAA’s latest announcement that it is upping its projected storm total for this season doesn't make her happy.
“In May, government forecasters predicted 11 to 17 named storms. Now they believe we’ll see anywhere from 14 to 19 storms” this hurricane season, according to an August 9 update about NOAA’s predictions.
Threat of More Flooding in Louisiana
On August 10, Gov. Edwards declared a state of emergency for New Orleans after Mayor Landrieu announced the pumping station for the area most impacted by last Saturday’s flood had caught fire and was not operational. Landrieu has called for privatizing the Water and Sewer Authority at least until they can find a fix. In the meantime, schools are closed and people have been warned to move their cars to higher ground.
Hopefully Grant’s point about climate change and the uncertain state of the country’s infrastructure during extreme weather won’t be lost in his fall from grace.
The American Society of Civil Engineers 2017 Infrastructure Report Card gave the country’s infrastructure a “D.” Each state gets its own grade. Louisiana got a D+. Not the kind of grade that comforts one going into the peak of hurricane season.
A draft climate change report by 13 federal agencies which was leaked early this year and re-published by the New York times on August 7 states that Americans are feeling the effects of climate change right now. Meanwhile, living in southern Louisiana, Ground Zero for the impacts of climate change, has become too much like playing Russian Roulette, particularly for those who just want the rain to stop.
RELATED: See Julie Dermansky's photo essay about the slow recovery process for Louisiana families after the 2016 floods on the Weather Channel.
All photos by Julie Dermansky. Video by Phinizy Percy.
Main image: Flooding in Livingston Parish, near Denahm Springs, Louisiana.