By Gracie Pearsall
In August of 2016, the worst rainstorm in state history hit Louisiana and devastated Baton Rouge. The locals have since dubbed the event the “Great Flood” – an apt name as the rainstorm caused flooding of almost biblical proportions. Inadequate support from the Federal Government exacerbated the immense destruction. The American Red Cross declared this rainstorm the worst natural disaster since Sandy. Yet, while the government and fellow Americans gave the victims of Sandy an outpouring of support, the victims of the Great Flood experienced mostly neglect and abandonment.
Now, one year has passed and the victims of the Great Flood are still trying to rebuild their homes and regain a sense of normalcy, all while the federal government continues to ignore the victims’ needs. This negligence disproportionally affects Baton Rouge’s most disadvantaged, who rely on relief to rebuild. In the face of a changing climate, in which such extreme events become more frequent, negligence will disproportionally the most disadvantaged.
From August 11th through August 14th of 2016 an unnamed storm dumped 7.1 trillion gallons of water onto the greater Baton Rouge area. The subsequent flooding killed 13 people, damaged 100,000 homes, and displaced thousands of people. In a span of three days, Baton Rouge received two feet of rain, which pushed river levels to record highs. The rainfall alone would have been enough to inundate the area, but once the rivers overflowed, flash floods tore through the region.
The Federal Government administers disaster relief on an ad hoc basis, and provides funds to states and localities after disaster strikes. The victims use the money to rebuild homes, business, and infrastructure. The damages from the Great Flood tallied up to $10.3 billion dollars, and the state needed $3.7 billion of federal funding to administer relief. However, congress only provided Louisiana with $1.7 billion – only 13 cents per every dollar of damage.
Low-income households often lack the resources to quickly rebound from natural disasters. Yet, vulnerable populations find themselves concentrated in undesirable areas with high natural disaster risks because the cost of living is low. Such is the case in north Baton Rouge, the area that the Great Flood affected the most, and where one in four households lives in poverty. Institutionalised neglect has plagued North Baton Rouge. Abandoned properties and streets lined with ditches instead of sidewalks expose rampant urban decay in this area, due to lack of investment, maintenance and resources. Recent closures of stores and two hospitals further exemplify the persistent decline of resources in north Baton Rouge.
When the flood hit, neither the infrastructure nor residents of north Baton Rouge were prepared. Many residents were dependent on the assistance from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), non-profits, and other agencies. The area was already severely lacking resources, and the inadequate relief punctuated the hardships. However, even when support fell short, the majority of survivors were determined to remain in the area and rebuild.
A year later, despite this community’s resilient spirit, north Baton Rouge still displays signs of neglect. Thousands of people are still displaced from their homes. Many are still living with their relatives or staying in FEMA trailers in front of their gutted homes. Repairs have been slow and many homes still have not even begun the rebuilding process
But in the wake of the flood, the most devastating impact has been the emotional and psychological toll on the survivors. The emotional and mental health consequences are not as visible as physical destruction, but nonetheless have devastated Baton Rouge. The victims not only had to deal with losing everything, but also the feeling of being abandoned in a time of need. A state mental health support agency has reported that feelings of hopelessness, despair, cases of depression, and problems eating and sleeping have significantly increased post-flood. Many survivors report feelings of anxiety and fear every time it rains because they are reminded of the flood. Police report that since the flood, incidents of domestic violence and alcohol abuse have increased as well.
Emotional distress is virtually universal after a natural disaster, and mental health support is a crucial aspect of rehabilitation. Louisiana Spirit is a state agency that provides counselling and helps people recover in the wake of natural disasters. However, the Trump administration recently denied a state request that would have authorised much-needed funding for Louisiana Spirit beyond August.
Links to Climate Change
By any measure, this storm was extreme. While it is difficult to attribute a single event to climate change, research has shown that the Great Flood is linked to the changing climate. Climate change did not cause the Great Flood, but it altered background climatic conditions to be more favourable to extreme precipitation events. The current strategy for handling natural disasters is recovery-focused. However, as extreme events become more frequent and affects more people, response plans should be focused more on preparedness and resiliency.
Nevertheless, in spite of the insufficient governmental response to this catastrophe, the people of Baton Rouge are determined to rebuild their lives and ensure that their community is prepared for the next flood. Hundreds of north Baton Rouge Citizens filed a class action lawsuit against the city, claiming flooding was amplified due to drainage valves that were closed for maintenance and were never re-opened. The citizens recognise the value that preparedness has in the face on the coming storms. Their resiliency should be mimicked by resilient policy, such as elevation standards in flood-prone areas and early flood warning systems. The situation in Baton Rouge exposes how the current disaster relief administration falls short, thus leaving vulnerable populations to endure the changing climate’s furore alone.