Disaster in Louisiana is the eighth deluge to wreak havoc on the nation since May 2015 and may provide a possible glimpse of climate change.
Climate change is never going to announce itself by name. But this is what we should expect it to look like.
That’s what many scientists, analysts and activists are saying after heavy rains in southern Louisiana have killed at least 10 people and forced tens of thousands from their homes, in the latest in a series of extreme floods in the United States during the last two years.
The increase in heavy rainfall and the resultant flooding “is consistent with what we expect to see in the future if you look at climate models,” said David Easterling, a director at the National Centers for Environmental Information, which is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Not just in the U.S. but in many other parts of the world as well.”
The flooding in Louisiana is the eighth event since May 2015 in which the amount of rainfall matches or exceeds NOAA’s predictions for an amount of precipitation that will occur once every 500 years, or has a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in any given year.
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Louisiana joins five other states, most of them in the South, that have experienced deadly flooding in the last 15 months, including Oklahoma, Texas, South Carolina and West Virginia.
In the last three months alone, floods in Maryland, West Virginia and Louisiana have combined to kill dozens of people and damage tens of thousands of homes and vehicles.
The National Weather Service reports that parts of Louisiana have received as much as 31 inches of rain in the last week, a number that Easterling called “pretty staggering,” and one that exceeds an amount of precipitation his center predicts will occur once every thousand years in the area.
Gov. John Bel Edwards spoke at a news conference alongside FEMA administrator Craig Fugate, saying “well over” 20,000 people have been rescued since the flooding began Friday.
His office later increased that figure to more than 30,000.
Beginning Friday, a torrent of about 2 feet of rain inundated the southern part of the state during a 48-hour period, and days later many homes and businesses were still underwater.
“This is an unprecedented event here,” said Barry Keim, the state climatologist. “There is nothing in the recent past that even comes close.”
Keim and other forecasters said they had begun tracking the storm system in early August and watched as it moved to the northwest.
But the scale of the storm left many people here reeling.
“When a tropical wave is coming at you, that doesn’t really instill a lot of fear, and the Weather Service knew a heavy rainfall event was likely to happen,” Keim said from his office at Louisiana State University, which was partly closed Tuesday. “But I don’t think anybody knew just how bad it was going to be.”
While some areas were entering recovery mode, the governor warned that new places downstream could see flooding and that officials are still in search-and-rescue mode.
“I don’t know we have a good handle on the number of people who are missing,” he said.
Some residents returned to their flood-damaged homes and businesses for the first time Tuesday and found a soggy mess.
David Key used a small boat to get to his house in Prairieville and said it had taken on 5 inches of “muddy, nasty bayou water.” There were fish and thousands of spiders. Mold has started to set in.
The extent of damage was coming into clearer view. About 40,000 people had signed up for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and eight more parishes were added to the federal disaster declaration, bringing the total to 12.
In Livingston Parish, one of the hardest-hit areas, with about 138,000 people, an official estimated that 75 percent of the homes were a “total loss.”
Rivers and creeks were still dangerously bloated south of Baton Rouge as people filled sandbags to protect their houses, bracing for the worst as the water worked its way south.
In Ascension Parish, officials said, some small towns have already been inundated.
The governor said more than 8,000 people were in shelters, but the number was constantly fluctuating.
Rivers reached historic highs — occasionally shattering old records dating to 1983 floods.
Far above average
The third National Climate Assessment, released in 2014 by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, showed that “the amount of rain falling in very heavy precipitation events” had been significantly above average since 1991.
However, the research did not identify the South as one of the areas of greatest concern; the increase was found to be greatest in the Northeast, Midwest and Upper Great Plains regions of the United States.
Some climate researchers warned Tuesday it was too early to explain why so much of the country has faced sudden flooding.
“It’s really hard to attribute things like this without a larger body of evidence,” said Keim, the Louisiana state climatologist. “And, of course, the question keeps coming up: How large does that body of evidence have to get?”
But others said the situation was quite clear.
“This is exactly what scientists have been predicting,” said the climate activist Bill McKibben. “The basic physics are simple: Warm air holds more water vapor, something that is turning out to be one of the most important facts of the 21st century.
“And while Louisiana was flooding, there were also huge flood events under way in Moscow (biggest rains in 129 years of record-keeping), the Sudan, Manila, and probably plenty of other places,” he added.
For the last four years, the American Meteorological Society has attempted to explain how climate change has influenced individual extreme weather events.
However, that type of analysis is not yet available for the flooding in Louisiana.
Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council who focuses on climate change’s effect on water resources, said state and local governments would have to change their approaches to keeping residents safe from flooding.
“If you look across all our natural-disaster policies, they’re predicated on the wrong assumption that our flood risk in the future looks identical to our flood risk in the past,” Moore said.
He said initiatives like the National Flood Insurance Program, which focuses on helping people rebuild in areas that have been flooded, were increasingly “untenable,” given sea-level rise.
A report released earlier this month by Seattle online real-estate company Zillow predicted that almost 1.9 million homes, worth a combined $882 billion, would be lost to rising sea levels — and the flooding likely to follow — that climate scientists expect to see by the year 2100.
“When Zillow starts warning about sea-level rise, it may be time to start worrying about sea-level rise,” Moore said.