Bracing for Barry

“Everything about this storm is just different than what we typically deal with.” - Gov. John Bel Edwards

I was headed up Government Street to GOHSEP, and my daughter in Lake Charles called my cell phone.

“Are you okay, Mom? Are you staying for Barry or, now that you don’t have to be on the air for once, are you thinking about leaving?” she asked.

She lived in Baton Rouge in the summer of 2016, and lost everything in the August flood.

“I’m good,” I said. “In fact, I’m driving to the governor’s press conference now.”

“Okay, well, people over here are losing their minds because Jim Cantore flew into Lake Charles this morning.”

“Guess you’re screwed, then,” I said with a laugh.

“He can rent a car and drive somewhere else,” she said, “Like Morgan City.”

Fast forward a few minutes, and pre-presser I’m chatting with Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain about plans for pets and preparations for livestock.

“Mike, you heard the folks in Lake Charles are freaking out?” I asked. “Jim Cantore flew in this morning.”

Reporters and videographers started chuckling, but Strain asked, “Who is that?”

That’s just one of the many reasons we here at the Brief have started calling this storm system “Batshit Barry.”

(At least he has a name, unlike the system that flooded most of south Louisiana in August 2016.)

All cynical humor aside, why are officials getting so wound up about a system that’s predicted to just maybe make it to a Category 1 hurricane by landfall? It’s because Barry has the potential to be a flooding event of near-Biblical proportions.

“Three things cause flooding: storm surge, overflowing rivers, and rain. Here we have all three,” Gov. John Bel Edwards told media members gathered for updates following Thursday’s Unified Command Group meeting. He ticked off the specifics that make this system so scary.

“This is Day 258 of the Mississippi River flood fight, the most consecutive days in recorded history for the river to be at or above flood stage. And it is the first time we’ve ever had a hurricane threat while the Mississippi River is in flood,” he said. “And we’re expecting an extreme rain event, with this storm dropping ten to fifteen inches of rainfall. We also anticipate a three to four foot storm surge for a minimum of twelve hours.”

The center of the system is tracking slowly westward, and the time of this writing, is expected to make landfall Saturday morning at Morgan City. That’s good news for New Orleans, since it means less chance of directional winds blowing the Mississippi River waters to overtop the levees. But it also puts the Crescent City on the “shit side” of the storm – the northeast quadrant, 12 o’clock to 3 o’clock on a clock face – where the rain concentration is always heaviest.

Too much rain too fast and no pumps can keep up. Plus, with the rivers and canals already near full, there’s not much room for outfall to go from the pumps that have to push water up and over the levees, to reach sea level.

In view of the “perfect storm” of the nation’s largest river being above flood stage for nearly nine months, and a full foot or more of rain predicted to fall, I asked about computer modeling of the concatenation of events, and whether any specialized programs through the Water Campus at LSU were providing some workable guidance.

Gov. John Bel Edwards. Photo by Sue Lincoln, Bayou Brief.

“The National Weather Service, the Corps of Engineers, the Water Institute of the Gulf and CPRA have all been working diligently together to run models based on different scenarios, especially as the forecast changes,” the governor replied, and then asked Chip Kline, director of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, to elaborate.

“After every forecast that the National Weather Service issues, CPRA, in conjunction with LSU and the Water Institute of the Gulf, we run these SERFC (Southeast River Forecast Center) models to determine whether these impacts are going to be mostly focused along the coast,” Kline explained. “What we’re looking at now is mostly due to heavy rainfall. We do not anticipate any levees along the Mississippi River being overtopped. We do not anticipate any levees within the hurricane protection system around the greater New Orleans area being overtopped. There are floodgates that are currently being closed across the greater New Orleans area. Additionally, there are floodgates within the Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane protection system that are being closed. But as the governor said, I think our main concern right now is the amount of rainfall that will be associated with this event.”

Considering the long flood fight along the Mississippi, the massive flooding Hurricane Harvey brought to Texas in 2017, and our own Storm-That-Was-Never-Named in August 2016, there’s an awkward and almost painful silence about the contribution climate change is making to submerging more and more of Louisiana.

In fact, the nearest anyone came to touching on the topic was the governor’s comment that, with Barry, “the Gulf is warmer than it needs to be to grow this system.”

And there are certain factions that would roll their eyes and say an approaching natural disaster is not the appropriate time to raise the issue or question Louisiana’s preparations for even more events like the one we’re facing now.

I suspect if I asked the governor directly, he’d answer with something like what he said today.

“When it’s you that floods, the source of the water doesn’t make much difference,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said. “Water is water, and if it’s in your home, on the streets and highways, in your business, obviously that is a major event.”

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Sue Lincoln
Sue Lincoln is a veteran and widely-respected reporter who has been covering Louisiana politics for nearly three decades. Originally from Long Beach, California, Sue’s career in journalism began on the radio in Los Angeles. After moving to Louisiana, Sue earned her bachelor’s degree. For ten years, from 2000-2010, she was the Assistant News Director at Louisiana Network. Sue also worked as the education reporter for Louisiana Public Broadcasting and has contributed to various state publications as a freelance journalist. But she is perhaps best known as the voice of the popular politics Capitol Access.