Last week’s flood in southern Louisiana is being called the worst natural disaster in the United States since Hurricane Sandy, but as recovery efforts continue, it’s become apparent that some residents ignored flash flood warnings. NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday revealed interviews with locals who say they willfully ignored the flash flood warnings. Their neighbors told them it never flooded there—weather forecasts are notoriously unreliable, after all—so they chose not to evacuate. When the flood came, they had to make a quick getaway, and at least 13 people lost their lives trying to flee the rising water.
It’s true that the area of Louisiana stretching from Baton Rouge to Lafayette has rarely flooded, despite being just slightly above sea level. The intense storms that caused rivers to overflow just over a week ago were unseasonably heavy, and although the National Weather Service issued flash flood warnings for the area, evacuation was not mandatory. This combination of facts caused many local residents to be skeptical of the warnings, thinking that since many storms had come and gone without major incident, this one might as well. Unfortunately, that was far from the truth.
Residents interviewed by NPR suggested that the lack of mandatory evacuation orders, as well as being under threat from an unnamed storm, contributed to the widespread underestimation of the storm’s potential to wreak havoc in their communities. When tropical storms and hurricanes are named, the threat seems more real, many said. The storm that caused this unprecedented flood, though, was neither a tropical storm or a hurricane, so it didn’t get a name.
Climate change has contributed to the frequency and severity of inland storms, though. As a result of the tragedy in Louisiana, where recovery efforts are still underway, many are now arguing that weather agencies and government officials have a responsibility to adjust their procedures to adapt to these changing threats. It’s unlikely that residents of Baton Rouge will ignore future flash flood warnings, but the next heavy rainstorm that causes massive flooding is likely to hit a community that has, like Baton Rouge, never before experienced a weather event like this.