Flooding in Mandeville, La., after Tropical Storm Barry dumped more than 20 inches of rain on parts of southern LouisianaNew Orleans was spared a direct hurricane hit over the weekend, but heavy rains in an already waterlogged region will take an economic toll. Photo credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images
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By Karen Savage

Hurricane Barry was short-lived and spared New Orleans from the catastrophic damage predicted, but as climate change fuels more intense and extreme weather events, even moderate storms can still cause millions in damages.

While New Orleans avoided a direct hit as Barry weakened into a tropical storm at landfall, residents in other areas were not so lucky. Water overtopped levees in Jefferson, Lafourche, St. Mary and Terrebonne parishes, causing localized flooding. Rainfall in the southwest part of the state exceeded 23 inches and during the worst of the storm, more than 150,000 were without power

Even before the storm, the Mississippi River had been flooding southern Louisiana since early January, thanks to massive rainfall and flooding in the Midwest in the winter and spring, also linked to climate change. It produced the river’s longest flood in history in the region. So Barry’s rainfall compounded another climate-related disaster.

“There are plenty of other ingredients that go into the flooding recipe in Louisiana,” Alexander S. Kolker, an associate professor at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, wrote in CityLab. “The ground is sinking, the coast is losing land, humans have altered the way water flows across the region, and the climate is changing. Climate change is likely leading to more intense rainstorms, fiercer hurricanes, and rising sea levels. This creates the kinds of conditions we faced in New Orleans last week, with intense street flooding, a high river, and an approaching tropical cyclone.”

Dozens were rescued from the resulting floodwaters. 

And even in areas that were spared, residents spent money preparing for the storm and then fleeing to safety.

“Evacuating, closing businesses, all of these things cost money. You breathe a sigh of relief because places didn’t get a direct hit and some places didn’t get a direct hit as they’d feared, but there’s still an economic impact,” said David Letson, a professor of marine ecosystems and society at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, who has studied hurricane evacuation patterns.

“People don’t realize that evacuation costs a lot of money,” said Letson.  “It’s not free, it’s not pleasant, it’s not convenient.”

Damage assessments have just begun, but are expected to fall short of AccuWeather’s initial estimate of between $8 and $10 million in total damage and economic losses. 

Steve Hamburg, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the goal before extreme weather events is to protect people and it’s important not to underplay a storm’s potential.

“The good news is we now have better forecasting—but it’s not a perfect science,” said Hamburg. “In this case, the storm went further to the west than they originally thought, which means they saw less wind and less rain in New Orleans than they thought.”

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said the storm could have been much worse.

“We were prepared for the risks, the threats that were forecasted and we’re thankful that the worst-case scenario did not happen,” said Edwards. “But understand here in Louisiana if nowhere else, that will not always be the case.”

Hamburg said while storms along the gulf coast are normal, climate change is altering what can be expected during those storms. 

“These patterns are ones that unfortunately we’re seeing more frequently and they’re exacerbated by climate change,” he said. “Having things happen that are unprecedented in rapid succession is not normal and we have to recognize that the environment around us is changing and it’s changing in ways we can document and understand the underlying science for.”

Hamburg also said that as the as the climate continues to change, those who have fewer resources will continue to be disproportionately impacted.  

“The key is really to recognize that this is not an equal opportunity abuser – if you don’t have the resources to adapt, raise your house or just get out of town, you’re going to be feeling a lot more of it.”

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