For one, Governor John Bel Edwards told reporters on Tuesday, this storm didn’t come with a name. “When you have a storm that is unnamed—it wasn’t a tropical storm, it wasn’t a hurricane—a lot of times people underestimate the impact that it would have,” Edwards, a Democrat, said during a storm briefing. “But this is historic, it’s unprecedented, and we are seeing unprecedented flood levels as the waters move south.” Edwards and his family were forced to leave the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge after water flooded the basement and the electricity had to be shut off.
Appearing alongside the governor, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate emphasized that the federal government was treating the floods as a “headline disaster” even if the national media was not. “You had the Olympics, you’ve got the election, and if you looked at the national news, you’re probably only on the third or fourth page,” Fugate noted. “FEMA understands this is a very large disaster impacting tens of thousands of people.”
A slow-moving, hybrid low-pressure system dumped between 24 and 31 inches of rain—some 6.9 trillion gallons of water—on parts of southern Louisiana over the course of 48 hours before moving into Texas. More than 40,000 homes have suffered damage, Edwards said, and authorities rescued more than 30,000 people and 1,000 pets trying to escape the rising waters. More than 8,000 Louisiana residents were in shelters as of Tuesday afternoon, and the official death toll from the floods stood at 11.
The displacements and damage remain far less than the devastation wrought by Katrina in 2005, but because the flooding occurred inland from New Orleans around Baton Rouge, officials are worried that tens of thousands of homes were not protected by flood insurance. “This is a 500 to 1,000-year event,” said Representative Garret Graves, a life-long Baton Rouge resident whose district was heavily effected by the flooding. “Financially, you’ve got some people who are absolutely deep in the red.”
Graves, a Republican, said people were caught “scrambling and flat-footed” because of a lack of communication from authorities in the days before the storm. “Overall there was a lack of preparation and really anticipation in this case that was inappropriate,” Graves told me by phone on Wednesday. “I think we could have mitigated some of the loss, in fact a good bit of the loss, had there been communication about the threat of the flood.”
As an example, the congressman said that when he went with search-and-rescue teams, he noticed that most people had kept their cars in their driveways. “Had people just been given more notice on this, they could have brought those cars to higher ground,” Graves said. “We were rescuing people in boats, and people were grabbing what they can in a plastic grocery sack and running out of the house or wading through the house.”