Louisiana Flood of 2016 … and Journalism Excellence

August 29, 2016

Eleven years ago today, Hurricane Katrina exposed Louisiana’s natural underbelly in untellable ways.

With now atop then, Louisianans will always and evermore be forgiven for distrusting the month of August … especially August weather … most especially August rainfall.

Imagine the odds of any one place experiencing both a Hurricane Katrina and a “1,000-year” rainfall / flood in so few years.

Then imagine being one of the tens-of-thousands unfortunate souls who awoke that morning, not yet three weeks ago, and set about dispatching their rainy-day business as usual, with absolutely no suspicion that the rain was actually liquid hell on earth.

Perhaps worst, imagine being one of the 1,050 souls who live – or did live – in Watson, Louisiana.

That Livingston Parish village, twenty-five miles northeast of Baton Rouge, and just east of the Amite River, was ground zero in this cataclysm.  There, in only the five days August 9-through-14, official rainfall was 31.39-inches.

That is, we have learned, more than a typical year of rain in Omaha, Nebraska – 31.10 inches – and Minneapolis, Minnesota – 30.57 inches.

We lucky sorts with the luxury of time to read may have learned that this particular natural attack is called an “inland sheared tropical depression.”  It makes perfect, and awful, sense that no one seems to have heard of such before.

For more detail, and some excellent graphics, here is an August 15th article by Mark Schleifstein at NOLA.com / The Times-Picayune, and another that same day by reporter Drew Broach, also for NOLA.com.

Now, as the estimates of storm damage mount, and the debate over how to pay for it takes political center stage, comparisons of this nightmare to Hurricane Katrina are sensible.  This article in yesterday’s Advocate, by Gordon Russell, is a must-read in that context.

As if to prove why it is fair to negatively grade government bureaucracies and a lot of responsible public officials, we are once again learning that flood zone maps for much of the damaged area are, which is to say, remain, faulty.  Consequently, to a yet unknowable degree, too many of these damaged homes were built in areas for which owners did not have – and were not required to have – federal flood insurance.

By extension, we once again find ourselves in the toxic debate about whether or not residents with flood-damaged homes must rebuild them a few feet higher than they were when flooded.  That requirement might well trigger an otherwise highly unlikely population out-migration from the area.

These and other related debates also dogged rebuilding after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  As then, the federal government will soon begin to debate how much taxpayer money will flow to Louisiana storm victims in a broad assistance package from Congress and the President.

We Are Very Fortunate to Have Them …

During the several years I volunteered my time to our state’s post-Katrina recovery, it was a true pleasure to work with and around Gordon Russell and Mark Schleifstein, both then reporting for the Times-Picayune.  They were at the core of the Hurricane Katrina coverage there, for which the newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes in 2006, one for Breaking News and another for Public Service.

In May 2013, just one week after businessman John Georges bought The Advocate, Gordon Russell was hired away from the Times-Picayune to become the Advocate’s Managing Editor of Investigations.  He since won the Society of Professional Journalists national award for his reporting on the corruption and federal court trial and conviction of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

Mark Schleifstein has been with the Times-Picayune / NOLA.com since 1984, and is its Environmental reporter.  In 2006, he authored Path of Destruction:  The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms.

In their coverage of Hurricane Katrina, these two were top players on Louisiana’s very own team of extraordinary journalists reporting the disaster.  That team treated readers around the globe to how such was (then) done here.

I personally assert and attest that their work stands apart from the partisan political hackery now dominant in American journalism.

Elliott Stonecipher

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