Initial Data … Louisiana Flood of 2016

August 23, 2016

In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I hit the road from the undamaged north to the devastated south … all along I-10 and I-12.  The need for demographic information was pronounced, and given that Louisiana governors and legislators have never seen the need for a state demographer, I took up the slack.  That pro bono work, as it turned out, continued for years.

For this latest natural disaster hammering a huge part of Louisiana, no name will be assigned.  Regardless that nearly 1-of-3 parishes in our state have been to relative degrees damaged by rising rainwater, there is no such shorthand.  To the victims, it is just plain hell.

The damage assessments we are now beginning to analyze clearly measure the depth and breadth of the suffering.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency – FEMA – has already included 20-of-64 Louisiana parishes in last week’s initial “major disaster declaration,” as listed here.

The Baton Rouge Area Foundation (BRAF) and Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce have initially reported additional assessment data, published by The Advocate newspaper.  That report can be read here.

Included in that analysis are nine of the hardest-hit FEMA-identified parishes … Ascension, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Iberville, Livingston, Pointe Coupee, St. Helena, West Baton Rouge and West Feliciana.

In these 9 parishes alone:

…  110,000 homes, just under one-third or 31%, are in areas which received flood water.  That is 34,000 homes … the equivalent of all housing units in Lake Charles, reported by the Census Bureau to be 32,000.

…  There are some 281,000 people in flooded areas.

…  Sixty-six percent (66%) of these homes were owner-occupied, 22% rented and others vacant;

…  In the overall region, including homes flooded and not, only 15% have flood insurance.

In hard-hit East Baton Rouge and Livingston Parishes:

…  Just under 208,000 residents live in flood-affected areas, i.e., “experienced flooding.”

…  Just under 82,000 housing units in these two parishes are within the areas with flooding, 17% of East Baton Rouge housing and 87% of homes in Livingston.

…  In East Baton Rouge, 61% of these homes were owner-occupied, as were 70% in Livingston Parish.  Seventy-five percent (75%) of those East Baton Rouge homes carry mortgages, and 67% of those in Livingston do.

…  In flooded areas of East Baton Rouge, the total value of homes is $5.7 billion.  The comparable value of Livingston Parish homes is more than $9.0 billion.

Who Stays, Who Goes?

Given that Louisiana is already prone to population out-migration – just under 600,000 of us, net, have moved out since 1985 – should we now expect a new wave of such losses?

The most important part of that answer is that we were likely already experiencing the front edge of that even before this disaster.  The implosion of oil and gas jobs has previously caused that response, and may well have already done so again.  Whoever now moves away, we cannot expect to ever know the reason.

Next, we must remember how many important ways this is not Hurricane Katrina.  Thank Goodness, we have not lost over 1,000 lives.  This is no political or other cause celebre.  There will be nowhere near $140 billion in combined public and private “storm relief.”  This is not about race:  albeit early, this flood seems to have hit as many black as white residents.

Too, about six-of-ten households with damage causing displacement are in residences owned or being bought.  The inability to sell a home and move, as with those who have lost their jobs to collapsing oil and gas prices, is determinative.  Throughout my career, the results of every polling question even remotely related to home ownership feature such attachments.

More likely to leave are those who were renting their homes.  Still, will these be in a position to walk away from their job, the school in which their children are enrolled, or the needs of other dependent family members?  It is these tethers, renter or not, which matter most.

A different question entirely is whether or not those hardest-hit will rebuild only to stay and face a repeat event in their lifetimes.  What is the chance that 20-inches of rain will again fall in 48 hours … on the same householders?  Each who lost their home in the past two weeks will make that decision in coming months, if they have not already done so.

As we already know, there is nowhere near enough housing stock in this region.  This is another way to understand that all things considered, residents fare best – whether insured or not – staying and repairing their homes.  Those who are in a financial position to do so, and simply do not care to run this risk again – relatively few of the total – may well move.

All said, it is far, far too early to reliably predict any of these answers.  In fact, it was four years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in preparing for the 2010 United States Census, that I first believed I could “see” the Louisiana which emerged.

In short, Louisiana is taking another one on the chin.  My prayer is simple:  may all necessary help reach every soul who needs it, with real dispatch.  And, may no one use the attached, dramatic suffering to advance any partisan political agenda.

Elliott Stonecipher


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