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Lessons Learned Helped Louisiana Minimize Barry's Damage

Jul 15, 2019
Originally published on July 15, 2019 11:54 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Much of southern Louisiana is experiencing relief this morning. Hurricane Barry did flood some areas south of New Orleans, but it didn't do the kind of damage that forecasters initially feared. NPR's Rebecca Hersher rode out the storm southwest of New Orleans, and she reports on how lessons learned from previous hurricanes helped to minimize the damage this time around.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: As the weekend began, the forecast was grim. Barry was a quadruple threat - wind, rain, and storm surge on top of an already swollen Mississippi River - and it was headed right for Terrebonne Parish in coastal Louisiana, which is flat as a board and marshy on a good day. Businesses got ready for flooding by putting out sandbags. Cari Jarreaux manages a Dollar General store, and on Sunday, she was removing sandbags from out front.

CARI JARREAUX: Oh, we do it ourselves. We put it out, and we're picking it up.

DAPHNE BRUNET: Yeah.

HERSHER: Jarreaux's employee Daphne Brunet has lived in the area her whole life and was surprised the store didn't flood.

You feel like you dodged a bullet?

BRUNET: Big time. Living on the bayou, thought it would be a lot worse with the weather and all. But it wasn't that bad with the water and all.

HERSHER: They hope to reopen today, when the electricity is back on. Daphne and the other employees only ended up missing one day of work. One reason this store and everything else here didn't flood is because this parish, like nearby New Orleans, has learned lessons from past hurricanes.

EARL EUES: So this is my office.

HERSHER: Great.

(LAUGHTER)

HERSHER: Terrebonne's emergency manager Earl Eues shows me around a brand-new emergency operations building, built with millions of dollars of local, state and federal money.

EUES: This is where the brains of the operations take place, so...

HERSHER: It's a big room called the Incident Command Center. One of the innovations here - just putting people in the same place. For the three days it took Barry to make landfall, this room had more than 50 people in it around the clock. They have bunks in the back. Police and fire and health and military - every 911 call and wind or flood report came here.

EUES: They kind of coordinated some search and rescue out of here with the United States Coast Guard. They rescued people using a helicopter in an area of the parish that was flooded.

HERSHER: Everyone was OK. In addition to constructing this building, this area has also upgraded its levee and pump system to keep out water.

EUES: This was the first big test of our system, but it worked. We held back nine feet of water on this storm.

HERSHER: That's nine feet of ocean water coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. Barry also dumped rain here, much of which had to be pumped out. Eues shows me a screen with a list of pumps down one side.

EUES: This is the elevation of the water.

HERSHER: A lot of the pumps can be controlled remotely, from here. When the water gets too high, they can be turned on manually.

EUES: If I need to shut this down right now, we could press that red button, and it's an emergency shutdown. We can shut it down from here.

HERSHER: It's a simple technology, but Eues says it saves time. During this storm, they didn't have to have people driving to every pump continuously to check on them; they could just look at the screen. And infrastructure upgrades like the ones tested here over the past few days are particularly timely investments, considering the reality of climate change in this part of the country. Storms like Barry are getting more likely, and the Federal Government warns the economic cost for communities that don't adapt could be devastating.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News, Terrebonne Parish, La.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOSE WHO RIDE WITH GIANTS' "THE MOUNTAIN SEED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.