The Advocate on the 1983 Flood

An April 8, 2013 article from Baton Rouge’s The Advocate has been making its rounds on Facebook. The article is titled “Hell and High Water: The Devastating Flood of Livingston and East Baton Rouge Parishes in 1983” (by Bob Anderson and Bret McCormick) and marked the 30th anniversary of the devastating flood.

I was young when the ’83 Flood occurred; I don’t recall much of the actual event. What I do recall is seeing water up to the old TG&Y on Range Ave., and drawing a picture of the flood for class. According to the Anderson and McCormick article, it appears that the events of the flood are eerily similar to the 2016 Flood:

It would continue for more than 50 hours.

Residents marveled at the intensity and duration of the downpour, unaware of even heavier rain falling north of them. That water, brown and rising, was coming.

The flood on the Amite and Comite rivers would become the worst on record. In Livingston Parish, 3,025 homes and businesses would flood, as would 1,615 in Baton Rouge and 828 in Ascension.

The 1983 flood remains part of the lore among families who suffered its effects and among others who saw water stop mercifully at their doorsteps.

What stands out to me in this 2013 article is the emphasis that such a flood as the one in ’83 could happen again. Though the experts differed on the details, there was general consensus that what happened in ’83 was not a one-time event.

Spring is the most likely time, said Tim Erickson, an emergency response meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

At this time of the year, when temperatures across the continent are changing, it is more likely for a front to stall and drop a lot of rain, he said.

Conditions like those that produced the 1983 flood statistically can be expected about once every 75 years, but no one can predict when the next flood will occur, said Dietmar Rietschier, executive director of the Amite River Basin Commission.

Baton Rouge and Denham Springs received 10 inches of rain, and further north East Feliciana Parish received 14 inches of rain – an incredible amount of water that would flow southward to Denham Springs that fateful spring.

Though the ’83 Flood was an historical event, the article notes one factor that could lead (and eventually did lead) to another potentially devastating flood – the amount of development that has occurred in SE Louisiana:

Impervious surfaces such as roads, driveways, parking lots and even roofs allow water to “flash off rather than soak into the ground,” said Mike McDaniel, an environmental consultant who has dealt with flooding problems on the Amite.

Mark Harrell, director of the Livingston Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness, said retention ponds dug to slow runoff from some developments would help, but he believes water upriver would reach the Amite River quicker and push water levels higher.

According to McDaniel, any development that has occurred in Amite County, MS, and southward will affect East Baton Rouge and Livingston Parishes.

Interestingly, Anderson and McCormick note what a worst case scenario would do to the area affected by the ’83 flood. That worst case scenario be a combination of:

a stalled front or an early tropical storm that dumps a lot of rain into the Amite River basin at the same time the Bonnet Carre Spillway is open, a high tide is occurring and there is a wind from the east or southeast, said Ivor van Heerden, a former deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center who has researched storm surges and flooding in the area.

In such a case, tides and spillway flow could cause a rise in the levels of Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas, and the wind could push lake water against the mouth of the Amite River, he said.

Such a buildup of water in western Lake Maurepas doesn’t allow the river to drain as quickly, which can cause backwater flooding and floodwater to remain longer, said Katelyn Costanza, a senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service River Forecast Center.

And, three years later, that is essentially what occurred – we had a stalled out tropical low sitting over Louisiana that dumped an inordinate amount of rain, leading to the worst flood in SE Louisiana to date.

There is no telling if we will see in our time – or our children’s time – another flood like the one of August 2016. I pray that we don’t…ever. However, it’s my hope that we learn from this flood and make necessary changes to land development and building (i.e. the I-12 median wall) to alleviate problems from heavy rains. Though it may be a while since we see 24-31 inches of rain in 48 hours, we will see torrential downpours (it is Louisiana). Let’s not let 1983 and 2016 happen again.

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