Extreme Weather, Widespread Flooding Hammer Louisiana as Federal Government Prepares to Lease Gulf of Mexico for Drilling


Walter Unglaub never thought flooding would threaten the carriage house he rents in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana. It is on a bluff 30 feet above the Bogue Falaya River, in an area that is not considered a flood zone.
But that didn’t stop a flash flood from forcing Unglaub to swim for his life to get to higher ground awaiting rescue last Friday.
“No one is safe from extreme weather,” Unglaub told DeSmog on Sunday when he returned to sort through his belongings to see what, if anything, was salvageable. 
After two days of intermittent rain, 14 inches of rain fell Friday night. This extreme weather event took place 12 days before the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will auction drilling leases to 43 million acres of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico. 

VIDEO: Walter Unglaub returns home for the first time after the floodwaters drop

Initial records released by the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness say about 5,000 homes in Louisiana sustained flood damage following a deluge. The count is likely to grow as the damage assessment in Southeast Louisiana is not complete. 

Rescue crews evacuate residents in the Tallow Creek subdivision to safety. © 2016 Julie Dermansky
From Tangipahoa, St Tammany and Washington Parishes, 1,500 residents were rescued by the time the Tchefuncte River and Bogue Falaya River peaked on Saturday morning. And more damage is likely Monday evening when the West Pearl River, further south, crests well above flood stage in the town of Pearl River. 

Vera Esteen leaving her home in Tallow Creek as floodwaters continued to rise. © 2016 Julie Dermansky

Norris Williams and Vera Esteen leave Tallow Creek by boat. © 2016 Julie Dermansky
“It was not supposed to flood here,” Vera Esteen, a resident of the Tallow Creek subdivision in Covington, Louisiana told DeSmog, from a boat that allowed her to escape the flooded neighborhood late Saturday afternoon. Her neighbor, Norris Williams, and his friend, Tom Smith, got her to safety in a small boat as the water continued to rise. 
Tallow Creek was one of the many areas where people don’t carry flood insurance because it is not classified at risk for flooding. Areas that are in a flood zone in St Tammany, Tangipahoa and, Washington Parishes flooded badly, too. 
On Sunday, President Obama declared a major disaster for Louisiana, a move that allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide disaster assistance to the areas in southern Louisiana affected by severe flooding.
Though the Obama Administration has acknowledged climate change, and pledged to do what it can to stop it at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, that has not stopped the administration from issuing new leases on federal land for new oil and gas developments.

The National Guard sends a truck into Tallow Creek to rescue residents. © 2016 Julie Dermansky

Man paddles down a street in the Tallow Creek subdivision in Covington. © 2016 Julie Dermansky
A coalition of environmental groups and activists plan to protest the BOEM’s auction on March 23 in New Orleans. 
“Below the Gulf sits our planet’s eighth-largest source of potential carbon pollution. Should this auction proceed, we will remain on course for catastrophic climate impacts, endangering efforts to restore our priceless wetlands,” Louisiana Bucket Brigade points out in its call to action.
The Brigade, joined by other environmental and social justice activist groups, plan to surround New Orleans Superdome, where the auction is set to take place, in an effort to shut it down. 
The protest follows nine other actions held by different environmental groups, including 350.org, Friends of the Earth, and the Center for Biological Diversity, that have disrupted other BLM auctions over the last few months. Five of the auctions were shut down and postponed.
For many in southern Louisiana, the upcoming auction to lease more of the Gulf of Mexico hit a nerve. Wounds from Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill are still raw for many.
“Continuing to develop the fossil fuel industry is an act of madness,” Cherri Foylint, an activist who is part of the team planning events that will take place prior to the auction. She is willing to get arrested if that is what it will take to stop the auction. 

The Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), an organization that divides its time being an industry watchdog and providing direct disaster assistance, points out that the government has yet to pass new regulations to protect off-shore oil rigs that LEAN has pushed for since the tragic loss of life on the Deepwater Horizon rig. 
LEAN’s recent press release points out that the oil and gas industry continues to fight against assuming responsibility for its role in destroying Louisiana’s coastal ecosystems.

“At least 34 scientific studies, including studies done by the oil and gas industry itself and dating back as far as 1971, conclude that oil and gas activities contributed to Louisiana’s coastal land loss,” LEAN says.
Marylee Orr, LEAN’s executive director, plans to see if LEAN can help Unglaub, and hopes to secure funding to help others too. 

Walter Unglaub returns to flooded home and empties the refrigerator. © 2016 Julie Dermansky

Room in Walter Unglaub’s home after a flash flood moved through the area. © 2016 Julie Dermansky
Unglaub, an immigration attorney who does pro bono work for grassroots causes, hopes to be able to offer legal support to any activists who plan to try and shut down the upcoming BLM auction if he can manage to get his life back in order enough by the 23rd to be effective. 

Man carrying a baby and a pet to safety in Covington, Louisiana on Saturday, March 12. ©2016 Julie Dermansky

Blog image credit: Residents in Tallow Creek, in Covington, Lousiana watch floodwaters rising. © 2016 Julie Dermansky

Julie Dermansky is a multimedia reporter and artist based in New Orleans. She is an affiliate scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Visit her website at www.jsdart.com.

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