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Two Disasters At Once? Mississippi River Mayors Prepare For Flood Season

Crews move a barge into place on Bayou Chene near Morgan City. The state built the temporary structure at the height of flood concerns in the summer of 2019.

Mayors up and down the Mississippi River are bracing for the possible need to respond to two disasters at once — the coronavirus outbreak and the spring flood season.

Federal agencies like FEMA and the National Guard, plus nonprofits like the Red Cross, are all preparing to help cities respond to the coronavirus outbreak.

The problem is those are some of the same entities that help cities recover from natural disasters, like the historic Mississippi River flooding last year. They distribute sandbags, rescue people in need, and set up shelters — actions complicated by the need for social distancing and quarantines.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting another spring of widespread river flooding, according to a report released Thursday, but doesn’t expect it to be as bad as 2019.

Still, on a press call Thursday, mayors from up and down the river recognized that resources could be spread thin this spring.

“The current situation with COVID-19 presents us with a fight on two fronts,” said Sharon Weston Broome, mayor of Baton Rouge and co-chair of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI), which lobbies for the interests of cities in the Mississippi River watershed.

“On one front we have the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And on the other, what promises to be a very active flood season,” she said.

MRCTI Executive Director Colin Wellenkamp said his group has been talking to the Red Cross and the Army Corps of Engineers and each agency and organization expects to have the equipment and people power they need.

“All those steps are helping our mayors,” he said, “but the long-term impacts are a little unknown.”

Wellenkamp said the stimulus package the Trump administration is considering could help cities recover from the long-term economic damage.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. 

As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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