New Orleans flooding
Flooding has become a common sight in New Orleans during heavy rains. Photo: Kevin O’Mara/Flickr

Destiney Bell’s yard is flooded, and this isn’t the first time. Most storms turn Bell’s lawn into a lake, transforming her house on a busy New Orleans corner into an island of inconvenience. A half hour of heavy rain means that she wades through half a foot of water just to leave her house. Her roommate, a doctor, often worries that she won’t be able to get out of their flooded driveway and to get to work.

Bell also keeps an eye on the kids around the school bus stop on her street. “Whatever trash or debris is in the street is getting flooded up into our yard,” she said. “I’m constantly watching to make sure they’re all OK, because with all that water, you have no idea what’s going to happen.”

This story has echoes across New Orleans. Throughout this summer, major rain storms have hit the city. On July 22, one such storm dumped over 4 inches in an hour and left parts of the city in disarray. A foot of water poured into the lobby of the movie theater on Broad Street, and a foot and half inundated Louisiana State University’s dental school. Cars across the city were dragged into the floodwaters. Another round of major flooding that began August 5 led Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards to declare a state of emergency.

A little flooding isn’t uncommon in New Orleans. It’s among the wettest cities in the contiguous U.S., with an average of 64 inches – over five feet – of rain each year.

But even for locals, this summer’s rain has felt unusual.

According to the Southern Regional Climate Center, precipitation in May, June and July was 130 to 200 percent above normal in New Orleans.

Extreme cloudbursts

New Orleans isn’t the only place where the weather’s been weird lately. As the climate changes, heavy downpours are growing more common everywhere in the U.S. According to the EPA, precipitation from heavy rainstorms has increased 27 percent since 1958 in the Southeastern U.S.

Won Chang, an assistant professor in statistics at the University of Cincinnati, has been working to understand how to apply climate and precipitation models to real-world examples.

“Climate scientists know that if we have higher temperatures, then you can expect more precipitation in general,” Chang said.

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Total precipitation isn’t expected to increase by much, only about 1 to 2 percent per degree Celsius. But Chang and other scientists predict that when rain falls, it will come in more intense bursts. As a result, flash floods and urban flooding are expected to increase.

Extreme one-day graph

Local government’s role

Back in New Orleans, Bell wants to know what the city is doing to prevent floods.

The answer involves a lot of moving pieces, because different departments in the city deal with these issues in different ways. The Department of Public Works is responsible for managing drains, catch basins and pipes under 36 inches in diameter. Sewer lines, larger pipes, and pumps fall under the jurisdiction of the Sewage and Water Board.

Under New Orleans graphic

But for residents like Bell, surface-level drainage alone can’t solve her flood problem. Research suggests the city’s current cadre of storm drains aren’t designed for the 21st-century storms Chang and others say are the new normal.

Bell’s home falls in an area called the Gentilly Resilience District, where the city is working to find creative solutions to flooding risk. Gentilly, like many newer neighborhoods in New Orleans, was built on a filled-in swamp and coastal island. This makes the area vulnerable not only to flooding, but to subsidence, which means the land is gradually caving and sinking.

Subsidence is made worse as soil is deprived of moisture by concrete and asphalt. So pumping the water out fast from this neighborhood isn’t the solution the city is aiming for.


Instead, one of the major focuses of the Resilience District is so-called “green” infrastructure. The district is planting gardens – full of native grasses, flowers and trees that absorb rainwater – which lessen the amount of water going into the overworked drainage and pumping systems. One such project is the Mirabeau Water Garden, which is designed to store 10 million gallons of stormwater and fend off subsidence.

Bell lives between Mirabeau and another project, the St. Bernard Neighborhood Campus, which will integrate green infrastructure into existing sports fields and playgrounds to keep them dry.

These are the first projects of their kind in New Orleans, so it remains to be seen whether it will bring residents like Bell any relief – but that’s the hope.

Residents’ power

Even with all the projects and investment cities make to control urban flooding, residents can still feel forgotten and overwhelmed. So what can people do if they’re experiencing major flooding?

William Pestoff, water quality coordinator of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, has worked to organize communities in New Orleans around water issues for years. He suggests that residents attend public meetings and band together as groups of neighbors to ask questions and create solutions. “Decisions are made by the people that show up,” he said.

Meanwhile, Yale Climate Connections partner ISeeChange is working with Bell to monitor flooding on her property – syncing her photos of flooding with local weather data, rain gauges, soil moisture sensors, GPS, and GIS mapping. With this data, Bell will know what amount of rain it takes for her yard to flood. It can also determine whether short bursts of rain affect her differently than longer, slower rainstorms. By monitoring her home, Bell and the city can better understand the situation and how future green infrastructure projects can be adapted to work for everyone.

Produced in partnership with ISeeChange.

Topics: Weather Extremes