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Residents discard flood-damaged furniture in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. At least 13 people have died across five parishes in Louisiana and thousands of people have been forced to leave home during the flood. 
Residents discard flood-damaged furniture in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. At least 13 people have died across five parishes in Louisiana and thousands of people have been forced to leave home during the flood. |Zhang Chaoqun/Xinhua/ZUMA
WEATHER & CLIMATE

Louisiana Faces Soaring Recovery Costs and Disease Concerns 

Residents must now deal with mosquito-borne illnesses and millions in costs.

Matthew Teague

As southern Louisiana sheds the last of the week’s historic floodwater, the region faces significant challenges: how to handle resulting disease, how to pay for the damage and how to prevent it all from happening again.

But as the nation becomes aware of the extent of the damage – 40,000 homes affected and at least 13 people killed – politics have begun to creep into play. Some people have criticized Barack Obama for continuing his golfing vacation as the flood unfolded, while Donald Trump plans to visit the region on Friday, to the consternation of Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards.

Many residents are only dimly aware, if at all, of those larger tableaux. Most remain focused on immediate matters like finding loved ones, burying pets and shoveling river silt from their living rooms.

Or even more immediately, they search for food for themselves and their children in places where relief agencies have not yet arrived. “Our daily bread,” some people have taken to calling it.

“They took those brown bags with such gratitude,” said Julie Ralph, who spent Thursday handing out lunches at Amite Baptist church in Denham Springs. The church itself was flooded and contaminated, so the food was prepared at the few dry homes in the area, then gathered at the church and distributed to anyone who could come. Several men with high-clearance trucks drove food to people who had no means of transportation. “One lady broke down crying,” Ralph said.

The rivers and rainwater have receded, but the region is now haunted by small olive-drab patches of water here and there; puddled in a child’s splash pool, trapped in a trash can, or cupped in fallen magnolia leaves. All of it will offer a breeding ground to mosquitoes in a region where they are, even in the best circumstances, a plague.

Locals fear the Zika virus and mosquito repellents long ago disappeared from supermarket shelves. So far those fears may be unfounded. According to the Louisiana department of health, four new cases of Zika were reported this week, but all were contracted during travel to affected areas.

“Our surveillance activities include working with hospitals and other healthcare providers who notify us if and when a possible Zika case is diagnosed,” said Frank Welch, who heads the state’s Zika response team. “We also work with mosquito control agencies throughout the state who conduct mosquito testing in areas of known human cases to determine if mosquitos in those areas are carrying the virus.”

The bigger threat comes from the West Nile virus, which struck the area a decade ago after Hurricane Katrina. Doctors are warning residents to watch out for symptoms: fever, headache, stiffness of the neck, shakiness.

Meanwhile state officials gathered at the capitol on Thursday to sort out how to pay for the emergency response, which costs the state millions of dollars per day, and will likely run into the hundreds of millions. The state was strapped for cash and considering a short-term loan before the storm, and lawmakers met to discuss moving ahead with it as soon as possible. Some of the costs will be absorbed by help from the federal government, which has declared 20 of the state’s 64 parishes to be major disaster sites. More than 60,000 people have registered for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema).

According to local officials, who have pressed for years to build a diversionary canal near Baton Rouge, much of the calamity and cost could have been avoided. The canal project was blueprinted but has been delayed since the 1980s. Its proponents say it would have prevented at least a quarter of the flooding if the US Army Corps of Engineers had acted sooner.

“We see it over and over again in government,” said US representative Garret Graves, who represents southern Louisiana. “We end up spending billions of dollars after, instead of millions before.”

The proposed canal would shunt floodwater from the Amite and Comite rivers to the much larger Mississippi river. The Mississppi swells in spring with runoff from northern states, but by summertime when storms and hurricanes swamp local rivers, it has capacity to absorb the overflow.

“Unfortunately we’ve had to go through 13 lives lost and tens of thousands of homes destroyed,” Graves said on Thursday. “Maybe now the bureaucracy at the Corps of Engineers will take action.”

Much of local residents’ frustration has focused on Obama, whom they accused of indifference as he golfed with friends on Martha’s Vineyard.

“We’ve seen this story before in Louisiana, and we don’t deserve a sequel,” the Baton Rouge Advocate published in an editorial. “In 2005, a fly-over by a vacationing President George W Bush became a symbol of official neglect for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The current president was among those making political hay out of Bush’s aloofness.”

Department of Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson traveled to Baton Rouge on Thursday and did update the president, according to the White House.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, an official working for the Trump campaign told the Associated Press that he planned to visit the affected region on Friday, along with running mate Mike Pence.

At a rally Thursday in North Carolina, Trump paused during a speech to mention the flooding. “I would like to take a moment to talk about the heartbreak and devastation in Louisiana, a state that is very, very special to me,” he said. “We are one nation. When one state hurts, we all hurt. And we must all work together to lift each other up.”

The news plainly irritated governor John Bel Edwards, who said his office had not been contacted by Trump. Edwards’ spokesman, Richard Carbo, said Trump was welcome to Louisiana, “but not for a photo-op”.

Instead, he said, Trump should volunteer or make “a sizable donation to the Louisiana flood relief fund to help the victims of this storm.”