The next time a flood threatens, residents in Central plan to be the first to know.
The city is teaming up with federal scientists to develop an advanced model of the Amite and Comite rivers in a project that will be the first of its kind in Louisiana.
During the August flood, Dave Freneaux, editor of Central Speaks and onetime mayoral candidate, recounted spending hours trying, with help from law enforcement, to reach the home of his 83-year-old father. Jason Ellis, an engineer and city councilman, hauled and paddled a canoe over land and through flood waters all day to reach his 2-year-old son, who had been staying with family. Both men lamented the loss, not only of property, but of heirlooms, photographs and other irreplaceable mementos.
After the crisis Freneaux got in touch with Jaysson Funkhouser, an engineer at the U.S. Geological Survey. Together, they came up with a plan to give residents more warning the next time a storm rolls through.
When it's completed next year, the new model will alert residents of flood damage as soon as the National Weather Service predicts rain, giving them a few extra hours or even days to raise furniture, move cars, stow valuables and evacuate out of harm's way.
That heads-up will also let first responders know where to focus their manpower, as well as alert them to roads that will likely be washed out.
For a glimpse of what the finished product will look like, Funkhouser suggested turning to Hattiesburg. The Mississippi town already has a model of the Leaf River that offers a preview of the features that will be available in Central. The information is available at wimcloud.usgs.gov/apps/FIM/FloodInundationMapper.html.
Users can move a slider to see which areas are projected to flood at various water heights. By clicking an area of the map, users can see how deep the water will be at a given location, finding out if one's own front yard will get a few inches or a few feet.
The idea is that once the National Weather Service predicts a storm with flooding, users can turn to the model to see whether the water will get high enough to overrun the banks and find out when to expect it, how far the floodwaters will reach and how deep those waters will be at any given point, Funkhouser explained.
Mayor Jr. Shelton had some reservations about making the $300,000 investment in the program because individuals may not have electricity or computer access during the lead-up to a flood. However, giving the tool to emergency crews alone will be "worth a million bucks," he said.
In the meantime, he hopes the data from the model can be incorporated into cell phone text alerts, and Ellis noted that sharing the findings via social media will help spread the word even to people who may not be familiar with the program.
It's also expected to quell worries. Since the August storm, people start getting anxious whenever it rains, but the model will be able to demonstrate when a storm won't cause the rivers to rise to flood stage, Shelton pointed out.
Louisiana has sophisticated maps for coastal flooding, such as when an approaching hurricane pushes a storm surge ashore, but the new project will be the first USGS model for river flooding in the state. They're already popular in other areas: Atlanta, Kansas City and the New York City area all have multiple river models, and Indiana is dotted with gauges throughout the state.
In Louisiana, even inland areas such as Baton Rouge are vulnerable to coastal flooding from …
Funkhouser said one Louisiana state agency has inquired about the maps, but so far only Central has bought in. He encourages other agencies and localities to consider mapping their own waterways, both for their own sake and since the more information scientists have to work with, the stronger the entire prediction system becomes. Central wound up paying 75 percent of the $400,000 total cost, with the federal government picking up the rest, though Funkhouser said their project is a bit more expensive than usual because they're mapping a pair of rivers, one of which is particularly large, and Central officials asked for an expedited delivery.
The maps of the Comite and Amite — which will stop just north of Denham Springs — are due by October 2018. Until then, crews will survey the area, pull data from river gauges and build a model that anticipates where water will spill over when the Amite and Comite can't be contained within their banks.
Freneaux said the mayor of Hattiesburg told him that a few years ago the city had a flood, and crews went out to take high water marks. Those turned out to be within inches of what the model predicted.
"From an engineering standpoint, I'm excited about it," said Ellis, the Central councilman and professional engineer.
As for Freneaux, as much as he appreciates the work of the Cajun Navy, he hopes that with better preparation, Central won't need those volunteer rescuers at the next flood.
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