Gov. John Bel Edwards has asked for a federal disaster declaration from damaging tornadoes last month and has sought an exception to a federal damage threshold because the twisters emanated from an El Niño this year that has continued to pound Louisiana with devastating storms.
In his 26-page request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and President Barack Obama, Edwards notes the tornadoes were spawned by a low pressure system brought on by El Niño, which also sparked heavy rains that led to severe flooding earlier this month and Mississippi River flooding in January.
“This year’s El Niño is one of the strongest on record and Louisiana is suffering from the continued severe low pressure systems that are causing catastrophic damage by way of flood and tornadic activity,” he wrote in the March 18 letter.
With an eye toward the 2016 hurricane season, Edwards added that a major declaration for the tornadoes “is absolutely necessary in order for the State to be able to recover before potential catastrophes hit the state in the upcoming months.”
Julie Bradford, a FEMA spokeswoman, said the agency is reviewing the governor’s request.
El Niño is one side of oscillating changes in sea surface temperatures and wind patterns in the tropical Pacific Ocean. The shifting winds and temperatures lead to a variety of weather impacts across the globe, according to Climate.gov.
On the Gulf Coast, El Niño leads to heavier than normal rainfall and warmer winter temperatures. El Niño, as opposed to the La Niña and neutral phases that are part the same Pacific oscillation, results from warming sea temperatures in the tropical Pacific.
The 12 tornadoes that cut across Louisiana on Feb. 23 and 24 killed two people in St. James Parish’s Sugar Hill RV Park, injured dozens more and damaged more than 900 homes statewide.
In addition to seeking individual assistance in five parishes, Edwards has sought a federal declaration opening up FEMA’s public assistance for three parishes: Assumption, Livingston and St. John the Baptist. FEMA public assistance allows local governments to get reimbursed for debris removal and covers damage to public structures and other storm costs.
Though all three parishes far exceed their individual damage thresholds, the state calculated $4.95 million in damage statewide, $1.45 million less than the $6.4 million statewide threshold FEMA also requires for public assistance.
Edwards, in addition to citing the state’s current economic and budgetary troubles, asked for an exception to the public assistance threshold and emphasized the combined impact of this year’s damaging storms, including widespread flooding this month that caused an estimated $11.4 million in damage statewide and prompted federal disaster declarations in 26 parishes.
“The combination of all three recent disasters has been crippling to Louisiana,” Edwards added.
Edwards asked for FEMA individual assistance, which has more subjective requirements and helps people recover, in Assumption, Iberville, Livingston, St. James and St. John parishes.
Freddie Zeigler, meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Slidell office, said El Niños in 1982-83 and 1997-98 were record events for the Pacific Ocean pattern.
“This one is stronger than those,” Zeigler said of the current El Niño.
When El Niño extends into the summer and fall hurricane season, the pattern tends to reduce the number of named storms in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has rated this year’s El Niño as “strong” but says it will likely weaken in the coming months.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.