Already Braced for Covid-19, Towns Watch the Rising Mississippi With Fear

From her home window, Belinda Constant, mayor of Gretna, Louisiana, watches the mighty Mississippi flow by. Beyond it are the sparkling lights of New Orleans. She views both warily these days.

New Orleans is a hot spot for Covid-19, and thousands of cases locally means she’s working with a skeletal staff under lockdown conditions. Meanwhile, the Mississippi has risen more than a foot in the past week, triggering emergency flood measures. And the rains keep coming.

Gretna itself is below sea level, and currently some 11 feet below the surging river. All that’s keeping the city dry is a levee built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Constant says she prays every day that it doesn’t rain any more, or that one of the enormous cargo ships making its way down the river doesn’t get caught in the currents and swept into the barrier.

“It is scary. Everybody is so invested in one pandemic now,” she says. “When you think about resources put toward this crisis I don’t know where the resources are going to come or how long will it take to address another crisis.”

Louisiana, along with the rest of the Mississippi Valley region, is in the middle of its annual wet season, which usually peaks in April. This year’s floods are predicted to be more moderate than 2019’s, which covered a record expanse of 19 states, starting in January and lasted for an unprecedented nine months and affected 14 million people.

Even a milder season could be devastating to many, however. The U.S. National Weather Service says they might still affect more than 128 million people, and several areas are approaching flood stage already.

Colin Wellenkamp is the executive director of the Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative, which coordinates and organizes towns along the entire river corridor. He says Mayor Constant’s anxieties are shared by many local officials. “We are averaging a 100- to 200-year flood event annually somewhere on the river,” he says. As a result, many towns’ emergency capabilities were already tapped out before Covid-19, he says.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are promising the same amount of help to states as in previous years. Yet FEMA , by its own accounting, is well below its own 2015 targets for field staffing for emergencies. And even if the big agencies could provide the level support local communities have come to depend on, that still may not be enough. “The challenges are just so much bigger this year,” says Wellenkemp.

For starters, just like everywhere else, towns facing flooding are also facing extreme shortages of protective equipment such as face masks and gloves. Not only are doctors and nurses worried about shortages, so are first responders who may have to rescue people and property during an emergency. Most towns also rely heavily on volunteers for everything from filling sandbags to moving equipment to stocking shelters for displaced families. If officials can’t guarantee adequate safeguards for health, they aren’t sure people will show up.

Town officials have similar concerns related to institutions like the Red Cross, which they rely on to set up shelters when needed. Many wonder how they’ll cope in an era where group shelters such as gyms or tents are no longer an option.

Bob Gallagher, the mayor of Bettendorf, Iowa, isn’t one of them. He’s working with both state and federal officials and is optimistic that his city could handle flooding if it occurred. For now he’s sheltering homeless people in local hotels instead of group shelters, and says that’s working fine. But he acknowledges that the outlook might not be so rosy for smaller towns that have to rely almost entirely on volunteers in big emergencies.

The good news, says Wellenkamp, is that FEMA has made spending on Covid-19 preparations reimbursable by the federal government, a standard practice for damage from natural disasters that reach the level of federal emergency. The bad news is that FEMA still hasn’t reimbursed municipalities for the 2019 flooding, and many are already carrying heavy debt. “The economic impact from this will be greater than even last year’s record flood,” he says.

Brock Long, a former administrator of FEMA, said in an interview last month that Covid-19 might hasten a process of decentralizing responsibility for disasters from the federal government to local communities, which was long overdue. “Everyone is quick to say that FEMA needs more capacity. I disagree,” he said. “State and local governments needs to make sure they can handle emergencies on their own.”

He said a total reorganization may be in order, with FEMA acting more as a block grant organization, giving money to the states. Moreover, he added, in an era when climate change makes record level disasters routine everyone from local government to private citizens need to take more responsibility. “We need to instill a national culture of preparedness.”

Louisiana is ready, insists Mike Steele, a spokesman for the state emergency preparedness office. “Dealing with multiple crises is pretty routine for us,” he says, “and our governor really believes in preparedness.”

But Mayor Constant isn’t convinced that either the state or the federal government has her back. “What’s that saying? You don’t know what you don’t know,” she says in response to Steele’s confidence. “In Louisiana, we’ve never lived through a global disaster like this. How do they know if they are gong to deal with something on top of this? They don’t have a clue.”

About the photo: Floodwaters surround corn sitting under a collapsed grain bin in Thurman, Iowa on March 23, 2019. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg