Freezes are common in Lafayette. Why don’t we prepare like it?

Icicles hang from the guardrails of a set of steps.
Icicles hang from the guardrails of a set of steps on an apartment building in Lafayette, La. Photo by Alena Maschke

January’s hard freeze caught Lafayette off guard. Pipes froze. Water pressure dropped. Schools closed. But experts say Lafayette shouldn’t be surprised. Hard freezes are a regular part of life here, but they don’t generate the same urge to prepare that other severe weather events, like hurricanes, do.

During the past three years, Lafayette has seen three hard freezes, and it’s common for the area to experience one every year or so, says Joe Rua, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Lake Charles. 

“When we were forecasting this last event in January, people were even asking us ‘Oh my gosh, when’s the last time this happened?’” says Rua. “Well, this happened just in December 2022, and it happened in February 2021, so even recently we’ve had these events.”

But the recent freezes are more severe because of recent changes to continental climate dynamics, which KATC Chief Meteorologist Rob Perillo says allow more bursts of frigid air to reach further south. It leads to a counterintuitive problem: a warming planet can nevertheless yield arctic temperatures. 

“The numbers bear out what the climate people have been telling us; you’re seeing a warming trend,” Perillo says. “We’re still seeing these arctic intrusions though, because of the instability of the polar vortex. Because we have a wavier jet stream, the polar vortex doesn’t behave like it used to.” 

That makes it harder to predict cold snaps like the one Lafayette experienced in January because forecasters can generally only anticipate arctic intrusions about a week ahead of time, says Rua. Part of that challenge stems from limitations of the models meteorologists use to predict colder temperatures, says Perillio, which struggle to account for new climate trends. 

That limitation leaves residents with less time to prepare for weather events they’re already less adapted to. Houses in Louisiana are typically built with different weather in mind, and the prevalence of older, raised houses with exposed pipes makes the area particularly susceptible to damage from colder conditions that are more often an afterthought.

“When we build our houses and structures down here, we build with summer in mind,” Rua says. “Even though we might get these cold snaps every so often, it’s just that we have the heat more than the cold.”

That extra vulnerability adds to a general lack of familiarity with severe cold weather that leads to worse outcomes in hard freezes. Keaty Real Estate owner Jim Keaty says most of his company’s tenants don’t know what to do ahead of freezing temperatures. Despite efforts to help tenants understand how to prepare for last month’s cold snap, Keaty says that many were unaware of the steps they needed to take, leading to burst pipes at about 25 of the company’s 800 or so properties around Acadiana. 

“They’ve heard all kinds of things from their family like, ‘Make sure your fixtures are on and flowing,’ but what does that mean?” Keaty says.

Part of that stems from conflicting advice ahead of hard freezes, since landlords typically tell residents to drip their faucets while utilities advise the opposite for the sake of their fresh water systems. The Lafayette Utilities System is one example. Ahead of January’s freeze, LUS warned customers not to drip their faucets, which lowers water pressure across the distribution system. When burst pipes thawed in the following days, LUS had to issue a boil water advisory for part of the city as low water pressure could have allowed contaminants into water supply pipes. 

“I understand on the customers’ side they’re thinking, ‘I just need moving water. Moving water won’t freeze.’ And our position is we agree, but we also don’t want you to run water in a wasteful way,” says LUS Director Jeff Stewart. “We want you to remove water from the pipes completely because air won’t freeze. The way to do that is to shut off the water and evacuate it from those internal pipes. Then, as the freeze comes and goes, you won’t have water freezing then thawing and running into issues.”

LUS helps residents find and close their main water supply line ahead of freezes, but education is the key, says Stewart, as the system still had more than 4,000 customers using tons of water, either from running faucets or burst pipes, after the freezing weather had passed. 

Keaty says his company is working on ways to give tenants more information on how to prepare for freezes in the future with videos demonstrating techniques to prevent damage from freezing weather. Even though the region is far more familiar with prepping for extreme summer weather, keeping the threat of freezing weather damage in mind is important, says Rua, since cold snaps and hard freezes are regular possibilities around Acadiana. 

“We have a wide range of weather in Louisiana compared to a lot of other places, so even though our climatology is more geared to hot weather, wet weather and hurricane-type weather, we can still have these winter weather events,” he says. “So, it’s always good to have that in the back of your mind that we’re still an area that can be susceptible to freezes.”