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Tropical Storm Barry reminds us increased resilience is needed as natural disasters worsen

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Residents in New Orleans and southeast Louisiana are bracing for floodwaters this weekend that threaten to cause widespread destruction and strain aging levees. This dangerous situation serves as a reminder of the need to strengthen the resilience of vulnerable communities that are increasingly at risk from costly and dangerous natural disasters.

The threat to Louisiana stems from the rare confluence of two unusual weather events: late-season flooding along the Mississippi and a tropical storm that has formed early in hurricane season. Tropical Storm Barry, expected to drop torrential rains across the region, could also force a surge of water into the already-high Mississippi and test a system of river levees that dates back generations.

The situation, coming just 14 years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, is only the latest illustration of how some of our nation’s most populated areas are dangerously vulnerable to increasingly frequent and intense weather events. The unusual leftward turn of Superstorm Sandy into New Jersey and New York, the unprecedented rains of Hurricane Harvey as it stalled over Houston, and the rapidly intensifying winds of Hurricane Michael in Florida all underscored the changing nature of storms that are devastating long-established communities, claiming the lives of residents and costing tens of billions of dollars apiece in damage. 

When it comes to the weather, we need to understand that the past is no longer prologue. A warmer climate means that the atmosphere can hold more water vapor, unleashing greater amounts of rain. Sea level rise is magnifying the impacts of coastal surge from hurricanes, nor’easters, and other powerful storms. Louisiana and neighboring Gulf states are especially vulnerable because of the destruction of wetlands that previously helped to absorb storm surges and the extraction of oil, groundwater, and natural gas, which is contributing to the subsidence of coastal land.

In the coming weeks and months, we will hear considerable debate about the best ways to reinforce the flood defense system for New Orleans. The levees and other barriers, which were substantially upgraded following Katrina, are designed for no more than a 1-in-100-year storm surge even though catastrophic surges and related flooding are becoming more frequent. The city’s flood defenses were considered an engineering marvel when first constructed early last century, but old pumps and antiquated turbines that power them become overwhelmed even with major updating in recent years. Just this week, some residents used canoes and kayaks to navigate streets that flooded after torrential rains inundated parts of the city, including the neighborhood in the French Quarter where I am a part-time resident.

Continued improvements to flood defenses, however, are just part of the conversation that needs to occur about better protecting vulnerable communities. We must know more about the complex ways that various risks magnify one another and are likely to evolve in a changing climate. For example, the heavy rainfall this spring not only flooded large sections of the Midwest but is also forecast to result in a near-record dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico because of the significant runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus from farms. Mississippi beaches are currently off-limits to swimmers because of harmful algal blooms that are likely related to the heavy spring rains.

Hurricanes also are affected by overlapping factors. The combination of increasingly warm Gulf waters and sea level rise set the stage last year for the destructiveness of Hurricane Michael, which killed dozens of people and wreaked havoc on Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. Such catastrophic events pose a substantial threat to life and property, economic growth, and national security.

President Trump last month signed a $19.1 billion disaster relief package to help communities devastated by recent hurricanes, wildfires, and floods. Such legislation is vital to help communities rebuild. A better return on investment, however, would be for the federal government to launch a strategic initiative that would increase the resilience of vulnerable areas and reduce the toll when disasters strike.

Such an initiative would bring together leading scientists and engineers to create advanced prediction systems and infrastructure projects, protecting areas such as New Orleans that are uniquely vulnerable. The initiative should harness the expertise of social scientists to design warning systems that clearly communicate critical and timely information to those in harm’s way, helping with orderly evacuations when necessary while also seeking to avoid the unnecessary displacement of residents and associated economic loss.

As we anxiously await updates about the potential flooding in New Orleans over the next few days, we must seek to better protect vulnerable communities from the next natural disaster. A multipronged approach by the federal government to strengthen protective infrastructure should be coupled with an initiative to better understand and communicate the overlapping weather- and climate-related risks, providing decision makers with the actionable guidance they need. This proactive approach to natural disasters would reduce the cost of future disaster relief packages while helping to save lives and property, protect economic growth, and strengthen our national security.

Antonio J. Busalacchi is the president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a nonprofit consortium of 117 North American colleges and universities focused on research and training in the Earth system sciences. He is a part-time resident of New Orleans.

Tags Antonio J. Busalacchi Climate change Donald Trump extreme weather Hurricane Katrina Superstorm Sandy tropical storm Barry

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