Katrina-like storms are the new normal
Coming ashore as a Category 4, Hurricane Laura is our 15th anniversary reminder that Hurricane Katrina was a failure of the imagination and that we’ve been falling short on disaster preparedness ever since. “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees,” President George W. Bush told Diane Sawyer after New Orleans, a below-sea level city, went aquatic in 2005. Actually, one year before Katrina hit, a commission on U.S. Ocean Policy appointed by Bush highlighted the risk of the levees failing.
After Katrina hit, I remember driving through the hollowed out city of New Orleans, Plaquemines Parish to its south, and along the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coast, and being awed. I was reminded of wars I’d covered, but with fewer deaths (still over 1,800) and far wider destruction. It was a world turned upside down, shrimp boats on the land, houses in the water, barges on levees and whole towns washed away. Army troops patrolled the disaster-stricken areas and refugee camps sprouted wherever there was space.
Katrina as it turned out, was not the storm of the century like people thought it might be. Just over three weeks later, Hurricane Rita hit western Louisiana with the same shocking force, in pretty much the same location where Hurricane Laura struck this week, in what is predicted to be one of the most active Atlantic hurricane seasons in history.
In the interim we’ve seen super storms such as Sandy, Ike, Irene, 2017’s Harvey, Irma and Maria, and last year’s Dorian that crushed the Bahamas.
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study released in May indicates that climate change has been intensifying the strength of hurricanes by about 8 percent per decade over the past 40 years. That means today’s hurricanes will on average be one third more destructive than those that made landfall in the 1980s, when our coastlines were also less built up.
A new analysis commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund finds the cost of climate-linked U.S. natural disasters has also increased four-fold since 1980. The cost of 663 disasters during this period was $1.77 Trillion dollars. Not surprisingly, especially given some 40 percent of the U.S. population is concentrated in our coastal counties, storms and hurricanes accounted for $954.4 billion or over half that cost.
These natural disasters, unnaturally enhanced by our energy and development choices, also resulted in over 14,000 deaths. While the death toll isn’t on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, it still reflects a significant public risk.
Even as towns like Port Arthur, Texas, Cameron and Lake Charles, La., have been hit for a second and third time within the last 15 years, there are few organized plans of retreat or adaptation to our intensifying storms and rising seas.
“The rush to rebuild is understandable, it’s basic human sympathy, but we have to build in a different way,” Dr. George Crozier, the former director of Alabama’s Dauphin Island Sea Lab, told me in 2005 as we wandered through blasting wind, rain and quicksand on the island’s west end as Hurricane Rita approached. It was an apocalyptic scene where over 200 houses had been destroyed, streets buried and a giant oil rig washed ashore by Katrina. Those homes that had been rebuilt with federal funding including FEMA flood insurance after a previous storm would be rebuilt again.
An Aug. 23 report in the journal Science makes the case for strategic and managed climate retreat as the best way to allow coastal communities to thrive.
After 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, Congress finally reformed FEMA’s National Federal Flood Insurance program, but instead of pushing homeowners and developers to adjust their rebuilding plans, Congress caved to their demands and allowed building and reconstruction to occur in the pathway of future storms.
To deal with today’s growing threat from hurricanes intensified by warming rising seas, we need a far bolder approach. That’s why my organization, Blue Frontier, in partnership with the Center for the Blue Economy, have been leading a national effort to develop an Ocean Climate Action Plan.
However, to realize this blue new deal we’ll need not just a broad coalition of stakeholders, but also a national leadership that utilizes science to understand and respond to threats like the pandemic and the climate crisis — efforts the present administration has failed at.
In 2005 I wrote that Hurricane Katrina was an early indicator of the “greenhouse century” we all now live in. Should Joe Biden and Kamala Harris come away from the November election victorious, hopefully they will take this threat seriously and work with many willing partners to help mitigate the many more Hurricane Katrinas to come.
David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group. His Katrina reporting can be found in his book, “Saved by the Sea.” Follow the organization on Twitter @Blue_Frontier.
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