Equilibrium & Sustainability

The Hill’s Sustainability Report: Mississippi River runs backward under Ida onslaught

The Mississippi River is seen in New Orleans
Getty Images

Today is Monday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

Hurricane Ida struck the Gulf Coast with such ferocity on Sunday that the storm briefly reversed the course of the Mississippi River. 

The river temporarily flowed from south to north after the Category 4 storm intensified, leading a river gauge at Belle Chasse — just southeast of New Orleans — to record a “stunning about-face of the Mississippi River,” Gizmodo reported. 

“There was some flow reversal of the Mississippi River during Hurricane Katrina, but it is extremely uncommon,” Scott Perrien, a supervising hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. 

Today we’re devoting our coverage to the impacts of the hurricane — ranging from power losses, to home losses, to the vulnerabilities of a landscape laced with industrial facilities. We’ll also look at what’s in store in Ida’s aftermath and what we can learn for the future.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.


19,000+ Schneider Electric U.S. employees make smart energy solutions that are transforming American energy, manufacturing, and infrastructure. Learn more: se.com/us/policy 

Ida: The fifth strongest hurricane ever to hit the U.S.

Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana on Sunday, knocking out power to all of New Orleans and threatening one of the country’s most significant industrial corridors, The Associated Press (AP) reported.

At least one person had died as of Monday, after a tree fell on a home in Prairieville, a suburb of Baton Rouge, according to the AP. But Reuters reported that deaths were likely to rise.  

First steps: Ida struck on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s arrival, bursting ashore as a Category 4 storm about 45 miles west of Katrina’s Category 3 landfall, the AP reported. 

At 150 miles per hour, Ida’s wind speeds made it the fifth-strongest hurricane ever to hit the mainland U.S., although it dropped within hours to a Category 1 storm with 95-mph winds, according to the AP, as it headed toward the U.S. Northeast. 

While a citywide levee system built in New Orleans after Katrina seems to have proven its worth, other vulnerabilities in the aftermath of the storm — such as grid breakdowns and hospital disruptions — have left many Louisianans stranded.


One big question as Ida approached southern Louisiana was whether the network of upgraded levees and storm defenses — built for $14.5 billion dollars in the years after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina — would survive the storm. 

The Wall Street Journal described Ida as “the biggest test yet of the storm risk-reduction system that was installed after Hurricane Katrina.”

Did it hold up? So far. That 350-mile defensive ring of “gates, walls and pumps” around the city — one of the largest public works projects in the world — seems to be holding up, Reuters reported, citing local officials. 

“The levee system and the flood system today is much, much better and much, much stronger than it was in Katrina,” Kelli Chandler, regional director of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority, told Reuters.

“The water is not coming into the city.”

What kind of defenses are we talking about? New Orleans is a bowl, much of which is below sea level. After Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers raised earthen levees and walls higher; built new pump stations to power drainage canals, and made sure existing stations could withstand 205 mph winds, the Journal reported.

“Everything is performing as designed,” said Rene Poche, a spokesperson for Army Corps New Orleans, noting that even widespread power outages haven’t taken the pumps down.

How did other infrastructure weather the storm? Not so well — and that poses its own dangers. 

Roads, cell phone networks, water treatment facilities and much of the power grid were knocked out across the region, the A.P. reported, with Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (R) calling damage to the latter “catastrophic,” with more than a million people across Louisiana and Mississippi without power. 

The loss of all eight transmission lines into New Orleans plunged the city into darkness Sunday night, which could take weeks to repair, WDSU news reported. By Monday, 216 substations and more than 2,000 miles of transmission lines were still inoperative, The New York Times reported.

In this heat? Unfortunately. No power means no air conditioning — in a city whose tropical heat and broad swaths of concrete and asphalt make it one of the worst urban heat islands in the U.S., Nola.com reported. Though the dangerous heat of last weekend has passed, at press time New Orleans’s heat index hovered around 98 degrees.

Poverty and coronavirus compound a crisis

That heat is just one of many crises that is compounding the effects of the storm. New Orleans resident Stephanie Blair returned to her father’s home in the low-lying Lower Ninth Ward to find the house basically intact — but unlivable without power.

“We got to go somewhere. Can’t stay in this heat,” Blair told the AP.

But many couldn’t go: “Our bank account is empty — we can’t afford to leave,” Robert Owens of nearby Baton Rouge told the AP. Leaving town would require gas and hotel rooms they couldn’t pay for. 

“A lot of us here in my neighborhood have to just hunker down and wait, not knowing how bad it’s going to get. It’s a terrifying feeling,” he said. “The fact that we are not middle class or above, it just kind of keeps coming back to bite us over and over again, in so many different directions and ways.”

Then there was coronavirus: As Louisiana hospitals braced for the onslaught of the storm and the need to care for its victims, they were crowded with coronavirus patients, USA Today reported.

Louisiana — which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country — had 2,400 hospitalized patients as the storm hit. 

“We have a lot of people on ventilators today and they don’t work without electricity,” Gov. Edwards said.

Four hospitals in Louisiana incurred damage from the storm, which also knocked down the New Orleans 911 call center, The New York Times reported. In Baton Rouge, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center was bracing for an influx of storm victims while already strained by the pandemic, according to another Times piece.

A further concern: As people go to shelters or to stay with relatives, coronavirus cases could jump further — creating what Anthony Fauci called “catastrophes conflating with each other” on CNN Sunday.

And hospitals clogged with coronavirus patients and damaged from the hurricane are less equipped to tend to victims. 

And then there are the evictions: As Ida approaches the small town of Starkville, Miss., on Monday evening, it will coincide with the mass eviction of dozens of families, the Mississippi Free Press reported. This is a result of the end of a federal moratorium on such expulsions.


Hundreds of industrial sites housing toxic chemicals were in the path of Hurricane Ida, as the storm smashed through a region of Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley,” Bloomberg Green reported.

“These kinds of toxic industries in the path of these storms are what we call accidents waiting to happen,” John Rumpler, senior director at the group Environment America, told Bloomberg Green.

How many sites? A Times-Picayune and New Orleans Advocate analysis predicted that the route would cross 590 sites that generate or store toxic chemicals, including 380 sites that were within 50 miles of the coast. These facilities were at particular risk from the strong winds and heavy rain accompanying the storm, according to the analysis, which used data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory.

First, the storm hit the Gulf Coast: home to 17 oil refineries, two liquefied natural gas export terminals, a nuclear power plant and many Superfund-designated hazardous substance sites, according to Democracy Now.

After that, it heads across Cancer Alley, which is “this intense concentration of petrochemical and fossil fuel facilities, primarily in a Black, low-income region,” which lies between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Antonia Juhasz, an oil and energy investigative journalist, told Democracy Now.

A growing threat: The region’s petrochemical industry was still surveying the effects of the storm on Monday, indicating that the coming days would demonstrate whether floods or winds had damaged their sites or caused any environmental harm, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Regardless of the outcome of this specific storm, federal and state regulations do little to account for the increasing threat that such storms pose on industrial facilities, University of Houston hurricane resilience researcher Hanadi Rifai told Nola.com.

But climate change has been “ramping up rainfall and hurricane intensity,” the Times-Picayune reported, citing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).


Learn why Schneider Electric’s products are found in 4 out of 10 U.S. homes, 70% of buildings, 33,000 wastewater facilities, and 50% of hospitals around the world: se.com/us/policy 

A false sense of security?

There are three important points about where we go from here.

The path of the storm: Over the rest of the week, Ida will trace an arc through Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia — and back to the Atlantic somewhere between northern Virginia and New York, New Jersey or Philadelphia, according to data from NOAA.

In the process, the storm will cross the same terrain that received such devastating inland flooding last weekend, as we reported last Monday, threatening flash floods to communities far from the sea.

The market is fine: Financial consultants told the AP that broad economic effects to the U.S. as a whole would be “modest” — perhaps $10 billion compared to the $90 billion of Katrina. 

That means some small implications for certain industry stocks and a 2-percent rise in gasoline prices, but little else, Reuters reported. 

A warning averted: The economic damage was lighter this time — and the death toll far lower — due to the flood defenses built after Katrina, according to Reuters. 

There’s a brutal irony there. Those defenses protected the city’s people, industry and buildings, but they will not do so forever without upkeep. In 2019, the Army Corps of Engineers warned that the levees were sinking into the soft muck and being undermined by sea level rise, Reuters reported.

Takeaway: With other crises to distract policymakers, the success — and insidious erosion — of the defenses built up after Katrina could lead to a false sense of security that leads, in the not so distant future, to another disaster.

“With climate change and the collapse of the wetlands, the [levee] system is inadequate over time,” Tulane history professor Andy Horowitz told Reuters.

Monday Miscellanies

In which we step away from hurricane coverage to look at other natural disasters, as well as some positive news developments.  

Fires continue to pummel Tahoe and other regions California

  • Officials have ordered more evacuations near Lake Tahoe, as the Caldor Fire continued to ravage forests southwest of the popular summer tourism destination, the AP reported.
  • This is just one of the many serious fires raging throughout the region, and many are still nowhere near full containment. 
  • California has seen an increase in higher-elevation burns — a direct result of a warming climate that has brought blazes to previously cool landscapes, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. 
  • One study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that 11 percent more forests across the West had become susceptible to burns in the past 35 years, the Chronicle reported. 

Leaded gasoline sales come to an end

  • The U.N. Environment Program declared the “official end” to leaded gas use in cars on Monday, after Algeria halted the sale of the poisonous fuel last month, the AP reported. 
  • This type of gasoline, which contained tetraethyllead, was first sold nearly a century ago to increase engine performance, until researchers found that it could cause brain damage, heart disease and strokes, according to the AP.
  • While wealthier nations phased out the fuel’s use in the 1980s, lower- and middle-income nations used it until 2002, when the U.N. launched a campaign to eliminate it. 
  • Leaded gasoline is still used in small plane operations, the AP reported. 

Combatting ‘retail redlining’ with healthy corner stores, in battle of ‘candy v. kale’

  • Local entrepreneurs are opening healthy corner stores around the country in an effort to fight policies that lead to “food deserts” in predominantly Black and low-income communities, The Guardian reported. 
  • “By failing to aggressively combat the circumstances that led to the shortage of retail, food companies and public sector developing agencies have, in essence, redlined Philadelphia’s low income communities,” Brian Lang, director of the National Campaign for Healthy Food Access at the Food Trust, told The Guardian.
  • The Food Trust’s Healthy Corner Store Initiative provides financial assistance to Philadelphia-based stores, while Washington, D.C., recently launched a $3 million effort to fund such retailers in specific areas of the city, according to The Guardian.

Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Tuesday.


Tags Anthony Fauci

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video