Rebirth or Retreat: Are We Better Prepared Four Years After Katrina?

Guest Blog | December 29, 2009 | Climate Change
hurricanekatrinafromspaceFour years and four months ago today Hurricane Katrina (soon followed by Hurricane Rita) ravaged the Gulf Coast claiming thousands of lives and leaving over 800,000 displaced.  Four years is a long time to reflect on the tragedies that unfolded (the mismanagement of the evacuation, the failure of the levees and the delay of aid to those who were left behind) and become better prepared to prevent another Katrina-like catastrophe from ever happening again.   With all the warnings from scientists that hurricanes will only intensify as our planet warms, how far have we really come in our perception of risk and  preparation for life in a warmer world?

Last month, I had the opportunity to visit New Orleans to see first hand how the city and its people are faring post-Katrina four years later.  “The Big Easy” is an absolutely vibrant city with a culture unparalleled among U.S. cities.  It has been six years since I’ve visited and by strolling through the popular French Quarter one would never know that this terrible event had ever occurred; at least from a tourist’s perspective. Visitors still crowd the streets and shops and the beautiful sounds of zydeco and jazz can be heard around every corner.   However, if you dig around and talk to the locals, Katrina is still weighing heavy on their hearts and those who weathered the storm want to be sure that their city’s struggles are never forgotten.

Rebirth or Retreat

From the airport, our taxi-cab driver (who fortunately was able to evacuate) took us on a spontaneous tour of parts of the city where the devastation from the storm was the greatest.  Flooding that resulted from the over

From inside a Lower 9th Ward house, gutted after the storm.
From inside a Lower 9th Ward house, gutted after the storm.

50 levee failures decimated 80% of the Greater New Orleans area and 100% of the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernards Parish where we toured.  The force of the waters not only flooded homes here, but completely ripped them from their foundations with some residents clinging onto the rooftops for their lives.  In the shadows of the “upgraded” levees, there was an interesting juxtaposition between new development and homes that still had the markings from the Army Corps as they perused this neighborhood for the dead days after the floodwater subsided.

The rebirth of a community after such a tragic event is of course a very positive and, to some degree, a healing experience for those who suffered.  Brad Pitt’s foundation called “Make it Right” is constructing new energy efficient, affordable and storm resistant homes in the Lower 9th Ward with hopes of bringing at least 150 families back into their neighborhood.   While all of this generous work brings hope back to families who lost everything, I have to ask, is rebuilding (even if using sustainable building practices) in such a vulnerable location the right thing to do?  I believe that as global warming continues to go unchecked and we as a species refuse to perceive the real risks associated with living in vulnerable coastal areas that we will be confronted with the hard choice of rebirth or retreat.

Katrina Victims, the World’s First Climate Refugees?

As of August 2009, nearly 40% of homes in New Orleans were still empty.  Former residents continue to trickle in as work becomes available and opportunities for rebuilding become more affordable.  Pressure on insurance companies from elected officials and residents to keep insurance rates low (further covering up the true risk of living in such a vulnerable place) are attracting the return of some that fled.  Displaced individuals from the storm are scattered across the country, and some (like relatives of my taxi-cab driver) vow never to return.

Were Katrina evacuees our nation’s first climate refugees?  Some such as Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, say they are the world’s first.

“Those of us who track the effects of global warming had assumed that the first large flow of climate refugees would be in the South Pacific with the abandonment of Tuvalu or other low-lying islands. We were wrong.” – Lester Brown, 2006

Climate hazards and social vulnerability map from Oxfam America.

Let’s not overlook who the majority of these victims were, those in poverty and African-Americans; the socially vulnerable.  Oxfam America recently released a report titled “Exposed: social vulnerability and climate change in the U.S. Southeast”  which looked at all types of global warming impacts including drought, sea level rise, hurricane-force winds and flooding at the county level all throughout our region.  They introduce their study with this compelling statement:  “while social variables such as income and age do not determine who will be hit by a natural disaster, they do determine a population’s ability to prepare, respond and recover when disaster does strike”.

The map above is a very powerful image that overlays social vulnerability (driven by factors including poverty level, race, gender and age) and the four major climate hazards our region will continue to face listed above.  This map shows that our southeastern coastal communities are disproportionately at risk to climate change.

The Science is Clear so Why Don’t we Act?

Science tells us with 90% certainty that smoking leads to lung cancer.  Did you know that this is the same certainty that scientists tell us that humans are responsible for global warming?  Climate science is clear that the way we produce and consume energy is causing our planet to warm.  Yet, why do we not mitigate global warming pollution and adapt to the changing conditions?

The latest science from the U.S. Global Climate Change Program Research Program tells us that our region can expect the following:

Miami Beach with 3 feet of sea level rise.  Image by Architecture 2030.
Miami Beach with 3 feet of sea level rise. Image by Architecture 2030.

*Hurricane intensity will increase instep with rising sea surface temperatures

*By 2080, temperatures could increase  4.5 to 9 F and as much as 10.5 F in the summer months

*Warmer air temperatures, longer periods of time between rainfall events and an increase in demand will result in decreased water availability for drinking and energy production

*At minimum, we can expect 2 feet of sea level rise by 2100 Along with sea level rise will come flooding, saltwater intrusion and refugees

To learn more, listen to SACE’s archived webinars.  Particularly, a webinar from July titled “The Southeast in a Warmer World, Impacts and Opportunities” and “Hurricanes and Global Warming” from April with expert Dr. Kerry Emmanuel.

Despite the urgency of this issue, we continue to develop unabated in extremely vulnerable places without taking into account climate mitigation or adaptation.  What will ultimately determine the future of our society is how we learn from past tragedies such as Katrina and how we incorporate sound science into our decision making.  It is more important than ever to urge our elected officials to pass meaningful climate legislation in 2010 that will protect our treasured coastal places and the people who call them home.

This blog is dedicated to those who lost their lives, homes, friends and family in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

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