Changes in the Earth’s climate are causing indisputable challenges to the way that we live. These unseasonable warm temperatures during these last days of February serve to remind us that the changes we are experiencing may be subtle (70 degrees on a February day), but they may also be a prelude to more dramatic experiences (increasingly powerful hurricanes and storms in the summer). Man-made solutions to the consequences of climate change often bounce between being proactive and reactive. Last year, we shared a story about the Netherlands’ proactive solutions to their climate change concerns. Today, we share some takeaways from a recent New York Times article about post-Katrina New Orleans.
Dramatic and Powerful Storms Are Just One Threat to Coastal Communities
When we think of New Orleans, we think about the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The hurricane made landfall as a Category 3 storm, bringing a wall of water that overwhelmed the infrastructure of the city. The sea walls and levees, designed in the early 1900s, failed to protect the city from the surge, resulting in over 1,400 people dead.
New Orleans suffers from being under multiple threats. First, half of the city sits below sea level, making it uniquely vulnerable to flooding and poor drainage. Second, protective wetlands that serve as a natural buffer from storm surges has slowly eroded away due to storm frequency and strength, oil spills, and the infestation of a bug called scale. These two threats are subtle, but they are as significant a danger as the more dramatic threats New Orleans and other coastal communities face. Indeed, they amplify them.
Inevitable and inevitably stronger hurricanes are a fact for the Gulf Coast. They bring with them damaging wind, which many people think is the biggest threat these storms bring. However, freshwater flooding that can linger for days and even weeks is also a major concern with any hurricane and, in the case of New Orleans, the storm surge from the ocean that these storms bring is an even worse concern. Larger, stronger storms will bring larger, more powerful storm surges with them. Meaning future infrastructure must be built to meet the challenge of the strengthening storms of today and the even stronger storms of tomorrow.
With powerful Nor’easters and hurricanes like Sandy, our own coastal communities are no strangers to how long-term change like beach erosion can set the stage for significant consequences when infrequent, yet catastrophic events occur. We have seawalls and other infrastructure to help our towns and villages, but not on the same scale as New Orleans. Perhaps we don’t need quite that scale, but do we currently have enough to protect our New England coast?
Engineering for Our Climate Change Realities Is Costly and Complicated
After Katrina, a multitude of studies were commissioned by Congress and the Army Corp of Engineers, seeking to figure out how the levees failed and how to rebuild in a way that would prevent future catastrophe. Billions of dollars and over 10 years later, the solutions put in place will not prevent future floods. People in the city are still vulnerable. In the case of another overwhelming catastrophic event, like a 200- or 500-year flood, the system could suffer breaches like those of Katrina.
Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans remarked, “What we should have done is build to a 10,000-year flood standard, which is what the Netherlands built to, and we didn’t, and that was for the country a monetary decision.”
Crafting solutions for New Orleans saw input from federal, state and local authorities, with experts in the field. Ultimately, the bill for the necessary construction has fallen to the state of Louisiana to the tune of $100 million for the next 30 years. In contrast, repairing the damage left by Katrina was far more expensive. According to Garret Graves, a member of the House of Representatives for Louisiana, repairing after the storm cost between $120 billion and $150 billion. Current and future leaders will have to factor the financial toll of climate change into their future budgets and planning.
There Are Opportunities for Creative Solutions All Along the Threatened Coastline
Outside of Louisiana, coastal communities will need proactive leadership to chart creative solutions that address the needs of today and the concerns of tomorrow. New Orleans is a major city that received significant federal intervention to help with the need. Small communities facing similar threats may not be so fortunate.
There is a question and a growing tension in the debate on where and how to spend our resources in protecting the coast and the people who live there. While New Orleans has benefited from billions of dollars in infrastructure investment, other smaller communities in Louisiana have seen little to no help. “It’s difficult to sell, on the state level, elevating New Orleans protection to [a 500-year storm standard] when you have places such as Jean Lafitte, Terrebonne Parish, Houma, New Iberia and other places that have zero level of protection, or at best 10-year protection,” says Jerome Zeringue, a Louisiana state representative.
Leadership teams from multiple levels of government as well as the private sector will need to continually evaluate and initiate programs to meet the growing need for practical solutions to these major challenges. Indeed, it could very well be that small communities on significantly smaller budgets may come up with sustainable, obtainable solutions that can be replicated in other places. Major building projects are certainly one part of the solution, but ongoing proactive programs educating the population on climate change and sustainable living is another important part of the equation.
You may feel like you are only one small person with no real power to do anything about climate change. What we know is that every individual makes a difference and the small, purposeful choices we all make can contribute to the big differences that can affect real change in the world. We are far away from New Orleans, but there are plenty of lessons we can learn from their struggles and apply to our own coast and towns. Make one conscious change today and add your drop to the rising tide of conscious, conscientious sustainable living.
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