New Orleans: Ready Or Not? The New Normal
New Orleans is vulnerable. Even a small storm can wipe out power for thousands of homes. Scientists say climate change is going to bring more intense storms, heavier rainfall and increased heat. More than a decade after Hurricane Katrina, officials say the city is more protected than ever. But big storms are just one threat. This week, WWNO explores how prepared the city is for the threats that climate change will bring with a special Coastal Desk series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?
It’s a stormy evening in mid-May and Kashawn Russell is getting ready for a big night, prom, when he runs into a snag: "The power went out as I was changing."
Down the block, a power line broke in half and fell right in the middle of Claiborne Avenue. Police put up blockades. Standing in the rain in his tux, Russell says it made a rite-of-passage even tougher for him. "I had no idea how to put this tie on. It was so hard," he says, while his parents laugh in the background.
It wasn’t a particularly big storm, according the National Weather Service, it brought wind and a couple of inches of rain over a few hours. But it was enough to cause street flooding and put more than 1,000 households in the dark. Scientists say the city is going to get more storms like this.
New Orleans is old. Tourists come to see the historic architecture, but the stuff underneath is old, too. Roads, water lines, drainage pipes and power lines, are all strained by the weather — heat, heavy rain and storms.
Barry Keim is an LSU professor and the state climatologist. He calls New Orleans "one of the most vulnerable places in the whole world."
He says a warmer climate and warmer sea surface temperatures will evaporate more water off the oceans and into the atmosphere, bringing more rain. "There's certainly potential to produce bigger rainstorms. Our August 2016 flood fits that pattern. Hurricane Harvey rains fit that pattern," says Keim.
Because New Orleans is an island of hot concrete and roads in the middle of a swamp, water evaporates quickly out of the city and forms lots of storms overhead.
“We already have a problem managing the rainstorms that we're getting now — that could potentially get worse. We already have trouble managing the hurricanes that we have. We didn't do very well with Katrina," says Keim.
Given the strength of that storm in New Orleans, the levees should have held, but they broke. Veteran Times-Picayune reporter Mark Schleifstein predicted the flooding years before.
He stands on the London Avenue levee in Gentilly, where there was a major breach. “I predicted that a major hurricane would overtop the levees and would flood a significant part of the city,” and he says the city hasn’t seen that major hurricane yet.
The federal government spent $14 billion strengthening the floodwalls and levees around the city after the storm. Schleifstein recently reported that they’re not being properly maintained. He says, "we are still at risk."
More storms will come. While scientists are reluctant to say climate change will increase the number of hurricanes, they know that storms will become more intense, with heavier rain and stronger winds.
Since floods last summer, the city has made repairs to the pumping stations but the system is still ill-prepared to get a lot of water out quickly. “Our drainage system is not adequate to deal with those rainfall events and it's unclear that it will ever be adequate,” says Schleifstein.
"Our drainage system is not adequate to deal with those rainfall events and it's unclear that it will ever be adequate." - Mark Schleifstein
This Gentilly neighborhood, wiped out 12 years ago, has been rebuilt. New homes are going up, with tidy lawns and fresh paint.
But Schleifstein points out, the houses sit just above the grass. “There are a lot of houses in this neighborhood...that are still sitting...at the old grade that was here prior to Katrina and they still have a significant risk of flooding during rainfall event,” he says.
Keim says it’s not just hurricanes and rainstorms that threaten the city’s existence. Hot sunny days strain the power system and public health, "...that also looms large on into the future." Temperatures are on the rise. We’ve had a few record-breaking hot days this summer.
So how prepared is New Orleans for the threats to come?
This series is a collaboration with The Lens. Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Foundation for Louisiana.