Hurricane Ida both confirmed that we can plan and build to address climate change, and it was a wake-up call for how broad the need is, how quickly we need to act, and where we’ve underestimated our risk.
The pumps, dikes and levees protecting the City of New Orleans—which were dramatically strengthened after Hurricane Katrina—worked. Flooding within the city was minimized, as was loss of life. The performance of the flood protection measures was a triumph and illustrates that when we take risk seriously and invest in preparedness and resilience, we can succeed. However, Ida also highlighted the lack of similar investment and planning in other areas.
We’re used to thinking of hurricanes as a windspeed threat; the increasing flood threat they pose is something we are ill-prepared for.
The New Orleans power grid was the first major casualty of the storm. An effort similar to the post-Katrina flood defenses is now needed in the power sector to strengthen that critical system. More surprising was the damage wrought by Ida in New York and New Jersey. Yet increasingly, this is the climate we need to be prepared for. Recent research (Li and Chakraborty, 2020) indicate that hurricanes, because of the increased heat and moisture they carry as a result of warming sea surface temperatures, are decaying more slowly as they move inland. This results in much greater transport of hurricane moisture inland. We’re used to thinking of hurricanes as a windspeed threat; the increasing flood threat they pose is something we are ill-prepared for.
As New Orleans and the state of Louisiana repair their power grid and clean up from Ida, they should also address other critical and potentially at-risk systems, such as water and wastewater. As New York and New Jersey mourn their dead and recover from the flash flooding, they and the surrounding states need to recognize such floods are their new reality. We can address the challenges Hurricane Ida highlighted, but first we need to recognize we need to, and then we need to acknowledge that it is cheaper to address them in advance rather than be faced with regrets and destruction after the fact.