Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

New Orleans – How Will Rebuilding Play Out?

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Newsweek’s Fineman wrote about the need for Recovery money to be directed at places like New Orleans a couple of weeks ago.  It brought back to mind another National Geographic article about New Orleans.  It was in the August 2007 issue and detailed some updates since the landfall of Hurricane Katrina nearly two years prior.

On some level, I agree with Mr. Fineman.  New Orleans could be rebuilt.  It’s the how that I’m concerned with.  People have removed the ability of the Mississippi River to maintain the wetlands that in previous decades protected the city of New Orleans from the worst of storm surges.  Many square miles of wetland succumb to the waters of the Gulf every day, making the next storm to hit the area more of a danger than it otherwise would be.  The land under the city is sinking because it was drained.  Sea levels are rising because of our impact on the climate system.  Here is a decent map indicating what a 3-foot (1m) sea-level rise would do to the New Orleans area.  Keep in mind that the 2007 IPCC report considered a 1m sea-level rise by 2100 to be realistic under current emission rates.  More recent research has revealed that a 1m sea-level rise will likely occur much sooner than 2100 unless serious action is taken soon.  New Orleans has been threatened by tropical storms for a long time.  That threat is increasing.

Which should mean that efforts to protect the city’s infrastructure and citizens should also be increasing.  Unfortunately, as the National Geographic article detailed, that’s not happening.  The Army Corps of Engineers is rebuilding levees to their prior rating.  Those levees couldn’t protect the city from a strong Category 2 storm (at time of landfall) because of shoddy engineering an an unfortunate approach angle.  Things to consider include: the storm could have been stronger and the approach angle could have been more direct.  Rebuilding the cities’ defenses to prior criteria that failed therefore isn’t a good idea.

Therefore, if we’re to continue the rebuilding of city defenses and personal property, it makes sense to ensure higher standards are set.  The levees, gates and pumps should be built to withstand a much stronger hurricane.  Any complaints of cost need only look to the cost of rebuilding billions of dollars of private and public property throughout the city.  Houses need to be built several feet above the ground.  The Mississippi River needs to be less controlled.  The wetlands surrounding the city need to be encouraged to grow and not shrink.  All of these efforts need to arise from solid, scientific recommendations.  Further, they need to be put under strict oversight and accountability.  Otherwise, any and every effort currently being spent to rebuild the city will be wasted.

Another storm will impact the area.  A city that has lost 30% of its pre-Katrina population can ill-afford to lose even more due to negligence and a reluctance to improve on yesterday’s habits.

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