New Orleans recently dodged the bullet of the tropical rainstorm Barry that could have caused immense destruction, much on the lines of hurricane Katrina badgering the region in 2005.
It was Katrina that showed how devastating a tropical storm could be for a city like New Orleans. During Katrina, levees and floodwalls failed to protect the city from the surge coming in from the Gulf of Mexico, leaving more than 1800 dead and four-fifth of the city under flood. Till now, Katrina remains the costliest disaster in the history of global insurance history, causing as much as $125 billion in overall damages and more than $60 billion in insured losses. According to NOAA, a hurricane makes landfall within 50 miles of New Orleans about once every seven to 11 years. Barry has been the first hurricane of the 2019 hurricane season and the fourth hurricane to have hit the Louisiana coast in the month of July. Earlier, Hurricanes Bob in 1979, Danny in 1997 and Cindy in 2005 have made landfall on the Louisiana coast in July. According to research, around seven hurricanes strike the US every four years.
Barry was a Category 1 hurricane. It further downgraded to a tropical storm when it made the landfall. While not as strong as forecasters predicted, it brought with itself strong winds and tornadoes, including heavy rain across the region. Trees and power lines were uprooted. Over 1,50,000 people across Louisiana lost power at the height of the storm, and several offices remained closed. Heavy rainfall led to spilling of sewer in several areas leading to flooding of streets, cars, and buildings. In fact, the earlier signs of Barry were less than comfortable. There was no clear eye of the storm, making it difficult to predict where the clouds could go. There was also a concern that it could dump moisture over New Orleans, similar to how hurricane Harvey did in Houston in 2017. The National Weather Service (NWS) has forecast the Mississippi River to rise up to dangerously 20 feet height. About 3,000 National Guard troops along with other rescue crews were posted around the state with boats, high-water vehicles and helicopters. Mandatory and voluntary evacuations were enacted. Drinking water was lined up, and utility crews with bucket trucks moved into position in the region.
While Barry largely spared New Orleans, it was the first time that equipment put post-Katrina were put into use. Katrina was a powerful storm, and the city’s fatal engineering flaws led to inundation. The old system was weak and had little resilience. When one part failed, all collapsed. Katrina and then the following hurricanes such as Ike in 2008 and Sandy in 2012 showed the dangers of storm surge. Post 2005, there have been vast improvements to its Levee systems. More than $20 billion was spent on upgrading the city’s storm defense and drainage. The repairs are, however, not completed until now. It is a no brainer that much more needs to be done. Despite warnings after 2005 that flooded areas in the city should not be redeveloped as they stood at the risk of flooding, many of those areas have been rebuilt. Since Barry was not catastrophic, the city got wind of what it was prepared for and what more needed to be done. It brought to fore how red-tapism had affected the post-Katrina reconstruction work at some places. Recent reports have pointed out how the levees created after 2005 were already sinking. However, not all is lost. Technology did prove its worth as a storm surge inundation model could predict which levees could be overtopped and which communities were most at risk. Nearly half of the Katrina victims from Louisiana were over the age of 74.
However, what is of importance is to understand how climate change will affect the way cities prepare for disasters. The future is likely to see fiercer hurricanes, and more torrential rainfalls amid realities of rising sea levels, and sinking coastal ground. This makes cities like New Orleans, Osaka, Chennai, Mumbai, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, etc. quite vulnerable. From refining research to know how a natural disaster will shape up to improving infrastructure, to creating deepwater drainage systems, making cities better planned and strengthening disaster management infrastructure are ways to beat a disaster. It is crucial that cities invest in stockpiles of food and water and plan evacuation and transportation. City planners need to think about the removal of debris, opening up clogged roads, deal with environmental risks emerging from uprooted trees and animals post a disaster. The most simple solution is to turn back the tide on climate change. Since that is not so simple, data and research should usher a dialogue on risk management, and disaster preparedness.
*** The author is a Senior Risk Analyst, India Bound. She has a Ph.D. in US Area Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She was a Nehru Fulbright scholar at American University, Washington DC. She has worked as a researcher with National Institute of Advanced Studies Bangalore, Takshashila Institution and Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies New Delhi ***
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