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September 08, 2021

What We Learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Ida

It may not be what you think.

Lesson #1: Lessons from Katrina saved New Orleans from Ida

Ida and Katrina were very similar in the way they hit New Orleans on August 29th 16 years apart. Ida actually had much stronger winds when it made landfall and dropped more rain in many places. Katrina killed 1200 people in the New Orleans area; there were only a handful of fatalities in New Orleans from Ida. Even without a full accounting it, appears that physical damage from Ida was much, much less than that from Katrina.

The difference was a $14.5 billion rebuild of the New Orleans levees and pumps which failed so catastrophically during the earlier storm. This is a wonderful example of a government program gone right. The army corps of engineers learned what went wrong during Katrina and rebuilt in a way which assured that this particular catastrophe wasn’t repeated.

There was, of course, flooding damage in the Northeast which received the usual intense media coverage of catastrophes in and around where the media lives and works even though this damage wasn’t near the scale of the damage inflicted by Katrina 16 years ago and 1200 miles away. We do need to learn from this damage where infrastructure needs to be stronger and what makes some basement apartments unsafe. We do need to spend money on infrastructure; we’re not going to be able to cancel storms.

Lesson #2: Our electricity infrastructure is not dependable in an emergency

 The lingering damage from Ida – and it is significant – is largely an electrical grid which failed quickly and is only being restored slowly. In anticipation of an electrical failure, the pumps which kept the city from flooding ran on standby diesel and natural gas fired generators; they could not have been run from wind turbines and solar panels. Most hospitals this time have standby generators running on fossil fuel. A Tesla would not have been a very good escape vehicle from the storm.

This disaster as well as the electrical-spark ignited fires in California and the critical electrical failures in Texas during last winter’s cold snap are all signs of a grid which 1) needs to be rebuilt with a more resilient decentralized architecture and 2) is not nearly ready to support a massive switch from fossil fuel to electricity.

Lesson #3: The best way to avoid hurricane damage is not to build in harm’s way

New Orleans is below sea level and on a path which hurricanes have taken at least since the end of the last ice age. With hindsight, it was not a great place to build a city despite the obvious commercial advantage of being where the Mississippi River meets the sea. It’s there, however, and hopefully we’ve learned to protect it. However, there is no good excuse for federal flood insurance which makes it possible for mostly wealthy people to build and rebuild on exposed seashore using tax dollars.

According to the American Meteorological Society: “Continental United States (CONUS) hurricane-related inflation-adjusted damage has increased significantly since 1900. However, since 1900 neither observed CONUS landfalling hurricane frequency nor intensity shows significant trends, including the devastating 2017 season… Growth in coastal population and regional wealth are the overwhelming drivers of observed increases in hurricane-related damage.”

Deaths from hurricanes in the US have decreased dramatically as weather forecasting and evacuation routes have both improved. Infrastructure investment again.

But President Biden said that Ira is proof of climate change?

President Biden is selling an infrastructure plan which is light on damage-reducing infrastructure and heavy on handouts to green industries. He apparently doesn’t read the Bulletins of the American Meteorological Society (see above). Climate always changes and yes CO2 levels are rising; but, whatever other damage that change may be doing, it apparently hasn’t resulted in an increase in the number or intensity of hurricanes hitting the US since 1900. More on that strange fact and why we do we don’t hear it often in a post to come.

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