The remnants of Hurricane Ida reached the New York City area on Wednesday, battering the region with record rainfall that flooded streets, subways, and basements. New York and New Jersey declared states of emergency, and officials in the Northeast had reported more than two dozen deaths as of Thursday afternoon. Ida, which made landfall in Louisiana on Sunday, tied for the fifth-strongest hurricane in US history and has been blamed for deaths across seven states. The toll is likely to rise as surveys of the damage continue.
Ida is one of a slew of summer disasters — among them deadly heat waves and catastrophic fires — reminding Americans that the climate crisis is already here. “We face some really challenging questions in Louisiana and across the United States,” Andy Horowitz, a Tulane University historian who wrote Katrina: A History, 1915-2015, told Vox on Monday, the day after the storm swept through his home city of New Orleans. “I think that should, basically, scare the shit out of us.”
Coastal communities urgently need to shore up infrastructure, from levees to sea walls to subway systems, and some will need to consider the much more drastic step of relocation, Horowitz said. In a time of worsening storms and sea-level rise, these conversations can’t be restricted to the Gulf Coast. “We’re talking about Staten Island as well,” he said. “We’re talking about the New Jersey coast. We’re talking about basically anyone who can drive to the water.”
The history of disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Horowitz said, can help us understand America’s possible future — both its vulnerabilities and its path to recovery. He said the policy responses, from lifesaving investments in infrastructure to ambitious climate policies that could eventually stabilize global temperatures, should be sweeping and swift.
In the age of climate change, a livable future will depend not only on physical infrastructure but on social support systems and a disaster recovery process that is democratic and relentlessly focused on equity, experts told Vox. In the view of Khalil Shahyd, a Louisiana native and a senior policy adviser for equity and environment at the Natural Resources Defense Council, this process should prioritize people over property.
Human choices have created a baseline of vulnerability
Two days before Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana, Horowitz taught a class called “The Climate Crisis.” Over video chat from his home in New Orleans, he asked his students to close their eyes and think about what the climate crisis meant to them.
The exercise was supposed to be theoretical, but Horowitz found himself thinking about how his shirt was wet with sweat: He had spent the morning moving pieces of patio furniture so Hurricane Ida wouldn’t turn them into projectiles. He also thought about what he would be doing that afternoon: picking up his two young children, evacuating the city, and driving to a rental apartment in Birmingham, Alabama.
The Gulf Coast of the US is vulnerable to deadly hurricanes like Katrina and Ida for a host of reasons, many of them man-made, as my colleagues Umair Irfan and Benji Jones reported this week. Ocean and air temperatures are rising because humans are burning fossil fuels, and rising temperatures can infuse storms with more energy and water vapor. The state’s oil and gas industry has contributed to a boom in low-lying waterfront construction, even as rising seas wash away parts of Louisiana’s coastline. Communities of color are often on the front lines.
“There’s nothing natural or inevitable about those vulnerabilities,” Horowitz told Vox. Hurricanes should draw our attention to human choices, he said: our decisions about where to build, which communities can settle on high ground or behind levees, who should control shared resources such as power grids. (Louisiana’s private electricity provider, Entergy, suffered “catastrophic transmission damage” during Hurricane Ida that left a million people without power during a heat advisory; the company’s backup gas power plant, which was rammed through a local approval process with help from paid actors, did not come to the rescue.)
As Shahyd watched the news last week that Hurricane Ida would strike New Orleans, he had flashbacks to watching from afar as Hurricane Katrina approached the city. “You just get this dread,” he said from Washington, DC. “Am I going to have to watch my city drown again?”
Most of Shahyd’s family evacuated for Hurricane Ida, but one of his uncles stayed behind in a Morgan City mobile home, and one of his brothers stayed in Metairie because of another ongoing disaster — the Covid-19 pandemic. The brother quarantined at home because he worried that his son, who is 12 and vaccinated for Covid-19, had a breakthrough infection. “It could not have been worse timing for them,” Shahyd told me. “My brother was saying that he had never seen that much rain before in his life.”
National disasters like Covid-19 and Hurricane Ida are “compounding crises,” said Allison Plyer, chief demographer at the Louisiana nonprofit The Data Center. “This is compounding trauma.” The difficulties are both psychological and practical: For many, 2021 has been another year of financial instability, Plyer added.
Disasters are especially catastrophic when they’re mapped onto poverty and inequality, as was true for both Katrina and Ida. “The most important thing to being resilient in a disaster is some savings in the bank, so you can put gas in your car and maybe pay for a hotel room,” Plyer said. But one out of every five households in New Orleans does not have access to a vehicle, she added, making evacuation extremely difficult.
New Orleans was an unequal place before Hurricane Katrina. But more than a decade after the hurricane, the problem had worsened. Twenty-six percent of New Orleans households — and more than a third of Black households — had zero net worth, according to a 2016 report by the nonprofit Prosperity Now. The same report showed that the unemployment rate for Black households was three times the rate for white households. More than 31 percent of Black households earned below the poverty line — six times the rate for white households.
Worsening inequity results in large part from nationwide policy choices, Plyer pointed out. “What drives inequity is federal policies, not local policies,” she said. “That acceleration of inequity, post-Katrina, was within a national context of accelerating inequity.”
In a majority-Black city like New Orleans, inequity is closely linked to structural racism, Shahyd said. “The persistence, the maintenance, and the sustaining of poverty is the most egregious impact of racism,” with the exception of police killings, he said. “There’s no better representation of that fact than the city of New Orleans — a city that is so celebrated, a city that is so loved, a city that produces so much value, economically, spiritually, culturally. It’s dependent on the impoverishment of a great many of its people.”
Disaster recovery is climate policy
Hurricane Katrina helped reveal a pattern to American catastrophes: “Disasters accelerate pre-existing trends, and they also accelerate inequity,” Plyer said. Covid-19 has followed this trend, she said, and this summer’s disasters like Hurricane Ida probably will too — unless we collectively do something about it.
In 2006, about a year after Hurricane Katrina, four researchers published a perspective in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences that considered 60 years of New Orleans history, ending with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans, the storm sped up population and income declines, the paper concluded — not least because federal support was devastatingly slow to arrive, and local recovery policies were mismanaged.
The relief that did come was not shared equally. Post-Katrina policies supported homeowners, even though renters — who tend to be lower-income — made up half of New Orleans residents. “Missing from rapid recovery has been adequate attention to the needs of evacuees who lived in rental housing, especially public housing,” the 2006 study said.
Shahyd added that developers and property owners had an outsized influence over the rebuilding of New Orleans: “If you’re not an owner of property, then you have no stake in or claim to much of the investments and resources that go into a post-disaster recovery.” He worries that this pattern could repeat itself after Hurricane Ida.
“I think what I most fear will be similar is that again, we have this sort of forced evacuation and depopulation of the city,” Shahyd said. “While many of us are going to be thinking about recovery and restoration, and getting home, other people are going to see that rapid, forced depopulation as an opportunity to reimagine urban space.”
Climate policy should be an integral part of recovery, he added. “Support for oil and gas is a bipartisan issue in Louisiana,” Shahyd pointed out. Democratic Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has pledged reductions in fossil-fuel pollution, but he has also resisted some of President Biden’s climate policies and taken steps to protect fossil fuel industries. (The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
“Louisiana will continue to get hit with bigger and more frequent storms, and then require federal emergency declarations, and all these federal resources — all the while we’re still continuing to pump the oil, refine the gas, burn the fossil fuels as the dominant sector of our economy,” Shahyd said. “The state has to begin to take more responsibility.”
When it comes to climate change, Horowitz added, “There is no policy solution under serious consideration in the US right now that risks being too big for the challenge.”
Investing in a safer and more livable world
Plyer lives in Louisiana, but she spent the week following the news of the storm from her sister’s house in New Jersey. On Wednesday, Ida reached her all the way from the Gulf of Mexico, and she spent the night mopping water out of a neighbor’s basement. At least one person died in the county where her sister lives.
“The good news is that we have the technology now to really see these hurricanes coming,” Plyer said. “The bad news is that we haven’t made the investments in infrastructure and equity to ensure that our communities can be resilient in the face of these disasters.”
For all the reasons for pessimism in American history, Plyer said, she did find one reason to be hopeful: “There’s a few examples of places hit by disasters that broke from their historical paths.”
This process of changing the future depends on three things, she went on. First, communities should use the interruption in the status quo to transform key institutions. Second, they should take advantage of large recovery investments to strengthen those institutions. And third, they should capitalize on new opportunities, such as renewable energy.
As disasters affect more of the US, from California to Louisiana to New Jersey, more places will grapple with climate change and try to recover from shocks in ways that build resilience. “The future is here,” Plyer said. “We have to prepare for climate change, and have the infrastructure and housing and systems of support that we need to adapt.”
And as communities prepare for the worst and do their best to recover from disasters, they should empower local residents to make decisions themselves, Shahyd and Horowitz said.
The value of a city like New Orleans, Shahyd said, “is not based on its real estate, but its people.” Recovering communities should elevate the voices of the most vulnerable residents, he said, and allow them to choose whether to return and rebuild or relocate. “If we organize people, then they will represent themselves.”
“It seems most important to me that we have a relentless focus on the legitimacy of a democratic process that brings about those decisions,” Horowitz said. “People have to feel collective authorship of these decisions.”
Disaster recovery and climate adaptation sound daunting, Horowitz went on, but they can also be hopeful. “When you think about what the solutions might be, they’re often phrased in frightening terms about displacement or retreat or people losing their jobs,” he said. “But in fact, the solution, the redress to the climate crisis, would build a more safe, secure, viable, livable, humane world.”