Saturday, August 20, 2016

Informed Decisions in a Changing Climate

Can you imagine living through Hurricane Katrina?

As a white woman from the northeastern U.S., I believed that I understood that racism exists, that I have advantages that others do not and that racism matters.

Then, I arrived in New Orleans in August '89 to begin law school.  I drove into the city with a truck full of my possessions.  Ten minutes after crossing into the city, before finding the University, I stopped at a local restaurant. I walked in.  And what I saw stunned me.

There were about ten men working there.  One white man, the rest black men.  The white man was the manager.  And the black men were his subordinates.

The heat was oppressive.  The humidity like nothing I had ever experienced before.  A heavy pall. There was a dull and vague acceptance of a crappy job, oppressive humidity and unquestioned separation of race.  There was a hopelessness in the men's eyes.  No eye contact.  Just "yes, missus" from bowed heads.

I shook off the experience, thinking I was reading more into it than existed.  Perhaps I was just projecting my 1960's preconceived notions.

However, the city never felt like part of the same country I grew up in. Police were corrupt. Government was corrupt. At a level I had never seen before. I watched police officers buy beer while on duty, get into their patrol car, open up and drive off. It was not a good plan to get pulled over by state troopers if you were young and female. That was not speculation. That was reality. The crime rate was huge. Theft, murder, drugs. The animal shelter was so poorly funded that animals' cages were never cleaned. Strays ran rampant. And the homeless children. Boys that had bottle caps in their sneakers and tapped for money. Living on the streets. The interstate between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is known as cancer alley because of the high rate of pollutant-driven cancers.

And, of course, there were poorly maintained levees.

I graduated from law school in May 1992 and moved on.  I gave New Orleans only passing thoughts until August 2005.  And then, along with the rest of the nation and world, looked on in horror as Hurricane Katrina arrived, the most impoverished and disempowered citizens failed to evacuate, the levee failed, Bush's FEMA failed, and the USA looked like a country from the developing world.

Hurricane Katrina floods Canal St.
Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Poverty, race, corruption and lack of preparation converged to create horror and suffering.  Rapes and looting and terror-filled nights ensued.

The wealthier folks got out.  But even they did not get off scot-free.  Many people never returned to rebuild their homes and their businesses.  New Orleans' recovery was anemic and slow.

The losses were overwhelming.  "An estimated 1,833 people died in the hurricane and the flooding that followed in late August 2005, and millions of others were left homeless along the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans.

Katrina was the most destructive storm to strike the United States and the costliest storm in U.S. history, causing $108 billion in damage,"

Many of those that lived through this were determined to learn from the experience.  This is not something you want to struggle through a second time.

Here is the story of one couple.  They were fortunate in that they were privileged enough to own their own their own home and business and to escape the worst parts of Katrina:
Julie Hebert was a newlywed when, 38 years ago, she moved to her husband's native Chalmette. They built a life and a business together. Then Katrina made landfall. Like much of Chalmette, the Hebert family's home and business were left in ruin.
They fled to Houston, staying three months or so. When they decided to return to Louisiana, they did their research, asking neighbors around prospective homes for the neighborhood's flood history.
The couple settled on a small subdivision in Denham Springs, near Interstate 12. The main road leading to the subdivision has two low spots where water typically pools during heavy rain, she said, occasionally making it impassible. But neighbors told them water had never flooded homes there.
"It wasn't like we bought carelessly," Hebert, 56, said Monday from her daughter's home in nearby Walker.
The Heberts were sensible.  Making choices to avoid the same kind of devastation based on all the information they could garner.

There is just one problem.

They asked the neighbors.  Like most of America, the neighbors were basing their information on past experience.  That is reasonable.  Except that most of America, and these neighbors, and the local planners, were ignoring significant information.  That is, they were ignoring the warnings of climate scientists.

What happened next in this story demonstrates that while climate change impacts the poor and disempowered most powerfully, it leaves out no one.

In August, 2016, it started to rain in Denham Springs.  A lot.  Meteorologists' descriptions range from a one-in-a five hundred year flood to a one-in-a thousand year flood.

When the rain intensified Thursday into Friday, Hebert and her husband figured they'd have to stay home for a day or two until water retreated from the main road.
"We had groceries in the house (and) the electricity didn't go off," she said. "We were fine on supplies."
But as Saturday progressed, Hebert noticed water from a backyard pond started marching toward her house.
Hebert started packing, relying on her Katrina experience while reminding herself, "it doesn't flood here."
The water continued rising up to the back door, then up the front yard and into the garage. They gathered more things, and their pets, and waded through the water to join neighbors waiting for a boat.
2016 Flooding in Southeast Louisana Rescue

Who could have predicted that this area is at increased risk of flooding?  Certainly not the neighbors.  And no one could have predicted this storm in this spot.

But, the scientists have been saying that the storms will come with increasing frequency and intensity.  And, in fact, the storms have been doing just that.  Tangipahoa Parish has seen two one-in-five hundred year storms in five months.

If we don't listen to the scientists, and take account of the changes they say are coming, we can't make good decisions.  We may have limited options in many cases, but, certainly, planning for and reacting to floods like these requires knowing what we are up against.  Julie Hebert had resources and tried to make good decisions.  But neither she nor her community heard the recommendations of the most credible experts:  climate scientists.  And now, she has lost everything.  AGAIN.

Climate change is going to challenge all of us.  The disempowered will face the worst suffering.  The lack of infrastructure, the corruption, the systemic disregard for people create real life horrors.  We saw it in Katrina on our very own shores.  We see it in Syria in the faces of children awash in a sea of bombs and scarce resources.
Omran Daqneesh Pulled from Aleppo Bomb Ruins
We must frame our climate solutions to include building up climate resiliency for people who do not have the resources to do so for themselves.

But, too, we must insist that those with resources get the information they need to make good decisions.  For those that can rebuild, they must hear that the past weather, by itself, is not predictive of the future weather in a changing climate.  Instead, we must factor in the projections from the scientists.

Many just like the Heberts are stepping into the future blind folded.  We must take the blinders off, look around, and make the best decisions we can.  And use those resources to protect not only ourselves, but also those without the resources to protect themselves.


  1. The latest finding carries lessons for a planet that has yet to confront the demands of climate change.

  2. Was there a climate scientist who warned that his area could flood even though it hadn't before? Is the needed information even available?

    1. Hi, Kim. Thanks for reading and commenting. As I said in the blog, no one could predict this flood, in particular. However, states' climate action plans can anticipate where flooding is more likely and change flood plain maps, we can adjust insurance rates to reflect those, and change zoning, as well. This will affect buying decisions.

      These kinds of actions must begin to inform action.

  3. Tried to tweet but 'something went wrong'... :(