back to top

Katrina Was Just A Curtain-Raiser

Years before Hurricane Katrina, I reported on the New Orleans' growing vulnerability. But Harvey shows that New Orleans was the canary in the coal mine for coastal cities.

Posted on

As the tropical wave that would become the deadly storm Harvey formed off the coast of Africa two weeks ago, President Trump was killing a 2015 Obama rule requiring the builders of roads, bridges, and other infrastructure to factor sea level rise and other climate effects into their designs. For good measure, he also eliminated the climate advisory panel that proposed it.

Some projects may get built faster or cheaper thanks to Trump’s decision. But they’re also more likely to end up underwater, washed out, or damaged. Then, of course, they’ll have to be rebuilt at taxpayer expense.

We’ve been here before. Three years prior to Hurricane Katrina, I worked on a newspaper series documenting the weaknesses in the New Orleans levee system, and warning of the city’s growing vulnerability. When the storm hit, I covered the levee’s collapse, then coauthored a book exploring the technical and political failures that contributed to the disaster.

After Katrina, the federal government spent more than $14 billion rebuilding the New Orleans hurricane levees and pumps, and helped set up a fund to rebuild Louisiana’s sinking, eroding coastal marshes. It’s not perfect, but it makes the city somewhat less a sitting duck for total obliteration. Louisiana’s political class, whether they were climate change believers or skeptics, eagerly accepted billions of federal dollars to strengthen the city’s protections against future extreme weather events.

Katrina’s lesson — that we should invest to protect people from a predictable catastrophe — is useful, of course. But another disaster truism also applies: We always end up preparing for the last calamity, not the next one. Katrina turned out to be merely a curtain raiser on a new era of extraordinary storms, including Superstorm Sandy, last year’s Louisiana deluge, and now Harvey. The precise role of climate change within any of these events is extremely hard to single out; the interactions of weather and climate are fantastically complex. But scientists say the overall pattern is reasonably well-established. Climate change has heated up the ocean and the air, pumping more moisture into storm systems and fueling larger rainfall events. Ongoing sea level rise is leading to more flooding from storm surges.

These risks are rising each year, so what was once a “500-year” storm is now much more common than it once was. In this sense, Katrina was the proverbial canary in a coal mine: People thought the vulnerabilities of New Orleans were unique, but the city's predicament has become a harbinger of rising coastal exposure everywhere. And even now, sea level rise is putting all those costly Louisiana fixes in doubt.

The complexities are daunting. How do you protect people and property from such an evolving and ever-worsening threat? When it comes time to rebuild after Harvey, there is no single fix. Communities, states, Congress, and federal agencies will have to decide how — or whether — to resettle certain floodplains, raise roads, and fortify water supplies and petrochemical facilities. They should reconsider the basic rules that have guided urban development for decades.

There are limits to what any president, or government, can do to harden the country against disasters. If a storm is going to dump several feet of rain and/or pack 100-plus mph winds, it is going to do a lot of damage. Moreover, America is a huge and diverse landscape. Most of the decisions involving disaster mitigation and management — development strategies, the design of drainage systems, building codes, evacuation planning — are made at the local or regional level. Thus Houston’s free-for-all approach to zoning appears to have contributed to Harvey’s flooding.

But America is a single country, and climate change a global problem. The US needs national leadership on these issues, in part because disasters are growing in scale and intensity beyond what any municipality can reasonably ponder. Without some federal guidance and strategic support between disasters — not just immediately afterward — cities and localities will be increasingly left to fend for themselves. This will make an already randomly dangerous landscape even more so, and increase the large inequities embedded in it.

The number of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters has been rising steadily: In the early 1980s, there were only two or three each year; now there are typically more than ten. From 2005 through 2014, the federal government spent a total of $277 billion on disaster outlays, according to the Government Accountability Office. These numbers expose the expanding gap between federal assistance and the scale of damage: during the same period, US disaster losses totaled $590 billion, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. Insurance covers some of that, but the Federal Flood Insurance Program is a mess — incentivizing the costly settlement of dangerous areas — and has resisted attempts at reform.

The best single thing a president can do, of course, is work to slow global warming itself. Instead, by pulling out of the Paris climate accord, the Trump administration has signaled that US efforts to cut carbon emissions will slow. More money should go into climate research, disaster mitigation, and preparation. Instead, the proposed Trump budget slashes funding to FEMA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the National Weather Service.

There are other benefits of presidential and national leadership that are harder to measure, but actually even more important. Only a president can, with sustained attention, push the nation to confront a challenge. Sometimes this works, often it doesn’t — with disasters, the public’s attention span is notoriously short. But if a president denies the existence of a particular problem (as when Trump told the mayor of a Virginia island worried about sea level rise not to sweat it), it’s a huge lost opportunity.

But more importantly, the federal government has vast resources. It has teams of scientists and other experts devoted to climate and natural hazards — many of whom are now being marginalized or simply ignored. We should be using these resources to buttress disaster control efforts around the country, and to knit them together. It’s hard to imagine what’s coming. But we should start trying.

John McQuaid is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist and the co-author of Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms.

Contact John McQuaid at

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.