…of another trend, but this is one that we pretend doesn’t exist: as the recipient of the effects of climate change. Yesterday the city of New Orleans had another of those weather events that never used to happen. Dangerous winds, flash flooding and sideways rain swamping the city within a few hours, destroying the preparations for a festival about to open its doors in the Mid City area of town. This is how my pal, legendary hatmaker Tracy Thomson of Kabuki Hats described what happened there:
It happened about an hour before the Fest was scheduled to begin; we had just started setting out inventory when the winds picked up. We both were in the tent trying to hold it down, during a frightening half hour when we heard screams and wails and crashes. At one point our side walls unzipped with the force of the wind; I peeped out and it looked like our tent was the only one left standing. After what seemed an eternity I was looking right at andy as he was holding down the tent when the wind lifted him right off the ground and he and tent went flying. Nothing left but a mangled mess was left, the same all around us.
Monitoring Twitter and FB throughout, I felt the fear and stress from those stuck at that venue as well as from dozens of other spots as people sat in their cars with water rising and smartphone battery draining, saw trees topple around them or looked out a restaurant window, unsure if it was safe to head home. I had water rising in my courtyard and even noticed it creeping over the front curb close to the doors of the businesses here in the highest point of the city. That level of rain had only happened a few times before in my almost 40-years of monitoring the Quarter.
The weather lady of New Orleans, Margaret Orr was on the air for the entire storm, doing her best to analyze the evolving situation (her awe and excitement over the number of lightning strikes during a storm is one of her charming quirks) while calming folks down. As usual, she was exactly right when she talked about the reason this is happening: extreme heat in the region, more moisture in the air and less land between us and the Gulf of Mexico.
Unfortunately, most New Orleanians didn’t hear that. They only want to talk about one thing- how the “pumps clearly weren’t working.” That narrative is of course based on the recent history of finding out during the LAST flash flood in 2017, SWB had many pumps offline or without personnel and that much of the power supply was offline too. We only found that out after first they lied and said just about everything had been working. So I get it; we got snookered, but even in 2017 what was missing in most people’s analysis is that the city would STILL have flooded based on the amount of rain; it would just have drained hours earlier.
So this time the truth was once again wrapped in a little hysteria, with a big helping of what author-activist Rebecca Solnit calls naïve cynicism brilliantly described in this passage:
If simplification means reducing things to their essentials, oversimplification tosses aside the essential as well. It is a relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world that generally offers neither, a desire to shove nuances and complexities into clear-cut binaries. Naïve cynicism concerns me because it flattens out the past and the future, and because it reduces the motivation to participate in public life, public discourse, and even intelligent conversation that distinguishes shades of gray, ambiguities and ambivalences, uncertainties, unknowns, and opportunities. Instead, we conduct our conversations like wars, and the heavy artillery of grim confidence is the weapon many reach for.
Magazine Pacific Standard highlighted a recent study on how potential coastal flooding is being ignored especially by those who will lose the most:
But humans, apparently, are not all that rational. Despite clear evidence of rising global temperatures, over a third of Americans don’t believe that climate change is happening, according to a recent poll by Gallup. Only 45 percent think that it will pose a serious threat in their lifetime.
Most significantly, if you live by the coast, you’re likely to be less—not more—worried about sea-level rise and flooding than those who live inland, according to Bakkensen and Lint’s research.
Here is what we know.
The pumps of our city are designed to quickly pump an inch of rain the first hour of a storm and then continue at the rate of a half inch. Using the verified rainfall reports during the storm, we had already had 3-5 inches of rain in different parts of the city in a span of 2-3 hours. Please do the math.
We have had an incredible amount of new construction in every neighborhood, mostly taking more green space away or adding weight and size to what had been mostly smaller, more appropriate housing stock pre-Katrina. Everything after 2005 is bigger.
Some of the new council reported on social media during the storm they were checking in to the pumping stations which were operating. The mayor monitored the situation first-hand in person with her directors including those from the SWB, tweeting and posting updates on pumps and issues throughout.
As soon as the rain slowed, the streets cleared quickly.
So a very different situation than 2017. Yet immediately the naive cynicism began: The mayor wasn’t paying attention, the water had “never” been that high previously, every elected official was probably out of town, no rain had been forecasted and so on.
The truth: The rain forecast was only for 20% but pop up storms were said to be very possible especially in afternoon according to the newscasts I watched the night before. Unfortunately, the worst came during the Friday afternoon/night commute and so more people were out on the streets and cut off from their neighborhoods by rising water in all directions; construction sites were not properly secured so people drove into holes where the fencing had blown away or the materials for that construction blocked folks from getting their cars to high ground; based on secondhand reports, the festival staff mentioned previously seemed to not be monitoring the radar closely enough or to have a plan for emergency weather once it began.
None of that was going to be solved by having more pumps.
The bigger issue is what one of the most endangered coasts in the Americas is beginning to deal with regularly.
The rise of sea level is the fastest it has been in the last 2 millennia. We are closer than ever to the Gulf as land slips away and the chemical and oil companies continue to cut away our land to add more pipes to take out more resources. We have lost more than 2,000 square miles since the 1930s. This spring, we have already often had temperatures around 10 degrees higher than normal with very little rain, and this after a colder than average winter. In other words, more extremes. (NOAA released their monthly climate report, making April the 400th consecutive month of above-average temperatures globally.) The summer heat brings those storms that are not part of distinct fronts, but flare up on “subtle outflow boundaries from previous thunderstorms, sea-breeze fronts, higher terrain or in a more random pattern.” Which means they don’t move very fast either.
The irony is that engineering that everyone expects to save us is how we got into this mess. As geographer/author Rich Campanella has carefully explained to us again and again, “When runoff is removed and artificial levees prevent the river from overtopping, the groundwater lowers, the soils dry out, and the organic matter decays. All this creates air pockets in the soil body, into which those sand, silt, and clay particles settle, consolidate—and drop below sea level.” So yes, the city used to be 100% above sea level; now, it is 50%.
That scarier, less manageable truth also needs to be incorporated into the vital city government need for fixing our current water management system. So sure, absolutely keep an eye on SWB and City Hall but also:
Support the Greater New Orleans Water Plan and the restoration of wetlands. Join the city’s Adopt a Catch Basin program. Reduce runoff on your property by reducing the concrete, cut back on the release of carbon dioxide – especially in summer- with fewer trips in vehicles and less charcoal grilling, try for an economic use of air-conditioning, plant trees, reduce, reuse, recycle (and as someone recently said to me, remember those 3 are meant to be a priority of actions not a choice of one over the other!), add insulation, use CFL light bulbs, turn your hot water tank down, get an audit of other energy uses around your home and workplace and fight the sale of our remaining land to corporations interested in only their profits over our needs and the rightful sovereignty of native people.
Understand the reality at home and around our globe. Be wise and fair AND firm with your city leaders and your world and maybe we can stop the worst of this and get away from being at the front of the pack of those cities that may be soon lost due to climate change.