The past, present and future of New Orleans lies with the Mississippi River. As New Orleanians brace for Tropical Storm Barry, we find ourselves on the brink of the unknown, as we are about to learn the extent to which our existing systems of controlling and managing nature will withstand the storm.
We’re now facing a new normal. When “one in 100 year” rain events happen on an increasingly annual basis, there is a fundamental issue with the ways we measure storm intensity in the context of historic weather events. As Barry picks up strength along the Gulf of Mexico, it’s a reminder that we are headed toward uncharted territory with the effects of climate change threatening every aspect of our communities.
The river has been at varying levels of flood stage since November due to the record-breaking rainfall and flooding seen across the Midwest and the winter thaw from the Rockies to the Appalachians. We’ve seen the Bonnet Carre Spillway, a flood control mechanism to manage a high Mississippi River, opened twice in one year and in two consecutive years for the first time in its almost 90-year history. The Bonnet Carre is only one of a set of floodways designed to effectively move water out into the Gulf of Mexico — the drainage and residues from 41% of the country all ends up in the river, speeding around and through this fertile crescent city as it moves towards open water.
This year, we face another first as we find ourselves early in the hurricane season with the Mississippi double its normal depths due to flooding and Barry set to make landfall at a midpoint of Louisiana’s coast. Water will likely be pushed up a severely swollen river system with leveed boundaries already tired from so many months in the flood fight. We are required to trust our system of flood management — necessarily believing it will endure this new test — and prepare for the storm as we reflect on how to best serve our communities.
We are no strangers to flood events here — since Katrina and Rita in 2005, our communities have braved Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Isaac, and two severe and unprecedented rain events in 2016. In the time since Katrina made landfall, every parish in the state of Louisiana has been under a federal major disaster declaration because of a tropical event. Just this Wednesday, New Orleans saw 8 to 10 inches of rainfall in a span of just a few hours, transforming some of our high ground arteries for traffic into rivers with currents in their own right.
These events impact every aspect of our communities and businesses, and they intensify existing inequities both by their very nature and through our institutionalized responses to them. Still, the national narratives on our changing climate typically relegate these acute and chronic disasters to “environmental issues” and we continue to miss the moments for the coordinated action needed to shift towards large scale change.
In Louisiana, we’ve begun to align our policies, practices, programs and projects with an understanding of current and potential flood risk and its devastating effects. We are now increasing coordination between stormwater management and officials in the fields of housing, economic development, transportation, education, and public health. A state-led, community-centered initiative called Louisiana’s Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments is a first step of many that are necessary.
Our communities know that the impact of these weather events is not merely environmental. Neighbors that have seen generations of disinvestment and marginalization experience the heightened effects of these disasters — they often face deteriorating or nonexistent infrastructure, substandard housing, minimal access to economic opportunities, and the digital divide. In a storm’s aftermath, they experience larger recovery hurdles due to response practices predominantly designed for a middle-income population.
In coastal Louisiana, many residents with the financial resources and social networks to move out of harm’s way have done so, bringing their families and contributions to local tax coffers with them to areas perceived as higher, safer grounds. Many of the poorer residents are left behind in vulnerable areas, which then experience a decreasing ability to provide social services, maintain infrastructure, and invest in measures to reduce flood risk.
As residents migrate, other impacts are felt within school districts, health care and transportation systems. Perhaps most significantly, influxes of people in other areas result in further residential development decisions that tend to add to the substantial burden faced by drainage infrastructure in those communities.
As cities expand along coasts, watersheds, wetlands and rivers, natural barriers and siphons are overtaken, and artificial substitutes are erected in their place. Greater proportions of our communities and of society at large are then at risk should these systems prove insufficient, or worse, if they fail.
We are in uncharted territories as Barry moves inland, adjacent to the nation’s highway for riverine commerce swollen since November. Climate change is not a future scenario here. With every event, Louisiana is learning lessons and carving pathways to address the realities many of our friends around the country may soon face. Over the next few days, while we face the storm, we must work together to address the devastation it will bring and take tangible steps to shift our outcomes for the future.
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We are prepared, we are coordinated, and we are centering local leadership as we assemble our methods of response. This next moment is one among many and this is not a space to be timid. We will speak to our experience and share what we’ve learned so that this nation may take steps towards addressing an existential crisis. The divisions between us on climate must become obsolete because water has no patience for man-made boundaries.
This article has been modified to clarify that the Bonnet Carre Spillway is one of a set of floodways along the Mississippi River designed to move water to the Gulf of Mexico.