Editor’s Note: Liz Williams Russell is the director of the grant-making and programmatic activities of the Climate Justice portfolio at the Foundation for Louisiana, a statewide social justice philanthropic intermediary, that invests, builds, and supports a Louisiana-based movement for climate justice. The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. View more opinion on CNN.
When Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana in 2005, it had been 40 years since New Orleans had seen a major hurricane. In the 15 years since then, our state has seen seven major weather disasters and even more unnamed storms – every parish in the state has been under a federal flood declaration in recent memory.
Katrina would become one of the most devastating storms in the history of the United States. Now, as we pause in remembrance of the lives lost and forever changed as a result of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which hit just a month later, Louisiana has once again been ravaged by a major storm. Its impacts are compounded by the ongoing pandemic, which has already devastated our communities and upended so many of our lives.
Hurricane Laura barreled towards our coastline early Thursday, packing winds of about 150 mph. Since 2005, we have seen storms intensify in shorter amounts of time, bringing more water more quickly than the thresholds around which our communities have been designed. It took Hurricane Laura only two days to strengthen from a tropical storm to a catastrophic Category 4 in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, ocean temperatures this year have been some of the warmest on record, and it is this telltale sign of climate change that helped create the conditions for Laura to become one of the most powerful storms ever to make landfall in our country.
With a lack of institutional responses that center on racial, gender and economic equity, disasters disproportionately affect vulnerable communities. Our government responses need to focus on underserved residents while state and local leaders must take necessary actions to reduce risk by improving development standards or restricting new construction in high risk areas.
The phrase “100-year storm” is becoming less relevant as extreme weather events become increasingly common. For years, scientists have predicted that warmer oceans will make storms more frequent and more intense. This is dire news for our coastal communities, which are already being pummeled by rising sea levels and storms that leave behind a trail of damage which endures long after landfall. Growing populations of coastal communities and continued land loss have only exacerbated this trend.
As reports of destruction continue to come in from communities in Louisiana and Texas following Hurricane Laura (more than a dozen storm-related deaths have been reported, and hundreds of thousands don’t have power), I cannot help but think about the phrases used to describe this storm: “unsurvivable” storm surge, sustained winds of 150 mph (with gusts of 180) and catastrophic loss of life. While the worst seems to have been avoided this time, hurricane season is far from over.
Meteorologists and local leaders are trying to warn us of the unimaginable as we face extraordinary threats to our homes and livelihoods. Unfortunately, we know that the communities hit hardest in every disaster – our underserved, poor, and rural populations – will be most deeply impacted by this storm as well. Let us take the necessary steps to prioritize their recovery as we rebuild.
Climate change poses an existential threat, and we must do everything we can to reduce emissions and slow it down. While global carbon emissions dropped as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, we must take the necessary steps to proactively reduce them in the future.
Louisiana has one of the highest emissions per capita in the country and the state is home to a swath of petrochemical, oil and gas industry facilities. Even now, co-located vulnerable facilities and communities are confronting combined impacts of toxic release in the midst of natural disaster. To tackle these problems, Gov. John Bel Edwards said he would focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions during his second term, and a task force was recently launched to help devise a strategy to meet this goal. We must ensure that their recommendations are effective and actionable, while centering the impacts on Black and Indigenous communities, as well as the LGBTQ community and other underserved communities of color and low income.
As our attention shifts from response to reconstruction in the ravaged parts of our state, we must integrate practices that mitigate instead of worsen existing disparities, grounded in a commitment to all of our people. Following Katrina, we spent billions on recovery and rebuilding. While we did many things right and learned hard lessons that many others around the globe have not yet had to confront, we also missed opportunities to create sustainable, positive change for our region.
Well-resourced communities can finance preventative infrastructure and adapt to change more readily. Going forward, we need to ensure that resources and government funding are used to create local jobs and business opportunities for those in need while we rebuild and safeguard these vulnerable communities from future risk. Relevant workforce development training and procurement practices that foster small, local business and involve the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program in the recovery process could enable greater resilience in the long term.
As Gov. Edwards and his team transition from the immediate disaster response to distributing recovery dollars, we must ensure that we do a better job of investing in the frontline leadership of our community-based organizations and in a more just and vibrant future for our coastal communities. In addition to coordinating watershed and regional resources, we need to have a consistent strategy to address systems of inequality. We cannot leave out our residents in rural communities or our residents living in poverty.
At a time when the US is facing hundreds of active wildfires, devastating storms, record temperatures and a global pandemic, investing in climate justice is more critical than ever. Given adequate resources, most people can deal with and adapt to crisis scenarios – whether they be pandemics or natural disasters, acute or chronic calamities. Our communities are resilient, but we must provide proactive recovery and equitable access to uplift people during times of emergency as well as in the everyday times.
This is a transformative moment in our history. We must invest in leadership to get to long-term structural change required for this generational challenge. The future of humanity depends on it.