Government & Politics

Climate change makes local flood defense a real crap shoot

True odds are often misstated. Proctologists understand this fact well, since so many of their patients, at least on Seinfeld, explain their unfortunate predicaments in the same way: “It was a million to one shot, Doc. Million to one.”

So, if a “million to one” means little in a proctologist’s examination room, would it be inappropriate to wonder how much “hundred to one” means in New Orleans? After all, that’s what the city is receiving after the Federal Flood: levees and floodwalls certified to resist a so-called “hundred-year storm event,” which is the minimum standard to be federally insurable. Be advised, a hundred-year storm isn’t one that can happen only once in a century. It’s a storm for which there is a one percent chance every year – or twice within a couple of months, to recall our fate in 2005.

FEMA director Craig Fugate, reviewing 2010’s record list of disasters, says we might need to readjust our assumptions:

Earthquakes, heat waves, floods, volcanoes, super typhoons, blizzards, landslides and droughts killed at least a quarter million people in 2010 – the deadliest year in more than a generation.

“It just seemed like it was back-to-back and it came in waves,” said Fugate.
“The term ‘100-year event’ really lost its meaning [in 2010].”

The hundred-year year standard was miserably insufficient to begin with, but the prospect that worsening weather will make our levee system look only flimsier is truly frightening. We know that the Dutch protect their river delta with overlapping water control systems that are at least a hundred times stronger than ours. They have fortified their coasts against events expected once in ten thousand years, and, with climate change and rising sea levels staring them in the face are planning an even stronger flood defense.

Oh, darn it. There I go mentioning “climate change” as if it’s a fact and not a mere “theory,” like evolution or gravity.  My mistake. I forgot that the ascendant political movement of our day is profoundly skeptical of the causes and effects of global warming. Recent poll results demonstrate that

More than half of Tea Party supporters said that global warming would have no serious effect at any time in the future…

Whew! Remember how New Orleans “dodged a bullet” after Hurricane Katrina passed by (and slammed into Mississippi)? Well, that’s how I feel after learning the Tea Party movement mostly believes that climate change is hooey, and we don’t have anything to worry about. That’s right, the same folks who think the President is a Kenyan Muslim assure us that the scientific consensus is wrong. The Tea Party understands that while budgetary deficits might be unsustainable, growing fossil fuel emissions pose no threat. All this extra energy getting bottled up in the atmosphere won’t have any future repercussions on sea levels, extreme weather, human health, or biodiversity. So thanks for the good news, Tea Partiers. Let the good times roll. Tonight I will toast your perspicacity with a violently shaken Dr. Nut .

Hurricane Katrina was about a 400-year storm, followed weeks later by Hurricanes Rita and Wilma, two of the most intense hurricanes in recorded history. Since 2005, despite several very active hurricane seasons in the Atlantic, few powerful storms have hit the middle Gulf Coast.

Now, I’m not saying we’re due for one next year or that climate change “caused” or even necessarily amplified the storms of 2005. Lord knows I’m not. But, even if you’re a global warming skeptic, I think we should reflect on how little “hundred-year  storm protection” really means in a time of climate change increasingly extreme weather. I suspect the coming century will be jam packed with so-called “hundred-year events,” and I’ve no doubt that the New Orleans region will taste another one sooner rather than later. We absolutely cannot plan on having another lucky 40 year run like we did between Betsy and Katrina. (Again, we can’t forget that while the Federal Flood caused most of the damage in New Orleans proper, the storm itself was a massive disaster elsewhere across the region.)

A direct hit from another hurricane would be bad enough, but even if we get lucky and go several decades without getting clobbered by another mega-storm, I’m still worried about the future. After seeing how long and slow and costly the US Army Corps of Engineers flood protection “upgrades” have been since the flood, I shudder to think what would happen if numerous strong storms hit other coastal regions and forced the USACE to change their standards, and perhaps decertify its own work in the New Orleans area. That is to say, what will it mean for New Orleans if it has to raise its levees and floodwalls to meet new “1 in 100 year” standards?

The costs would be mind-boggling, while the national enthusiasm to underwrite such improvements would be non-existent. I can see a President Rand Paul in 2025 telling us the bad news via satellite: “Didn’t we just spend $100 billion to bail out you bowl-dwellers twenty years ago? Sorry, not gonna do it again.” What then? How do we sustain (much less repopulate) a city that becomes uninsurable? Granted, it’s a nightmare scenario, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t all-too-probable. Extreme, unprecedented weather might mean that flood control standards get re-adjusted sooner than we think.

What can we do?

I suppose New Orleanians could fall back on our deep reservoir of tragic fatalism. As we’ve done for hundreds of years, we could just shrug off giant problems and continue enjoying life. Or perhaps we can keep electing leaders who ignore the issue when not passing laws that allow students to better “question” the scientific explanations of climate change. (I’m sure those insights will serve young people well in coming decades.)

Here’s a thought. Let’s capitalize on the risks by starting a “Calamity Channel” based in New Orleans. We could become the worldwide leader in disaster images, commentary and social media 24/7/365. This might stimulate business development and population growth in the metro area, which might help us “weather” the locally expensive implications of climate change risk.

Ok, I didn’t say my Calamity Channel proposal was a great thought… but we need to encourage the conversation about rapid re-growth or else living here will really begin to feel more and more like a proctology exam room: the risks are understated, and we feel vulnerable, bent over and resigned to wait for the worst.

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  • Another idea might be to do everything possible to focus on developing quality science education in the schools.

    It won’t be easy — between the general inertia and the active hostility towards science amongst the wingers it will be at best a hard slog. But maybe it would be a start.