Pearl River In a week when double-barreled hurricanes, Marcos and Laura, threatened the Louisiana coast, the fifteenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and its devastation of New Orleans and parts of the Mississippi Gulf Coast are easy to forget. Remembrances are small and solemn, as people still crouch down in the pandemic. Some articles ran on August 29th. Some comments and sharing showed up on social media. Some press releases of observance by local politicians made it out the door on a Saturday. More disturbingly, there were a couple of pieces floating out there that were timed to the anniversary in a sort of “now that I have your attention” kind of way.
One piece on the front page of the Times made it clear that the governmental policy was shifting on allowing homeowners to rebuild their neighborhoods after homes flood. FEMA is moving towards that policy and allocating money in that direction. HUD has reserved $16 billion to relocate entire neighborhoods. The Army Corps of Engineers is in the process of implementing a policy that will deny communities flood protection money and projects unless there is an agreement with local officials that they will move people out of flood areas. Fifteen years ago, the fight was about whether or not families had the “right to return” to their neighborhoods in New Orleans. ACORN and others won that fight in the recovery plan. It wasn’t easy. These initiatives might make sense in a policy and climate change way, but they run into problems with real people. Winning might be harder now.
Billions were spent on Katrina recovery, so the question is always, are we safe now? The answer has always been “maybe,” but no one in this area wants to endure a trial by water. A researcher from Rice University in Houston wrote an op-ed about near misses in Texas on the recent storms, but his warning fits the Katrina footprint as well. In his key insight he noted that in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan after the tsunami surge, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission now says that floodwalls need to thirty-feet high in order to prevent surges knocking out energy plants. The same goes for chemical and petroleum refineries, as we learned in the Harvey fires outside of Houston and now the similar plant fire in Westlake, Louisiana abutting Lake Charles, that bore the brunt of Hurricane Laura. Frighteningly, the Corps of Engineers is still using the fifteen-foot standard that they adopted after Katrina. We seem unable to prepare for the next storm, when we are still learning from the last ones.
There was an article in the local paper noting the progress in the New Orleans area since Katrina. It was a solid piece of reporting, despite as one organizer mentioned to me that it ignored “the race and class war” that has been engaged in full force since the storm.
Climate may be the new fight, but the old ones still linger on in every community no matter what the weather.