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WEATHERPROOFING A CITY

How New Orleans’ infrastructure held up to Hurricane Ida

a dimly-lit multi-story hospital is all dark except for few lights in the emergency room on the ground floor
REUTERS/Leah Millis
Lights out in the Crescent City.
  • Camille Squires
By Camille Squires

Cities reporter

Published

On the morning of Aug. 30, residents of southeastern Louisiana awoke to assess the damage wrought by Hurricane Ida that roared ashore the previous night. Streets were flooded, utility poles leaned precipitously, and entire buildings sat in piles of rubble, felled by 150 mile per hour winds.  

But the city’s extensive flood protection measures withstood the storm. A $14.5 billion storm protection system, built by the US Army Corps of Engineers after the city’s levees catastrophically failed in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, includes taller levees, seawalls, floodgates, pumps and drainage. The new system, designed to withstand an intense storm like Ida, survived. 

“We did not have another Katrina,” New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a press conference on Aug. 30. “And that’s something we should all be grateful for.”

But the city’s electricity grid did not fare nearly as well. The winds and rain from the Category 4 storm brought down all eight of the city’s high-voltage transmission lines, knocking out power for more than a million customers. Three days after the storm, hundreds of thousands of customers are still without electricity. The local utility company estimates that it could be weeks before power is fully restored.   

The success of New Orleans’ storm protection system was undercut by the failure of its central electricity grid, which poses a lasting threat as the city deals with sweltering heat.  It underscores the fact single-purpose infrastructure projects like storm barriers no longer make the cut. As storms and fires grow stronger in a warming world, so must the entire of infrastructure, including roads, power, buildings, and people need to be made resilient enough to withstand disasters.  Planning for such massive improvements requires a coordinated effort across multiple agencies and levels of government. 

Cities’ have tunnel vision on infrastructure

Today, climate-focused infrastructure projects in the US tend to be narrowly defined and managed by one or two agencies. State and local agencies plan them that way because that’s how the federal government pays for them, explains Hugh Roberts, senior vice president at the Water Institute of the Gulf, and previously an advisor on many cities’ climate resilience efforts. Cities and states may have comprehensive climate action plans, but much of the work is done a piece at a time. 

The structure of state agencies mirrors how federal agencies dispense funding:  a state transportation department receives funds from the federal Department of Transportation, a housing authority receives grants from Housing and Urban Development, and so on. This money then flows down to local governments as well. Some projects, like New Orleans’ levee system, are funded directly by federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers. While these structures are useful for funding targeted policies like highways, they impede the type of changes needed to prepare cities for more extreme weather. 

Public and private entities have deferred maintenance on critical infrastructure, while governments have failed to make investments to prepare for a changing climate.  The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the country’s outdated infrastructure a C- rating.

Aging electricity grids are on the front lines. Across the US, regional electric grids are ill-equipped for extreme climate events because investors and energy regulators have balked at costly upgrades, as my colleague Tim McDonnell explains. This is the case in New Orleans, where the idea to bury power lines underground after Katrina was dismissed due to cost. The city’s energy system has experienced frequent outages even without major storms, despite investments to make the grid more reliable. A natural gas-powered power plant opened explicitly to serve as a backup to other parts of the network failed during Hurricane Ida. 

Global warming means thinking beyond floods

In New Orleans, as in many coastal cities, preparing for climate-related disasters has often meant focusing primarily on large infrastructure projects to prevent water from inundating a city: blocking storms surges, and pumping water out. 

But Ida proved to be catastrophic even for a region well-acquainted with the impacts of hurricanes. As rising ocean temperatures lead to more strong storms like this one, cities cannot rely on flood walls alone to offer protection to people and property. A holistic approach to these events requires cities to plan for how different pieces of infrastructure—everything from electricity, to sewage, to roads and homes—can keep residents safe when water (inevitably) enters, and services fail.

“We can’t just say we want 50-foot levees,” says Johannes Westerink, an engineer who developed a storm modeling system used by the US Army Corps of Engineering. “The Army Corps did a great job [with the current levee system], but it’s not in their purview to tell people to build up. It’s not in their purview to tell power companies how to design their power distribution systems.”

Building climate coalitions in local government

Different states and cities in the US are starting to apply those lessons. Louisiana’s Watershed Initiative is the first in the state to bring multiple state agencies together for water and land management for flood prevention. In wildfire-ravaged northern California, the state utility PG&E announced this summer that it would bury 10,000 miles of power lines after its equipment sparked major fires in 2018 and 2019. California’s state government has a wildfire resilience program that funds projects for forest management and prescribed burns.  In April, the state also began funding a program to assist people with home hardening—retrofitting houses with more fire-resistant materials.

Cities are now creating the role of “chief resilience officer.” Their job is to assess the climate threats facing a city, and work across agencies and departments to devise solutions. The role, originally funded by a Rockefeller Foundation initiative from 2013, is now a permanent position in 24 US cities, and 72 cities worldwide have created comparable positions. New Orleans hired its first Chief Resilience Officer in 2019. 

“Different state and local agencies are going to have their focused mission, so you need someone like a chief resilience officer to bring these things together,” says Roberts at the Water Institute for the Gulf. “The grand challenge is that we don’t have enough money to develop infrastructure and plans that have single purposes.”

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