In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans became a different city: half the size, with a smaller Black population, fewer low-income residents, and more entrepreneurs. How Hurricane Ida, which roared into the Big Easy Sunday on Katrina’s 16th anniversary, will further rearrange life there depends on multiple factors—chief among them, how many billions are sent to clean up and how long it takes to restore power to more than a million customers who lost it.
Social scientists have been saying for decades that natural disasters only accelerate pre-existing trends and increase inequities. A city with a declining population before a disaster will continue to decline, just as a booming city will continue to boom, as San Francisco continued to boom after the earthquake in 1906.
In Ida’s case, the pre-existing trend that may reshape New Orleans is that the hurricane arrived 18 months into a pandemic that has ravaged the city’s tourist-based economy and driven its unemployment rate as high as 15.8 percent. And that was before the surge of the Delta variant that threatens to push all those statistics higher still. Louisiana has a low vaccination rate, slightly higher than 41 percent, and the Delta variant has created a shortage of hospital beds and medical staff across the state. Currently, there are 2,450 COVID patients in Louisiana hospitals.
“That’s a much higher number than we ever experienced in the first three waves,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a briefing Sunday. “It’s a very daunting situation. We’re concerned, as we have been for a long time, about staffing.”
Jim Cobb, an attorney and New Orleans native, who lost everything to the flooding after Katrina, also noted the pandemic as the central factor that will drive Ida’s aftermath.
“The lasting impact of Ida is that this hurricane comes on top of COVID, when we’re already on our ass economically,” Cobb said Sunday as he awaited Ida’s arrival at the home he rebuilt after Katrina. “People already can’t pay rent, they’re getting evicted and we’re throwing a Cat 4 hurricane as a log on that fire. My suspicion is it’s not going to burn well.”
A storm that ranks with the worst
Ida swept ashore just before noon local time on Sunday, making landfall west of Port Fourchon, the southernmost port in Louisiana’s oil and gas corridor. The storm carried a life-threatening storm surge that briefly reversed the flow of the Mississippi River and wind gusts as high as 179 miles per hour. Throughout the afternoon and into the night, Ida uprooted trees and crumpled roofs and other structures as it moved north just west of New Orleans. The storm knocked out all eight transmission lines that deliver power to greater New Orleans, causing “catastrophic transmission damage” and creating a load imbalance that left the entire region, including the city of New Orleans without power.
Entergy, the largest utility in the region, said it would make an assessment of the damage later Monday.
“The coming days and weeks are going to be extremely difficult for our state. Many people are going to be tested in ways we can only imagine today,” Gov. Edwards said. Entergy had warned on Sunday morning that customers in the direct path of the storm might expect to be without power for three weeks or more.
Ida intensified rapidly as it approached the Louisiana coast—a process that a 2019 study as well as the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said will become more common as a result of climate change.
Hurricanes need warm ocean water to grow, and as greenhouse gas emissions add more heat to the atmosphere, it warms the ocean. Sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are now as much as eight degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average in some parts. With warmer temperatures creating more fuel for hurricanes to feed off of, it loads the dice for stronger storms.
As Ida traveled over the Gulf, it rapidly strengthened from a storm that hadn't merited a name on Thursday to a Category 2 hurricane on Saturday night—then revved up overnight to a Category 4 hurricane at landfall with sustained winds of 150 mph.Intensifying in such a short time frame is “borderline unprecedented,” says Jill Trepanier, an expert on extreme weather at Louisiana State University.
“Our ocean temperatures are warmer, our atmosphere is warmer. Ida is making use of that warmth just like the other storms like Harvey, Irma, Michael,” says Trepanier. “Ida is another example of a changing face of hurricane intensity.” Until last year, when Hurricane Laura came ashore as a Cat 4 storm, Louisiana had not been struck by a Cat 4 in more than half a century, since Camille in 1969 and Betsy in 1965.
Hurricane Ida also caused flash flooding in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish as it unleashed torrents of rain, another characteristic of storms turbocharged by climate change seen in other recent hurricanes such as Harvey and Michael. Forecasters had predicted it would drop between 15 and 20 inches of rain in New Orleans and south to the coast.
As the storm weakens and moves inland, it will dump rain over parts of Tennessee that have recently seen deadly floods. With soil already saturated with water, additional heavy rainfall will make floods more likely.
Too few places are adapting to climate change with extreme weather in mind, with too little flood protection and insufficient drainage, says Craig Colton, a geographer at Louisiana State University.
When cities are exposed to disaster after disaster, they “start recovery from a lower point on the recovery curve, they face a longer climb to recovery, and have to fight harder for recovery funds,” he says.
Recovering from Katrina
Katrina underscored how badly New Orleans needed to update it’s infrastructure. Ida is more likely to shift the focus to how urgently cities need to adapt to climate change.
How communities go about recovering from disasters is crucial to avoid amplifying the pre-existing trends such as population loss or economic decline, says Allison Plyer, chief demographer at The Data Center, a nonprofit firm that has become the most respected source of statistics and data analysis about New Orleans and Louisiana.
“When Katrina hit, New Orleans did a lot to invest in key institutions and transform them, and a number of them are in much stronger shape than they were before Katrina,” she says. “We’ve improved the criminal justice system, the school system and housing. They are not where we need them to be yet, but they are substantially changed.”
The most important way to attract population is to grow jobs. Yet, there’s no perfect recipe for recovering it, she says.
“You need stores to reopen so residents will come back and know there’s a Home Depot there,” she says. “But you need residents to come back so that the Home Depot will reopen. Everything about recovery is chicken-or-egg.”
Katrina remains one of the costliest natural disasters in American history. The storm and subsequent failure of multiple levees flooded the New Orleans region and displaced more than a million people. More than 1,800 people died, and damages amounted to more than $100 billion. In the years since, more than $20 billion was spent fortifying 350 miles of levees, pumps, flood gates, and walls.
In 2005, before Katrina, the population of greater New Orleans was 485,000. A year later, it was 230,000. The region has steadily regained population in the years since; it is now 384,000, according to the 2021 Census. But that’s still 100,000 less than the pre-Katrina population.
The Black population is 54 percent, down from 66 percent before Katrina. The Latino population has doubled, from 15,000 to 30,000 today.
Like Katrina, Ida is likely to accelerate ongoing trends of New Orleans residents moving into suburbs around Lake Pontchartrain and city neighborhoods that are less likely to flood. They have become gentrified since Katrina.
“New Orleans provides an example of how cities respond to the calamitous events we’ll see with climate change,” says Colten. “We’ll see pulses of departures. Every time we have a big storm people will leave.”
One of the most significant factors in recovering from Ida will be if this new storm reverses gains New Orleans has made in recovering population. “I think New Orleans will remain a smaller city than it was in 2005,” says Colten.
But that may not be a bad thing, he adds. A smaller population means fewer people are at risk.