Ida illustrates how death tolls are declining from natural disasters
In today’s newsletter, the levees held; thousands flee California’s fires; a victory for wetlands; how trees make us smarter; wisdom by Sylvia Earle; and curbing invasive species ... by eating them.
This article is an adaptation of our weekly Planet Possible newsletter that was originally sent out on August 31, 2021. Want this in your inbox? Sign up here.
By Robert Kunzig, ENVIRONMENT Executive Editor
Traffic on I-10 in New Orleans was stopped in both directions on Saturday, as residents of the city fled east and west to escape the path of Hurricane Ida. By Monday night, New Orleans was entering its second night of darkness, as the entire city and more than a million people in Louisiana faced life without electricity, some of them perhaps for weeks. Hospitals full of COVID patients were running on backup generators. So were the pumps needed to dry the city out after the torrential rains dropped by Ida (pictured above, on Sunday).
Meanwhile, in California, traffic was stalled on the northbound side of Highway 50 out of South Lake Tahoe, as residents there fled the Caldor Fire and the real risk that its flames might engulf the town.
It was another summer weekend in 2021.
The pumps in New Orleans worked, though, at least so far—as did the reinforced levees and the enormous flood barrier that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built across Lake Borgne after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The monstrous storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico that year inundated the city; in the whole region, more than 1,800 people died. That didn’t happen this year. The death toll is still climbing in Louisiana—some areas to the south and west of New Orleans that were badly damaged are still out of touch—but as of Tuesday morning it was still in the single digits, after a direct hit by a Category 4 hurricane. (Pictured below, reopening a levee in Golden Meadow, Louisiana.)
The silver lining in New Orleans is an example of a worldwide trend: Globally, the number of deaths from natural disasters, which fluctuates sharply from year to year, has trended way down in recent decades. That’s true in absolute terms, and even more so when calculated as a percentage of global population, which has dramatically increased during the same period. Humans are smart. We can adapt and learn to protect ourselves.
Within limits, of course—and there is no question, as the recent IPCC report made plain, that climate change is probing those limits. It’s intensifying hurricanes in the Gulf, for example, and intensifying drought in California and elsewhere in the West, which makes the fire season there more dangerous.
“How many ‘natural’ disasters can one city endure?” A few days before Ida hit, my colleague Sarah Gibbens asked that question about another Louisiana city, Lake Charles. It was hit by two hurricanes in 2020. Another storm this past May dropped 18 inches of rain and created a 1,000-year flood on the city. Mercifully, Lake Charles escaped the worst of Ida—but the community has been struggling, as pictured below. Gibbens spoke to one couple, the Jolivettes, who’ve been living in their tool shed since Hurricane Laura hit last August. She spoke to the mayor, Nic Hunter, about just how hard it is to get public attention and federal assistance when the storm is gone and you’re not New Orleans.
After Hurricane Katrina, as Gibbens and Laura Parker write for Nat Geo this week, the population of New Orleans fell by more than half, from 485,000 to 230,000. By the time Ida struck, it had crept back up to 384,000, gentrifying as it did—but the city was suffering badly from COVID-19 and high unemployment.
On Monday, with the lights and the air-conditioning out indefinitely, Mayor LaToya Cantrell urged all the people who had evacuated ahead of the storm not to come back, at least for now. It’s too soon to have any real notion of what long-term effects Ida will have on New Orleans. The one thing that’s clear is that those levees will need reinforcing again soon.
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- How to cope with your anxiety about climate change
- Nation’s first hydrogen-powered ferry launches in Washington State
- U.S. judge throws out federal rule that had allowed the draining and filling of streams, marshes, and wetlands
- Bangladesh is more resilient against climate disaster than you think
- How to fight microplastic pollution, with vegetable oil and magnets
How trees can make us smarter: A regular infusion of nature—in particular, seeing and being around trees—could help bolster kids’ thinking and reasoning skills, Nat Geo reports. The good news is that kids can get daily exposure to trees or other nature, regardless of whether they live in the city or suburbs.
What you can do to discover the wild in any neighborhood:
• Quietly follow a squirrel or other animal for as long as you can. Where does it go? What does it do?
• Track how far you can walk without making a single bird fly off.
• Snap pictures of 10 animals, each one smaller than the last.
• Sit quietly under a tree. Or climb one. What sights, sounds, and smells do you notice?
• Go on a bird stakeout.
• Pick up paint swatches from the hardware store and try to match the colors to things you find in nature.
• If your kids are into it (and if you can handle it), investigate the “murder” of a woodland critter.
Glaciers are vanishing, patterns of water are changing: Climate change has begun warming cold-water lakes, rivers, and streams around the world. As these waters heat up, many fish that now live in them will be in trouble. Which means fishing is in trouble, too, Christopher Solomon reports for Nat Geo. (Above, a brook trout, swims in a Virginia river. The fish needs cold water to thrive—and at the current rate of climate change it may no longer be found in Virginia by 2080.)
IN A FEW WORDS
‘From problem to plate’: Would you eat an invasive species? There’s a world of environmentally destructive, non-native plants and animals—from kudzu to feral hogs—that are increasingly gracing southern tables as conservationists are collaborating with chefs, Nat Geo reports. There also are annual “invasivore” cook-offs in Oregon, and invasive-crayfish boils around the Great Lakes. Smoked wild boar chop with applesauce is among the recipes in Austin-based chef Jesse Griffiths’ upcoming The Hog Book: A Chef’s Guide to Hunting, Preparing, and Cooking Wild Pigs.
Subscriber exclusive: How these threatened animals can bounce back
We hope you liked today’s Planet Possible newsletter. This was edited and curated by Monica Williams and David Beard, and photographs were selected by Heather Kim. Have any suggestions for helping the planet or links to such stories? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for stopping by!