Levees Hold as Ida Moves Inland, But Infrastructure Concerns Remain

Image: 1st Sgt. Paul Meeker, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

As now Tropical Storm Ida moves inland, Louisiana residents are surveying Sunday’s damage. More than one million people are still without power as of Monday afternoon, and 25,000 workers from 32 states have mobilized to provide relief. Officials are celebrating the success of New Orleans’ updated levee system but still lament “catastrophic damage” caused by 150 mph winds, which tore through not only residential areas but also oil refineries and industrial sites. 

Why This Matters: Louisiana’s flood infrastructure updates have now been tested against a storm stronger, although smaller, than Hurricane Katrina. The results bode well for future climate adaptation infrastructure included in President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure package. Still, widespread power outages highlight the desperate need for updates to the nation’s power grids, which are now not only threatened by increased flooding and erratic weather in the Southeast but by heatwaves and growing power demand in the West. Climate experts say that as climate change worsens, storms like Ida will become stronger and more frequent, and the nation will have to learn from each storm to be ready for the next one.

Bad Behavior

Hurricane, now Tropical Storm, Ida exhibited many behaviors symptomatic of climate change as it approached the Gulf Coast. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), parts of the Gulf of Mexico are three to five degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th-century average, allowing Ida to pick up more water as it moved. Stagnant winds in the upper atmosphere allowed the ring of thunderstorms around the storm’s eye to whip into a frenzy. In less than 24 hours since it was identified as a Tropical depression, Ida was a Category 2 storm and moving toward Louisiana at 75 mph. 

Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls this rapid intensification a “canary in the mine” for climate change. “Things happen faster,” he said. “It’s getting to a larger velocity, and it’s taking less time to get there.” Emanuel says that devastating and powerful storms like Ida and Hurricane Harvey in 2017 could be six times more frequent by 2100.

A Treacherous Path

In addition to threatening residential areas, Ida carved a dangerous path through “Cancer Alley,” a strip of industrial sites housing toxic chemicals. On Sunday, the storm was predicted to pass over 590 sites containing hazardous materials, and nine oil refineries were forced to close or reduce production. “These kinds of toxic industries in the path of these storms are what we call accidents waiting to happen,” said John Rumpler, a senior director at Environment America, in an interview. Like the nation’s power grid, energy experts say that many oil refineries are incredibly outdated and not built to withstand ever-strengthening storms. Pavel Molchanov, an energy analyst at Raymond James, explains, “companies along the coast need to become more resilient because climate change is making hurricanes more frequent and more severe.”

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