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Why Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast

Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana on Sunday the 16th. The storm tore roofs off buildings, flooded homes and left the entire city of New Orleans in the dark.

Ida is likely to be one of the worst extreme weather events of 2021, a year already growing with heat waves, forest fires, droughts and storms. "Hurricane Ida is one of the strongest storms to have ever hit Louisiana," said Governor John Bel Edwards in a statement on Sunday.

The storm is still swirling and turning east through Mississippi. Although Ida has been downgraded to a tropical storm, further devastation is expected. The nation will learn more about local impacts as communities regain access to electricity and spotty communications. Even when the winds have subsided, the massive storm surge is likely to last for days, hampering rescue and salvage work. So was the coronavirus pandemic: Less than half of Louisiana's population is vaccinated and 2,600 patients were hospitalized for Covid-19 when Ida hit land.

Part of the roof of a building is blown away in the rain and wind in New Orleans' French Quarter on August 29.

Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images

Vehicles are damaged after a building collapses in New Orleans.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

The size and eerie timing of Hurricane Ida make it impossible to avoid comparisons to Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 storm that killed at least 1,170 people and made Hurricane Harvey 2017 the most costly disaster in US history. While levees appear to have protected much of the state from Katrina-level floods, some similarities are likely to emerge: structural inequalities and vulnerabilities remain, and color communities remain at great risk from hurricanes like this one.

But much of Katrina's toll of human suffering and devastation became visible in the days and weeks after the storm, in part due to a botched relief effort. It will take time to find out if Louisiana, the city of New Orleans, and the United States as a whole have learned the lessons of Katrina before Ida.

"People think of some common topics when they think of hurricanes in New Orleans," including levees and the legacy of Hurricane Katrina, Lamar Gardere, executive director of the Louisiana nonprofit, wrote to Vox on Sunday shortly after the evacuation the city. "But every hurricane boils down to a story of infrastructure, inequality and climate change / coastal land loss."

"These are the same stories that affect much of our country, but they come into focus during these events with immediate and dramatic impact," added Gardere.

Cities along the Gulf Coast have spent billions in the last decade and a half to build their defenses – levees, levees, flood protection mechanisms. But the population has grown, the oceans have increased, and the planet has warmed. The threat of extreme weather is growing and it is becoming more difficult to adapt.

The factors fueling Hurricane Ida's destruction explained

The Gulf Coast is particularly vulnerable to tropical storms

Millions of people live on the US Gulf Coast, which is one of the fastest growing regions in the country and stretches across Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Between 2000 and 2016, the region's population grew 25.4 percent, compared to 14.8 percent in the U.S. as a whole.

This, in turn, has fueled a construction boom in homes, businesses, infrastructure and industrial facilities, particularly for the oil and gas sector. Ida landed near Port Fourchon, an oil and gas center that experienced some of the storm's most extreme winds and storm surges. Much of the new construction is in low-lying areas prone to coastal flooding, with some spots below sea level.

Two people in a lifeboat on a flooded street.

A resident was rescued by a first responder in LaPlace, Louisiana on August 30.

Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Parts of the Gulf Coast are sinking as the soft soil settles under heavy construction and land use changes, a phenomenon known as subsidence. The shoreline itself, which can act as a storm barrier, wears out as the rising sea erodes the coast. Changes to waterways such as the Mississippi have also reduced important sources of sediment for coastal replenishment.

All of this means that in the event of a disaster, many people and property are at risk. And Ida took a particularly destructive course through large metropolitan areas.

However, the risks are not evenly distributed. Many low-income communities and those populated by colored people have less protective infrastructure such as levees and levees, making them vulnerable to storms and rising water. People in these communities also often have the greatest difficulty avoiding the storm when struggling to find adequate money and shelter to evacuate.

2021 already looks like a worse hurricane season

In May, NOAA forecast that the US hurricane season, which runs from late May to late November, has a 60 percent chance of being “above normal”. So far, this prediction has come true. "After a record-breaking start, the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season shows no signs of easing as it enters the peak months ahead," NOAA administrator Rick Spinrad said in an August statement.

This year's season is below last year's record season, which was the busiest on record. But there are several factors this year that will fuel a more active year for tropical cyclones.

"Every hurricane boils down to a story about infrastructure, inequality and climate change / coastal land loss"

A key factor is usually sea surface temperature. Hurricanes need water that is at least 26 degrees Celsius or 79 degrees Fahrenheit, and the warmer the water gets, the more energy is available to form storms. Gulf water temperatures soared before Hurricane Ida, but North Atlantic sea surface temperatures have generally been close to average this year. Nevertheless, the forecasters expect a stronger West African monsoon, which will encourage the development of hurricanes.

Meteorologists also expect less vertical wind shear in the atmosphere, which are changes in wind speed and direction that can tear hurricanes apart before they form. Another factor that favors more active hurricane seasons: Since 1995, the Atlantic has been in the warm phase of decades of ebb and flow at sea temperatures, the so-called Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation.

The climate is changing, making hurricanes even more harmful

The planet is warming due to the emission of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels. This amplifies the raw materials of hurricanes and can aggravate storms.

While researchers are still analyzing the climate signals from Hurricane Ida, scientists have known for decades that climate change makes hurricanes worse for several reasons. Sea surface temperatures rise, which gives storms more energy and can increase their intensity.

"When the climate warms, we expect the upper limit of the intensity of a hurricane … to increase at a certain rate as it warms, and that has been known for 33 years," said Kerry Emanuel, professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said Vox last year.

Another way climate change is making hurricanes more destructive is to increase their rainfall. For every degree Celsius that the air warms up, the air absorbs about 7 percent more water. So warmer air means that more moisture is available for precipitation. Extreme rains are on the rise, and Ida soaked parts of Louisiana with up to 24 inches of rain.

A man helps a stranded motorist during floods in Biloxi, Mississippi, on August 30.

Sean Rayford / Getty Images

The rise in sea level due to the melting of ice caps and the thermal expansion of the water also lead to major storm surges. These coastal floods, driven by storm winds pushing water inland, are often the deadliest and most destructive element of hurricanes. Ida caused a storm surge up to 16 feet high.

Climate change is also rapidly intensifying further hurricanes. The NOAA defines rapid intensification as an increase in wind speed of 35 mph or more over 24 hours. Ida went from Category 2 strength (with winds up to 110 mph) to Category 4 (with winds up to 250 mph) in less than a day. Hurricanes tend to intensify quickly as they pass over a warm, deep, and calm body of water. These changes in wind speed can make the difference in whether a building survives or is destroyed by a hurricane.

Covid-19 makes the disaster worse

Experts have been warning for more than a year that a hurricane would pose unique challenges during a pandemic, and health officials fear more trouble could arise after Hurricane Ida.

"We have a situation where even if you go to the limit – overlaying a historic weather-environmental disaster – makes things much, much worse," Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, told CNN on Sunday.

Hospitals are grappling with power outages and many cannot relocate their patients because other medical facilities in the area are already full of Covid-19 patients.

It is difficult for evacuees in emergency shelters to maintain social distance. The risk of further transmission is high given the relatively low vaccination rates on the Gulf Coast and the spread of the more highly transmittable Delta variant.

Colored people, including Indigenous communities are at the forefront of Hurricane Ida

Hurricane Katrina took a devastating toll on communities of color, and proponents fear these communities will again suffer some of the worst Effects of Hurricane Ida.

Indigenous communities in the bayou have been hit by catastrophic flooding, said Donny Verdin, a member of the tribal council of the United Houma Nation. "We have people who stayed behind, their houses flooded and roofs blown away like in them," Verdin, who was evacuated to Texas on Saturday, told Vox on Monday.

The United Houma Nation is typically overlooked by federal aid, Verdin said, because it is not a federally recognized tribe. After Hurricane Katrina, he said his community relied on donations and nonprofits rather than federal government support. “We're left to our own devices,” he says. “The community usually pulls together and we're backing up. We did that forever. "

Storms and sea level rise due to climate change have pushed the tribes further inland, away from their traditional territories. Most of the Verdin community used to live directly on the coast: “We are people of water,” he said. After Katrina, three quarters of them moved inland, Verdin told Vox.

Laplace, Louisiana residents inspect damage to their homes on Aug. 30.

Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images

A rescuer in waist-high water has one hand on an inflatable boat that is holding several people evacuated from their flooded neighborhood.

First aiders rescue residents of LaPlace from floods.

Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg via Getty Images

"The community is not as close as it used to be because people are more dispersed," he said. “The best scenario is that we can relocate our churches. The worst scenario is that they will be washed away. "

Relocating communities that have lived on the Louisiana coast for generations is costly. "Our access to natural resources and food security was everything to our sovereignty," said Monique Verdin (not a direct relationship with Donny Verdin), another member of the United Houma Nation who works with the Another Gulf is Possible community group. "When you take people away from the bayou, you literally rob them of the ability to feed themselves." She also said to Vox at the end of the day, "You can't run away from climate change."

Time will tell if the US has learned the lessons of Katrina

It's hard not to link Hurricane Ida to Hurricane Katrina, one of the costliest storms in US history. The storms landed on the same day of the year and in roughly the same place. They had similar wind speeds. They even gained strength by driving over a similar patch of warm seawater in the Gulf that propels hurricanes, the AP reported.

There are some important differences in the storms themselves – for example, Ida caused a weaker storm surge but had stronger winds. But even if all things are considered the same, Ida is likely to be far less devastating than the 2005 storm.

Katrina has been destructive in part because of structural problems with the region's dike system – many of which failed – and a botched government response to the crisis, as Vox ’German Lopez previously reported. This is how Lopez put it:

The government's response has been so incompetent that it allowed the worst of the disaster to continue, sometimes creating completely new, unnecessary problems. People will always face inevitable natural disasters, but poor government response and preparation can lead to many more deaths and immeasurable costs.

The U.S. government also failed to evacuate tens of thousands of people who couldn't afford to leave Louisiana before the storm hit, Lopez reported.

The levee system is much stronger today after Congress approved a $ 14.5 billion investment in storm protection following Hurricane Katrina. The Army Corps of Engineers has since built hundreds of miles of levees around New Orleans, Reuters reported, some of which are 9 meters high. They seem to be working, only a small number of dike failures have been reported outside the city. The governor said Monday that the state's storm protection system was working “extremely well” after previously declaring it was “built for this moment”. (His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

The details of the devastation from Hurricane Ida will become known in the coming days as officials investigate the damage and conduct search and rescue operations. "I expect the death toll will rise significantly during the day," the governor told MSNBC on Monday.

And if past hurricanes are any clue, the government's continued response to the storm – including its long-term consequences – will shape the region's recovery and resilience to future hurricanes.

There will be more storms and in a warming world they will get worse.

Daniel A. Gross contributed to this article with his reporting.

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