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How to think about recovery from hurricanes, according to 3 experts

The remnants of Hurricane Ida hit the New York City area on Wednesday, flooding the region with record rains that flooded streets, subways and basements. New York and New Jersey declared a state of emergency, and officials in the northeast had reported more than two dozen deaths by Thursday afternoon. Ida, which landed in Louisiana on Sunday, was blamed for the fifth largest hurricane in US history and has been blamed for deaths in seven states. The toll is likely to rise as damage surveys continue.

Ida is one of many summer disasters – including deadly heatwaves and catastrophic fires – that are reminding Americans that the climate crisis is already here. "We face some really challenging questions in Louisiana and the United States," Andy Horowitz, a Tulane University historian who wrote Katrina: A History, 1915-2015, told Vox on Monday, the day after the storm hit his hometown swept New Orleans. "I think this should basically scare the shit out of us."

New York City's freeways, streets and subway have been closed due to strong winds and rain from the remnants of Hurricane Ida.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Coastal communities desperately need to strengthen infrastructure, from levees to levees to subway systems, and some need to consider the much more drastic move of relocation, Horowitz said. At a time of worsening storms and rising sea levels, these conversations cannot be confined to the Gulf Coast. "We also talk about Staten Island," he said. “We're talking about the New Jersey coast. We are basically talking about anyone who can go to the water. "

The story of disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Horowitz said, can help us understand America's possible future – both its vulnerabilities and its path to recovery. He said policy responses, from life-saving investments in infrastructure to ambitious climate policies that could eventually stabilize global temperatures, should be comprehensive and swift.

In the age of climate change, a future worth living in will not only depend on physical infrastructure, but also on social support systems and a democratic and unrelenting disaster recovery process, experts told Vox. Khalil Shahyd, a native of Louisiana and senior policy advisor on justice and the environment for the Natural Resources Defense Council, believes that this process should give people priority over property.

Human choices have created a basis for vulnerability

Two days before Hurricane Ida landed in Louisiana, Horowitz was giving a class entitled "The Climate Crisis". Via video chat from his home in New Orleans, he urged his students to close their eyes and think about what the climate crisis meant for them.

The exercise was supposed to be theoretical, but Horowitz had to remember that his shirt was wet with sweat: he'd spent the morning moving patio furniture so Hurricane Ida wouldn't turn it into projectiles. He also considered what he would do that afternoon: pick up his two young children, evacuate the city, and drive to a rental apartment in Birmingham, Alabama.

Homes, shops and streets are flooded after Hurricane Ida in LaPlace, Louisiana.

Gerald Herbert / AP

The U.S. Gulf Coast is vulnerable to deadly hurricanes like Katrina and Ida for a variety of reasons, many of which were man-made, as my colleagues Umair Irfan and Benji Jones reported this week. Sea and air temperatures rise because humans burn fossil fuels, and rising temperatures can add more energy and water vapor to storms. The state's oil and gas industry has contributed to a boom in low-lying waterfront construction, even as rising sea levels wash away parts of the Louisiana coast. Color communities are often at the forefront.

"There is nothing natural or inevitable about these weak points," Horowitz told Vox. Hurricanes should draw our attention to human decisions, he said: our decisions about where to build, which communities can settle on plateaus or behind levees, who should control shared resources like power grids. (Louisiana's private utility Entergy suffered "catastrophic transmission damage" during Hurricane Ida that left a million people without electricity during a heat consultation; the company's backup gas-fired power plant, which was rammed through a local permit process with the help of paid actors, failed Rescue.)

When Shahyd saw the news last week that Hurricane Ida would hit New Orleans, he had flashbacks to watch from a distance as Hurricane Katrina approached the city. "You just get this fear," he said from Washington, DC. "Do I have to watch my city drown again?"

Most of Shahyd's family was evacuated because of Hurricane Ida, but one of his uncles was left in a mobile home in Morgan City and one of his brothers was left in Metairie because of another ongoing disaster – the Covid-19 pandemic. The brother quarantined himself at home fearing that his son, who is 12 years old and vaccinated against Covid-19, had a breakthrough infection. "For them the timing couldn't have been worse," Shahyd told me. "My brother said that he has never seen so much rain in his life."

National disasters like Covid-19 and Hurricane Ida are "aggravating crises," said Allison Plyer, chief demographer for the nonprofit The Data Center in Louisiana. "That makes the trauma worse." The difficulties are both psychological and practical: for many, 2021 was another year of financial instability, Plyer added.

Disasters are particularly catastrophic when mapped to poverty and inequality, as was the case with both Katrina and Ida. "The most important thing to be resilient in a disaster is some savings in the bank so you can fill up your car and maybe pay for a hotel room," Plyer said. But every fifth household in New Orleans does not have access to a vehicle, she added, making evacuation extremely difficult.

New Orleans, B.W. Cooper (below), was demolished after Hurricane Katrina and replaced with Marrero Commons, a mixed-income community, two-story townhouse-style buildings.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

New Orleans was an uneven place before Hurricane Katrina. But more than a decade after the hurricane, the problem had worsened. Twenty-six percent of households in New Orleans – and more than a third of black households – had no net worth, according to a 2016 report by the nonprofit Prosperity Now. The same report showed that the unemployment rate for black households was three times that of white households. More than 31 percent of black households earned below the poverty line – six times that of white households.

The growing inequality results in large part from national political decisions, Plyer emphasized. "What drives inequality is federal politics, not local politics," she said. "This acceleration of inequality after Katrina stood in the national context of the acceleration of inequality."

In a largely black city like New Orleans, inequality is closely linked to structural racism, Shahyd said. "The persistence, maintenance and maintenance of poverty are the most outrageous effects of racism," with the exception of police killings, he said. “There is no better illustration of this fact than the city of New Orleans – a city so celebrated, a city so loved, a city that produces so much economic, spiritual and cultural value. It depends on the impoverishment of many of its inhabitants. "

Disaster relief is climate policy

Hurricane Katrina helped uncover a pattern for American disasters: "Disasters accelerate pre-existing trends and accelerate inequality," Plyer said. Covid-19 has followed that trend, she said, and this summer's disasters like Hurricane Ida are likely to do too – unless we do something about it together.

In 2006, about a year after Hurricane Katrina, four researchers published a perspective in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences that looked at 60 years of New Orleans history and ended with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans, the storm accelerated population and income declines, the paper closed – not least because federal support was arriving disastrously slow and local recovery policies were being mismanaged.

The relief that came was not shared equally. The post-Katrina policy supported homeowners, even though tenants – who tend to have lower incomes – made up half of New Orleans' residents. "During the rapid recovery, appropriate attention was paid to the needs of evacuees living in rental apartments, especially in public housing," the 2006 study says.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency when Ida, demoted to a tropical storm, caused floods and power outages across the state.

Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images

Shahyd added that developers and landowners had an overwhelming impact on rebuilding New Orleans: "If you are not a landowner, then you are not eligible for much of the investment and resources that go into disaster recovery downstream." He fears that this pattern could repeat itself after Hurricane Ida.

"I think what I fear most is that we will have this kind of forced evacuation and depopulation of the city again," said Shahyd. "As many of us ponder rest and recovery and return home, other people will see this rapid, forced depopulation as an opportunity to rethink urban space."

Climate policy should be an integral part of recovery, he added. "Support for oil and gas is a bipartisan issue in Louisiana," said Shahyd. Louisiana Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards has promised to reduce fossil fuel pollution, but has also defied some of President Biden's climate policies and taken steps to protect the fossil fuel industry. (The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment.)

"Louisiana will continue to be hit by bigger and more frequent storms, and then it will need state emergency declarations and all of those federal resources – while we keep pumping the oil, upgrading the gas, fossil fuels as the dominant sector of our economy," said Shahyd. "The state must begin to take on more responsibility."

Regarding climate change, Horowitz added, "No serious political solution is currently being considered in the US that might be too big for the challenge."

Investing in a safer and more livable world

Plyer lives in Louisiana, but she spent the week following the news of the storm from her sister's home in New Jersey. On Wednesday, Ida reached them all the way from the Gulf of Mexico and spent the night cleaning water from a neighbor's basement. At least one person died in the district where their sister lives.

"The good news is that we now have the technology to really see these hurricanes coming," said Plyer. "The bad news is that we haven't invested in infrastructure and equity to make sure our communities are resilient in the face of these disasters."

Despite all the reasons for the pessimism in American history, Plyer said she had found cause for hope: "There are some examples of places hit by disasters that broke their historical paths."

This process of changing the future depends on three things, she continued. First, communities should take advantage of the disruption in the status quo to transform key institutions. Second, they should use large renovation investments to strengthen these institutions. And third, they should take advantage of new opportunities, such as renewable energies.

Due to the risk of wildfire flames spreading from the Caldor Fire, evacuation orders were issued for all of South Lake Tahoe, California on August 30th.

Brontë Wittpenn / San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

As disasters hit more and more parts of the United States, from California to Louisiana to New Jersey, more places will struggle with climate change and try to recover from shocks in ways that increase resilience. "The future is here," said Pyer. "We need to prepare for climate change and have the infrastructure, housing and support systems we need to adapt."

And while communities prepare for the worst and do their best to recover from disasters, they should empower local residents to make decisions for themselves, Shahyd and Horowitz said.

The value of a city like New Orleans, said Shahyd, "is not based on its properties, but on its people." Community restoration should raise the voices of the most vulnerable residents, he said, and leave them a choice of whether to return and rebuild or move. "When we organize people, they represent themselves."

"What seems most important to me is that we tirelessly focus on the legitimacy of a democratic process that brings about these decisions," said Horowitz. "People have to feel the collective authorship of these decisions."

Disaster relief and climate adaptation sound scary, Horowitz continued, but they can also be hopeful. "When you think about what the solutions could be, they are often frighteningly phrased about displacement or withdrawal or job loss," he said. "But in fact the solution, the reparation for the climate crisis, would create a safer, more viable, more livable and more humane world."

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