UC Berkeley News: When Extreme Events Are No Longer A Rare: Lessons From Hurricane Ida


When Hurricane Ida struck Louisiana late last month, bringing storm surges of 10 to 15 feet and record winds, many wondered if New Orleans’ levee system – newly rebuilt at a cost of around $ 14.5 billion – would be strong enough to prevent the catastrophic flooding that flooded the city following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

When Hurricane Ida struck Louisiana late last month, bringing storm surges of 10 to 15 feet and record winds, many wondered if New Orleans’ levee system – newly rebuilt at a cost of around $ 14.5 billion – would be strong enough to prevent the catastrophic flooding that flooded the city following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The levees appear to have held up – but three weeks later, many Louisiana residents remain without power.

To learn more about the impact of Hurricane Ida – and how it compares to the impact of Hurricane Katrina 16 years ago – Berkeley News spoke with professor of civil and environmental engineering Adda Athanasopoulos-Zekkos, who visited Louisiana last week as part of a team of engineers organized by the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance (GEER) association of the National Science Foundation.

The team spent three days touring the southeastern corner of Louisiana, collecting photographs, videos and other material on the hurricane’s impact on the state’s levees and electrical systems. They will come back later in the month for a more in-depth assessment.

Athanasopoulos-Zekkos, who also visited Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina as part of a previous GEER team, shared her observations from the recent visit and what she thinks these disasters can teach us about climate resilience.

What are your first impressions of the impacts of Hurricane Ida on Louisiana?

One of the most important observations is that the levee system that protects the city of New Orleans – and which failed in several places after Hurricane Katrina – worked as intended in this event. It was a very powerful hurricane that loaded the system with storm surges and winds, and it behaved very well. We saw a lot of flooding and a few partial dykes in Grand Isle where Ida made landfall. But these are not federally owned and operated dikes and are not necessarily built to the same standards.

However, the energy and lack of electricity will likely be the main story of Hurricane Ida. It’s something we’ve seen everywhere, just knocked over poles, cut wires lying on the ground. And there are so many people working to put this system back in place. Everywhere we drove there were trucks with workers from Entergy, the local power company and others as well, trying to get that infrastructure back in place. We should also keep in mind that it is very hot and humid in Louisiana right now. Lack of electricity means lack of access to air conditioning, for example, and if you’re trying to pump water, that means you need to have a back-up generator to do so.

It appears that much of the media coverage of Hurricane Ida focused on the impacts of the massive blackout and on the people suffering with nothing like air conditioning. Did your team observe any other impacts that haven’t received as much coverage, or that you think might surprise people?

Many people are still being asked to be very careful with the use of clean water, for example, and not to overload this system, so that everyone can have access to clean water.

Another important question is what happens to all the hurricane debris. It’s amazing to walk through neighborhoods and see these piles – almost mountains – of debris. And that includes everything from cut tree branches and organic debris to household debris, because basically anything that was in a flooded house can no longer be used. We’ve seen everything in the streets in piles, from refrigerators and furniture to clothes, children’s toys and even appliances and appliances.

One of my colleagues, Associate Professor Navid Jafari of Louisiana State University, who is my co-lead on the project, told me that some of these events produce the same amount of waste that this area would normally have created in one. year. In the past, if you had one of these events every 50 years, it could be argued that a country like the United States would be able to adapt to this. But now with everything that’s going on – with the wildfires in the west, flooding in the east, and hurricanes in the south – I think we really have to start wondering where all this debris is going.

I imagine that some of this waste could also be dangerous or toxic.

Ah, absolutely. A lot of those areas were under 10, 11, 12 feet of water. And they included gas stations, cemeteries and many other things that are now seeping into this water table.

What do you think we have learned about dealing with these climate disasters in the 16 years between Hurricane Katrina and Ida? What other protections do we need to put in place?

With Hurricane Katrina, the highlight was all the dike failures and all the things the Army Corps of Engineers changed as a result of that event. And this includes both the physical infrastructure, but also the organizational infrastructure within the agency itself. For example, ensuring that there are multiple levels of oversight for different tasks and having a clearer organizational structure in terms of who is responsible for what. I think it has also improved dramatically and is working better right now.

However, there are many effects that we still need to take a closer look at. We’re still trying to collect data, for example, on the three main pipelines that bring crude oil through Port Fourchon. We have unconfirmed reports that parts of this pipeline system may have been affected. And when those pipelines are shut down, which was the case with any of the three, it can be felt as a gas shortage or a spike in prices in other areas. So all of a sudden you’re paying more for gasoline in Michigan because of an event that happened in Louisiana.

And it shows how connected all of these systems are and how we learn to depend on parts of the infrastructure that may not even be physically close to us. It’s really important to understand these interdependencies and try to have backup plans and redundancies and various layers of protection. I think that’s what a lot of people are going to be looking at, especially with the failure of electricity delivery in the city.

As a society, it seems like we have a habit of waiting for infrastructure to fail before addressing its vulnerabilities. As climate change increases the likelihood of extreme weather events, what do you think it will take to start really planning ahead for these risks?

I think you raise a great point, and that’s why it’s so important to have diverse, multidisciplinary teams working together. In order for us to make progress in dealing with these disasters effectively and smoothly, without making communities worse and without forcibly changing their way of life, we need to have everyone seated around the table, including engineers, stakeholders, community representatives, scientists and policy makers, so that we can finally say, “OK, this is what we’ve been faced with for the last 10 or 20 years. How do we put it all together and make sure that we are really more resilient as a society and that we don’t have to wait every time for the next event to learn a new lesson? “

And it’s going to continue to happen to some extent, but there’s a lot of information now available that should allow us to hold ourselves at a very high level and say, “Should we have known better?”

Do you have any examples of what more resilient systems would look like?

Well, for example, in the case of Hurricane Ida, that would have meant that there was a back-up system to provide electricity. When transmission pylons or central electricity delivery points are dismantled, it is not only a nuisance for certain neighborhoods. This becomes dangerous, as it can affect many other components of the system, such as the delivery of health care or the ability to operate water pumps. The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, has back-up generators for the water pumps that run in the three main canals that go into the heart of New Orleans. And so, we have to think, “OK, we have this back-up plan for the pumps, what’s the second layer that we need to protect?” How can we make sure that we can continue to provide electricity to our hospitals? How can we continue to get electricity through the transmission system so that the traffic lights keep working, so that people can always safely go where they need to go? “

How can people begin to think more critically about the risks we face as a result of climate change, both individually and as a society?

I think this will be a very important conversation over the next few years. For me, I think it absolutely has to start in early childhood education. And by that I mean we have to make sure that all citizens of this country and the world really have to understand how infrastructure works – where the resources come from, where the dangers come from, how the dangers are from. more and more frequent and what this means for certain regions.

The Dutch provide a prime example of how to do this. In the Netherlands people live on land below sea level, so canals, pumping and flood protection are all part of their way of life. From kindergarten, children learn how the water, drainage and sewer system are built, and how different parts of the infrastructure contribute to their safety. So as they grow older they realize that flooding is a major threat to their country.

Unfortunately, given climate change, we all have to understand that there are going to be floods, there are going to be forest fires, there are going to be a lot of these extreme events that are no longer rare. And so, we need to make it a bigger part of our education. And I hope that by the time the next generation of engineers arrive here, it will be much easier to convince people of the importance of risk reduction, and they can move faster towards real solutions.

This press release was produced by UC Berkeley News. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.

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