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The Climate Crisis Hits New Orleans, Again

Jul 12, 2019

By Sean Kennedy, LCV Research Director

All across the country, communities, particularly communities of color and those with lower incomes, are finding themselves face-to-face with the impacts of climate change. Wildfires. Hurricanes. Floods. Heat. Poor air quality. As the Fourth National Climate Assessment details, the threats of climate change are geographically expansive and becoming more frequent—we are truly in the midst of a climate crisis. And at this very moment, New Orleans, a city that has spent a decade recovering and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, is again feeling the very real pains of climate change.This is more than just a scientific report warning us about what could happen. This is what climate change looks like right now, and will continue to look like unless our lawmakers take bold action.

The Current State of Flooding in New Orleans 

Already, the levees protecting New Orleans are holding back a swollen Mississippi River. In fact, some parts of the river in Louisiana have been continuously flooding since February, surpassing records set in 1927 for the longest-lasting flood.  And this flooding is, in part, due to the  record-breaking spring rainfall and flooding experienced in the upper Midwest, which was driven by climate change and is now flowing downriver to New Orleans.



In addition to dealing with the heavy upstream precipitation, climate change is driving extreme rainfall downstream as well, situating New Orleans in a triple threat of climate-fueled rainfall. The southeast United States has seen a 16% increase in extreme precipitation events in recent years. On Wednesday morning, severe thunderstorms drenched the New Orleans area directly, causing widespread flooding with more than six inches of rain in just a few hours and leaving tens of thousands of homes and businesses without power.



The Climate Impacts on the Very Near Horizon

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Barry is forming in the Gulf of Mexico and is currently projected to hit Southern Louisiana as a Category 1 Hurricane by Saturday evening. Unusually warm water in the Gulf—up to 4°F above normal—are helping fuel Barry because hurricanes are basically fueled by warm water.  As the gulf coast saw in 2017 with Hurricane Harvey, rainfall is among the biggest threats when a hurricane comes ashore, and given the current saturation and flooding in New Orleans, more rainfall could be devastating to this community.  We cannot afford another Katrina, another Harvey, another Maria. 

But quite frankly, given the conditions, another climate-fueled disaster is not unlikely. Current projections estimate that this storm could bring up to 18 inches of rain to coastal Louisiana, enough to bring the mighty Mississippi to one of its highest crests on record, dangerously close to topping levees. Hurricane Harvey’s record-breaking rainfall was compounded by warmer surface water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. This June, water temperatures already reached near-record highs in the Gulf of Mexico and remain well above the 80-degree threshold needed to fuel a dangerous hurricane.

 The Long-term Impacts for the New Orleans Community

The long-term outlook for the New Orleans area continues to be bleak and the impacts will be especially harsh on a city that is 69% people of color and has the highest poverty rate among major US metropolitan areas. Within the coming century, it is estimated that more than 500,000 people—more than one third of the current population—will be forced to flee the New Orleans area due to rising sea levels. Already, $48 million has been spent relocating the Native American residents of Isle de Jean Charles in a move described as America’s first climate refugee resettlement.

According to data from the Climate Impact Lab, if we fail to take action to address carbon emissions, by the end of this century, Orleans Parish can expect to see economic losses of 8.85% of the parish’s GDP each year. Energy costs will increase by 13%, and mortality rates will increase by an additional 34.4 deaths per 100,000 people each year.  This would all be a result of climate change. 


Most of this data is easily glossed over as simply numbers on a spreadsheet or alarmist warnings of a dire future that may or may not come true, but the situation facing New Orleans today is real and it is happening right now. As images began popping up on social media showing people wading through the already-flooding streets of New Orleans, the governor declared a state of emergency on Wednesday ahead of the approaching storm forming in the Gulf.

The people of New Orleans are bearing the brunt of climate change on multiple fronts, especially low income communities of color who are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. These are real world impacts that real people are feeling right now, and we have less than 12 years to take bold action before the consequences become irreversible. This is exactly why we need to demand our leaders step forward with comprehensive plans to address the immediate and future threats posed by climate change.