President Barack Obama commemorated the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Thursday in New Orleans with a speech that made special mention of building resilience against climate change, despite earlier criticism by the state’s conservative governor for his planned remarks.
“We are going to see more extreme weather events as a result of climate change — deeper droughts, deadlier wildfires, stronger storms,” Obama said, adding that the government has been preparing for the change by investing in stronger levies, as well as restoring wetlands and other natural systems that are critical for storm protection.
Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, unleashed floods that killed nearly 2,000 people, left thousands of others homeless and caused an estimated $250 billion in damage. It was the costliest and most damaging storm in U.S. history.
Prior to Obama’s speech, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a long shot Republican presidential candidate who has expressed doubt about man-made climate change, told the president in a letter to reconsider his message.
The anniversary, Jindal wrote, is a time to mourn the dead, not bring up a topic that’s part of the “divisive political agenda of liberal environmental activism.”
“A lecture on climate change would do nothing to improve upon what we are already doing,” Jindal said in the letter.
As the Earth’s temperature rises, warmer weather adds energy to storms, increasing their severity. At the same time, rising sea levels make storm surges more destructive. This combination increases the likelihood of events like Hurricane Katrina for locations across the globe. In his speech on Thursday, Obama said U.S. cities ought to be prepared.
The city of New Orleans released its resilience strategy earlier this week, part of a joint effort with 100 cities to increase urban resilience to a changing climate, a press release by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. Among the 41 proposed actions were retrofitting infrastructure and improving storm-water management.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says it has spent $1.4 billion since 2009 in Louisiana and Mississippi for nearly 700 mitigation projects, including elevating homes and critical infrastructure, retrofitting government and residential structures and improving drainage.
The Obama administration hopes these types of climate projects could lessen the impact of future storms. “There’s no denying what scientists tell us, which is that there’s reason to be concerned about these storms getting worse and more violent,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday.
Resilience won't be cheap. A project meant to save the southeastern portion of Louisiana from sinking into the Gulf of Mexico would cost some $50 billion, ProPublica reported. About 2,000 square miles of land have already disappeared into the Gulf, and without action, another 1,750 square miles could be lost over the next 50 years, leaving New Orleans largely unprotected from storms, it added.
Bolstering natural geographic features would lessen a potential storm's impact on New Orleans by absorbing the energy of such storms. To that end, Obama said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has helped rebuild Gulf barrier island chains and natural wetlands.
Meanwhile, community-led organizations have taken their own steps in improving climate resilience, according to Tom Pepper, executive director of Common Ground Relief, a Lower Ninth Ward-based organization aimed at creating resilient Gulf Coast communities.
The group has been planting about 10,000 trees every year along with marsh grass in wetlands and barrier islands along the coast.
“We are working with various parishes, state and federal agencies to plant bottomland hardwood trees and marsh grasses to be the first line of defense in protecting the new levees that were constructed,” Pepper told Al Jazeera.
“There are lots of these little villages and towns and these people know the backwaters, marshes and bayous intimately and know where there’s erosion,” Pepper said. The group hopes to create a series of small nurseries from New Orleans down the Gulf Coast.
Pepper said the pilot project has been successful so far, and he hopes that some of the billions of federal dollars will go toward restoring native plant material that can absorb some of the effects of big storms. Such natural barriers will also take some of the pressure off of the new levees, Pepper said.
Although building such resilience is important, Pepper said, he dislikes the word because it “means something is going to happen again and again.”
It was a sentiment shared by Obama, who earlier told Louisiana radio station WLL: “We can build great levees. We can restore wetlands. But ultimately, what we also have to do is make sure that we don’t continue to see ocean levels rise, oceans getting warmer, storms getting stronger.”
With wire services