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Imagine if We Listened to Scientists Before the Hurricane

Climate and weather science have made impressive advancements in the 15 years since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in their ability to track these storms and identify how climate change influences their formation and ferocity.

Yet the United States is still woefully unprepared. Our coastlines in many places are overbuilt and lack defenses against storm surge and flooding from heavy rains. And the response in the hours and days after these storms hit is often slow and inadequate.

We can change this. To do so, politicians should turn to the scientists who study these storms and how to protect against the catastrophic damage they can inflict.

Since Katrina, many scientists have focused their careers on assessing the vulnerability of the Gulf Coast and other coastlines to major hurricanes and have spent years assembling government-funded research teams of fellow university scientists, restoration management experts and university-affiliated coastal extension advisers.

They have deep local and geographic expertise and understand that hurricane dangers vary across landscapes, so adequately protecting one location will not necessarily protect another. They know, for example, the greatest risk to New Orleans is typically storm surge, but that more rural areas in western Louisiana face more danger from wind extremes because their swamplands are capable of absorbing some storm surge.

They know which bridges and highways are susceptible to the most serious damage and which communities could be cut off and isolated. They know where industrial waste is at risk of washing into a neighborhood or polluting groundwater.

In other words, they know a lot.

The problem is, this expertise does not always find its way to the elected officials and other policymakers responsible for planning and responding to these storms.

One way to change that would be to develop specific, localized storm response teams of scientists and local emergency management officials. These teams would be overseen by a central manager who has a direct line to elected officials. They would advise on how to prepare for hurricanes, how to limit damage and how to keep people safe if one of the region’s many petrochemical facilities is hit, for instance, or if electricity is knocked out for days or weeks.

Credit…William Widmer for The New York Times

When community members know more about how to protect their homes and businesses, and how to rebuild efficiently, they become more resilient to disaster. But that is not what’s happening.

Within hours of Hurricane Laura’s landfall last month, for instance, local news reported two fires at chemical plants in Westlake, La. Local residents were instructed to “close their doors and windows and turn off their air-conditioners.”

This guidance was useless. Predictably, Laura left many Westlake residents without roofs, walls or electricity. Even after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 underscored the threat that these storms pose to petrochemical plants along the Gulf Coast, the region is still not prepared.

Elected officials are not required or expected to have expertise in disaster mitigation. But they should be expected to seek and act on advice from experts. To their credit, officials and emergency managers in Texas and Louisiana listened when the National Hurricane Center told them to begin preparing to evacuate coastal communities along the Texas-Louisiana border as two hurricanes closed in last month.

Over four days, 1.5 million people evacuated from the coast. So far, there are more than two dozen confirmed deaths in Louisiana from Hurricane Laura and its aftermath, many caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from generators. Though tragic, that number is low considering Laura was a Category 4 storm with sustained winds over 130 miles per hour and capable of inflicting “catastrophic damage,” according to the National Hurricane Center.

Listening to scientists saved lives.

Imagine if we applied that kind of expertise and political decision-making to the myriad challenges that living in a hurricane zone brings: where we build, how we make what we’ve built resilient and how we prepare residents for storms of growing strength. Basing policy on the best available science will be even more critical as the climate changes.

The warming climate is giving storms more muscle. Just 24 hours before landfall, Laura’s wind speeds increased to 125 m.p.h. from 75 m.p.h., reaching 150 m.p.h. by the time the eyewall crushed the coastal town of Cameron. As was the case with Laura, warmer-than-normal waters near the coast make it more likely that a tropical system will have the power it needs to turn into a major hurricane.

Research by me and one of my graduate students, Kathleen Benedetto, shows more rapid intensification of storms over the past century, and they are reaching their peak intensities closer to the Gulf Coast. Pairing this understanding with the risk of damage to petrochemical plants along the coast means we need plans to protect populations that are exceptionally vulnerable to industrial disasters from major storms.

Extreme rain like what we saw during Hurricanes Harvey, when 51.88 inches fell in an area of Houston (a North American record), and Florence in 2018, which dropped 20 to 30 inches of rain in parts of North Carolina, is also part of our new normal. This is because warmer air has an increased capacity to carry water. These storms are now dropping trillions of gallons of water in mere days — one reason that from 2016 to 2018, flooding from rainfall overtook storm surge as the greatest cause of death from hurricanes.

We can see, and scientists confirm, that the effects of climate change are severe and happening. We have to plan for them. Scientists and communities have solutions. They must be empowered by our leaders to help them make the changes we so desperately need.

Jill C. Trepanier is an associate professor of geography at Louisiana State University. Her research is focused on extreme tropical cyclone climatology.

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