Watching Isaac


I survived Hurricane Andrew. I was living in Miami in 1992 when Andrew hit and blew away a good part of our house, most of our windows, trees, and some belongings to who knows where. Even though it’s been 20 years since Andrew and Isaac is a very small Category 1 storm versus Andrew’s Cat 5+, Hurricane Isaac still brings back some memories and a serves as a stark reminder of the power that Hurricanes can pack.  For the people of New Orleans, Isaac is a very real threat. One that is surely bringing back all of the tragic memories of the devastation caused when hurricane Katrina hit, flooding most of the city and turning the lives of its residents upside down.

It’s still shocking to think that so much of that devastation could have been prevented. Most of us were shocked to learn that the levee system designed to protect New Orleans was in such a sad state. Decisions not to install floodgates, weakened and poorly constructed levees and non-working city pump stations all contributed to the massive flooding that occurred during Hurricane Katrina.

Fortunately, since then, New Orleans has done much to turn the lessons learned from Katrina into protections for the city including for example, the impressive U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) $14.5 billion Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (HSDRRS) designed to “defend against a storm surge event that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year, or a 100-year storm.”

Image Credit: NASA GOES Project

A 100- year storm--wow! That would mean that most of us would not live to see two of these in our lifetimes. Yet many of us—myself included—have already seen (maybe even lived through) two of these. And while Isaac doesn’t seem to pack the same punch to be awarded this monicker it is a massive storm leading me to ask if these recent storms signal a new era for hurricanes.

Back when Katrina hit, I recall doing several interviews where I was asked: is global warming to blame? I answered as best I could echoing the scientists who knew the science: global warming doesn’t cause hurricanes but it does make them stronger. People seemed to care for a while.

Today, I was asked the same question and I have to admit that I gave the same answer—though more emphatically. These days it requires true effort to ignore the impacts of climate change: the record high temperatures this summer, record droughts and record low-sea ice, to name a few. So I’m eager to point out the very science that climate change deniers wish to bury and deny.

All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be. Global warming is already affecting hurricanes loading them with additional moisture, making for more intense rainfall. Take for example, 2011’s Hurricane Irene whose record rainfall was the main impact of the storm.

Global warming fuels more powerful and dangerous hurricanes. Warmer water in the oceans pumps more energy into tropical storms, making them stronger and potentially more destructive. Even with storms of the same intensity, future hurricanes will cause more damage as more rainfall and higher sea levels will make for greater storm surges, flooding, and erosion.

These impacts can be dealt with once we accept that stronger storms – the so-called 100-year storms—are no longer going to happen only rarely. Only then can we properly prepare to protect ourselves.

So as we all hold our collective breath and hope that the investments made in New Orleans protect the city from Isaac and “100 year storms” yet to come, let’s remember that hurricanes are a fact of life on the Gulf Coast and invariably, some turn deadly.

Putting in place green infrastructure to protect coastal cities, restoring wetlands as natural buffers to prevent flooding, and updating our storm water infrastructure can all help to protect residents from the impact and aftermath of these storms.

But preventing the extreme weather patterns caused by control the heat-trapping pollution that causes global warming will go even further. “Extensive scientific evidence that the dominant cause of the rapid change in climate of the past half century is human-induced” as the American Meteorological Society 2012 Revised Climate Change Statement pointed out this week, should not be taken solely as an indictment but as an opening for us to change our behavior to prevent further harm. Once we start to view this as an opportunity, we can start to take steps towards preventing more record-breaking storms, heat, drought, etc. while moving our country towards a clean energy future.