The months of August and September were generally storm-free, but the 2017-18 hurricane season set a number of records for the number of storms.
The unprecedented number of hurricanes of the 2017 season gave rise to national fears and panic, but no one seemed to understand why. Hurricane Harvey in the storm’s aftermath prompted New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to point to a problem that developed in more recent years: New Orleans is now one of the heaviest users of generators following Hurricane Katrina.
“Now you look at the hurricane season and you look at the number of lives that’ve been impacted. We’re the biggest generator of power in the state,” Landrieu said. “So we go into every storm with a high profile and a really full line of defense.”
Urban greenspace, less than 10 percent of which is protected from severe weather on the Gulf Coast, was also a target of Monday’s commemoration of Hurricane Katrina. The Inland Wetlands Project and the Natural Resources Defense Council joined forces to ask communities to address the environmental damage left behind by the storm, as well as the damage from other natural disasters.
The group’s top priority for the coming year is “protecting our coastal parishes,” Itamar Ben-Galhut, assistant executive director of NRDC’s Southern Office, said. But “no matter what needs to be done,” Ben-Galhut said, local governments have to “care much more about the environmental performance of the homes that are in the path of the storm.”
Ben-Galhut pointed to multiple interdependent factors that make strengthening coastal resources — such as barriers and beaches — necessary.
“We’re talking about the massive polluting of air, water and soil in coastal parishes,” Ben-Galhut said. The storm surge and hurricane surge that reverberate throughout lower Mississippi River levees are particularly damaging because the city has water pipes that pass through it, and the storm surge is a strong wind — which can cause damage to trees and buildings — making “these massive tides astronomically higher than what we’ve seen historically,” Ben-Galhut said.
Ben-Galhut described the 2016 flood as a two-punch storm, because the city lacked the appropriate flood defenses. “The lessons we learned that year is why we focus a lot on what can be done at state, federal and local levels now.”
He also called for measures that protect wetlands and coastal homes from storm surge.
Speakers also said that protecting the marsh from coastal erosion would be costly, and required changes at the federal, state and local levels. And also suggested that some towns could be able to reduce their homes’ vulnerability to flooding, by protecting local waterways.
Ben-Galhut and the group also urged sustainable development and tourism of coastal areas by rural entrepreneurs in ways that minimize damaging tidal surges. That might mean welcoming more RVs in traditional resort communities, or keeping a municipal RV park at New Orleans-area events, he said.
Ben-Galhut said commercial development will have to be a priority for the coming year. He is advocating more affordable housing, more setbacks and more commercial development in coastal and high-risk areas. And he favors more remote development for parks and recreation, in areas where no other possible link is available.
Ben-Galhut pointed to his association’s work in Mobile and Richmond, Va., as an example of Mississippi that can be replicated in other states and cities.
The group also emphasized the importance of telling the public how public resources, including the coast and marsh, need to be protected in the midst of difficult times. “The health of the Gulf Coast is at stake,” Ben-Galhut said.
Joe Lamantia, environmental services manager for LSU’s Gulf Shores and Orange Beach campuses, called the hurricane season of 2017 a “horrific reminder” of “the severe environmental harm that was wrought in the Texas coastal areas and at home.”
“Many areas now remain vulnerable to a mega-disaster, like those Texas and Louisiana now experience,” Lamantia said.