There is a sharp left turn on Louisiana Highway One that leads you down the last little stretch of road before Grand Isle, a barrier island along the coast of Louisiana. It was here, on what felt like the edge of the world, that I learned the ways in which the climate crisis bubbles up from below and falls from above, until it consumes a place and the people who call it home.
After Hurricane Katrina and the levee failure, I moved to New Orleans to help with what would be a multi-year recovery. And in the midst of that recovery, a new crisis erupted when Deepwater Horizon exploded off the Louisiana coast and oil began to rush towards the shore.
My attention was instantly split between the city and the many smaller communities that had been dealt yet another blow. It was the spring of 2010 that I began to travel up and down Louisiana Highway One, making the hour-long drive from New Orleans to Grand Isle where much of the protesting, community organizing, and media circus took place in response to the British Petroleum (BP) disaster.
Driving this road was when I first fully understood that the climate crisis is our present, not just a problem for our future. I learned that on the Louisiana coast, communities were already battling rising sea levels and stronger storms all while dealing with other consequences of the oil and gas industry, like coastal erosion and now the oil that permeated the fragile coastline.
On August 28, 2021, the sixteenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failure, I watched the satellite images as Hurricane Ida arrived on Louisiana’s doorstep. The path of the Category 4 storm tracked closely with Louisiana Highway One. The storm’s surge and wind plowed over the homes in Grand Isle and inland over LaRose, Lockport, Thibodaux, and LaPlace among others. In the aftermath of Ida, the coast of Louisiana has been left in pieces again.
Louisiana is not alone. The country is once again convulsing with disaster.
As COVID continues to surge, this summer has faced a constant barrage of destruction. In the Pacific Northwest, a heatwave coincided with hundreds of excess deaths, suggesting the true toll is higher than officially reported. Wildfires have destroyed entire towns and led to the evacuations of thousands in half a dozen states. Deadly flooding in western North Carolina and Middle Tennessee barely made national news.
Although the list is long, these disasters all have one thing in common: they were no surprise. Despite many years knowing that disasters like these were possible, elected officials have persistently failed to adequately prepare for or prevent them. For decades, climate scientists’ pleas to reduce carbon emissions have been ignored. Despite continual assessments warning that America’s infrastructure is crumbling, Congress has failed to act. State governments have resisted investing more in emergency management efforts. Locally, elected officials have resisted implementing stronger building codes and allowed developers to build entire neighborhoods in high-risk areas.
At all levels, and across the country, the government has rolled the dice on our safety. Now places in Louisiana like LaPlace, Des Allemands, Lafitte, and Grand Isle, along with Waverly, Tennessee, and Greenville, California have joined the growing list of communities that are paying the price.
Without urgent change, these most recent disasters will still just be the start of what is to come.
The more we do to mitigate our risk—from preventing new development in high-risk areas, to accounting for climate risk in our infrastructure, to maintaining infrastructure, to building redundant systems, to passing stricter building codes, to re-thinking land-use policies, to implementing measures to protect homes and communities who already live in risky areas—the less pressure we will put on our response and recovery systems.
And when mitigation fails—or simply hasn’t been done—our second line of defense is disaster preparedness: everything we do to ready ourselves to respond to and recover from a disaster.
The U.S. has traditionally taken an individualized approach to disaster preparedness. At the start of every hurricane season, organizations like the Red Cross and government agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) share checklists of items that people should have to be ready. Largely unchanged for decades, these checklists emphasize the personal responsibility of the individual to purchase the supplies they will need to survive on their own for days. Certainly, it is sensible for everyone to have these emergency supplies on hand, but checking off the boxes on these lists is not enough because it relies on individuals to both have access to these resources and make appropriate and informed individual decisions about protective action, often without enough guidance.
It’s not surprising then to see inequalities emerge when disaster strikes. While some can afford to pay for a last-minute flight to evacuate, work remotely while evacuated for weeks, or have the physical ability to sit in a hot car for hours on end, many cannot.
The difference can mean life or death.
In every disaster, the survivors, along with volunteers, take on much of the work of response. They open their own shelters, organize search and rescue, gather donations, hand out meals, and gut houses. The public should be an active participant in every response—survivors are the true first responders in every disaster because they are there when it happens—but as communities go through disaster after disaster these resources may become further strained. Can we really continue to rely on these collective, often improvised, efforts to carry communities through disaster response again and again?
Individual actions, no matter how heroic, rarely determine whether a community survives a disaster. What’s required is competent government. They are responsible for leading planning efforts, issuing warnings and evacuation orders, providing regulation and oversight to ensure utility companies are accounting for climate risk. How prepared a community is to manage a disaster largely comes down to whether the government has prepared, not whether a citizen has gallons of water in their closet.
For emergency management agencies to take on the country’s increasing risk—to prepare us for what is already happening and will continue to happen—elected officials must give them the resources to do so before, during, and after disaster. Many communities, especially in rural areas, have only a part-time emergency manager. They may do good work, but they cannot singlehandedly address their communities’ risk effectively and prepare them for disaster.
In addition to funding, we must address the systemic issues that have long made the emergency management system inadequate for meeting everyone’s needs. Comprehensive policies—not reactive piecemeal changes—are needed to ready this system for future disasters.
The last time I drove down Louisiana Highway One was in 2019. I was with a group of emergency management students from the Midwest who were learning the intricacies and vulnerabilities of life along the Gulf Coast. On our way to Grand Isle, we stopped at the sharp left turn. We pulled into a little dirt area so I could show them that here you could see both the causes and consequences of climate change. The road was beginning to erode again as the water lapped at the sides of the pavement. Looming just in the distance was Port Fourchon through which 18% of U.S. oil supply passes.
I made an off-handed comment that I didn’t know how many more times we would make this drive as the seas rose, land eroded, storms raged, and infrastructure succumbed. Just two years later, Hurricane Ida made landfall at that exact left turn, and the road to Grand Isle was once again left in pieces.
They’ll rebuild the road again this time—but how many more times before they won’t?
We continue to manage disasters and catastrophes in largely the same way we have for decades. But our world is different now. The climate has changed, and our risk along with it. We cannot continue to approach disaster preparedness, and emergency management more broadly, with resources and thinking from a world that had more time.