Climate-fueled hurricanes prompt urgent questions

Martha Sanchez, Contributing Reporter

tulane logo with dinosaur skeleton could be future with climate crisis
Climate change has resulted in more intense hurricanes hitting the Louisiana coastline, which could prove to be detrimental to Tulane. (Maggie Pasterz)

A disappearing coastline and the warming of the Gulf of Mexico — both effects of climate change  —  intensified the effects of Hurricane Ida seen in southeastern Louisiana. Tulane evacuated remaining students to Houston on Aug. 30 and New Orleans went dark.    

With the lights back on and students returning to campus by Sept. 27, Tulane and the city of New Orleans are confronting an urgent new question: if this is the dangerous new normal, what should they do?

Hurricane Ida rapidly intensified as it approached land. Fueled by the warming ocean in the gulf, it plowed through eroded swamps that, decades ago, might have diminished its strength. It was the most recent reminder that hurricanes are getting more dangerous and powerful. At Tulane, that notion is spurring discussion for future storm preparedness, which presents new, unique opportunities. 

Jesse Keenan, associate professor of real estate, said one of the biggest questions is mobilization. Years ago, Louisianans had days to evacuate storms; now, they might need to decide in a matter of hours. 

“We’re losing time,” Keenan said. 

Keenan, who specializes in climate change adaptation, said this loss of time signals the need to focus on investments in infrastructure, not just emergency management. Tulane is prepared to withstand intense hurricanes every ten or so years, but if the future holds frequent storms of high intensity, it could be a problem. 

Angela Sutton, vice president of enterprise risk management, said that these problems are exactly what the Tulane emergency preparedness team will discuss soon. After every storm, the team debriefs what they did well and what they need to do better.  

“That focus on assessing, evaluating and looking at how we can continue to improve our processes really is going to help us continue to be prepared,” Sutton said. 

Tulane is still primarily focused on recovering from Hurricane Ida. Staff will discuss emergency preparedness and possible adaptations to reduce the impact of future storms once students are back on campus.    

Adaptation — rebuilding to a better standard instead of how it was pre-impact —  is a growing focus in disaster aftermath, and Tulane has the opportunity to jump in. The university can invest in renewable energy on campus, Keenan said. It can also enter the economy for offshore wind and water technologies and maintenance.  

“We can show that, hey, our campus is a prototype for the future of how we want to live,” Keenan said. 

This infrastructure comes with a hefty price tag; however, Keenan said between hurricane repair and investments for the future, the costs will come one way or the other.      

New Orleans and greater Louisiana have long faced climate challenges that other communities are only beginning to understand. Coastal erosion started in the 1930s in some parishes and parts of New Orleans sunk below sea level as early as 1895

Mark Davis, director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy, said he sees two ways of looking at these challenges. According to Davis, “New Orleans is a cautionary tale and an encouraging tale.” 

Infrastructure investments and natural restoration after Hurricane Katrina show signs of such encouragement. New Orleans now has the largest pump station in the world, and there is a greater effort to restore Louisiana’s sinking coast than ever before

Davis does not want to come off as overly optimistic, noting that there’s a “staggering amount of work to do,” but it has to begin somewhere. In his opinion, investment “gives you a chance of being more than you were before.”

Keenan said he thinks Tulane will become the number one place in the world to study climate change. It is on the frontline of hurricanes, with a unique culture and environment. 

“It’s not the infrastructure that keeps New Orleans and Tulane afloat, it’s the people,” Keenan said. “That’s something that you can always continue to invest in.”