New Orleans and the Louisiana coast have to deal with both Covid and hurricane Ida

Hurricane Ida is expected to hit Louisiana near New Orleans, where hospitals are already filled with unvaccinated covid patients. 

Ida struck Cuba on Friday and is expected to make landfall near New Orleans on Sunday as an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane. It will be exactly 16 years after the passage of Hurricane Katrina, a large Category 5 Atlantic hurricane that caused over 1,800 deaths and $125 billion in damage.


According to the National Hurricane Center (NHC), Hurricane Ida will become a Category 4 hurricane, with top winds of 140 mph (225 km/h). People are evacuating across the coastal region and in New Orleans. They have not much time left; Ida is moving toward the northwest at about 16 mph (26 km/h) and is expected to make landfall by late Sunday or early Monday. But tropical storm conditions are likely to arrive on Sunday morning. That limits the time for preparations to protect life and property. After it hits the coast, it will likely weaken when it moves through portions of Louisiana or western Mississippi later on Monday. 

AP reports that New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell ordered a mandatory evacuation for a small city area outside the levee system. But with the storm intensifying so much over a short time, she said it wasn't possible to do so for the entire city. That generally calls for using all lanes of some highways to leave the city. In addition, city officials said residents need to be prepared for prolonged power outages and asked elderly residents to consider evacuating.

There have always been hurricanes, but if Ida causes a disaster in the next few days (and I don't know if this will happen), it is relevant to look at quite a few decisions taken by governments and individuals that are likely to have made things worse. 

Climate change

First, there is the impact of man-made climate change, a result of governments ignoring the advice of scientists for many decades. By burning fossil fuels and deforestation, we are warming the planet. Most of the temperature rise is absorbed in the ocean, which gets warmer and expands; the heat of the ocean fuels hurricanes like Ida. As I wrote in yesterday's article in The Planet, scientists predict an increase of quickly intensifying storms as they approach landfall due to climate change effects, including the warmer ocean. Ida seems to become a textbook example of this process. We will see more extreme weather, human suffering, and inequality if we don't collectively and efficiently tackle climate change. 

The storm defenses

Second, the defenses against the storm surge may not be good enough to deal with future hurricanes. The levees and other infrastructure are now much better than 16 years ago. Still, I remember the surprise of Dutch water experts, who worked on rebuilding flood protections after Katrina, about the different perceptions of risk in the U.S. While we build flood protections in the Netherlands based on a once in a 10,000-year scenario, New Orleans used only a once in a hundred-year risk. I get more worried when considering that the post-Katerina levee system was designed based on older data; the infrastructure must now be updated, considering the impact of climate change with higher sea levels and stronger hurricanes. Add to that the effect of the sinking of Louisiana's spongy coast. An estimated additional $ 1.7 billion is needed to update the levees to the once-in-100-year risk. As a Dutchman, used to living below sea level, this level of risk would make me nervous. 

On the plus side: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson Matt Roe told ABC News that the giant surge barrier was built to hold out a storm surge of about 30 feet (9 meters), well below the latest predictions of the National Hurricane Center of 10 to 15 meet (3 to 4.6 meters). I believe that Ida may be extremely dangerous, but it has not yet been called a once in a hundred-year storm; it is too soon to tell. A story to watch: only if there is massive flooding, count on reading post-Ida stories about the backlog in maintenance of pumps, drains, pipes and canals in the past years. It was the story after the immense flooding in my Dutch province of Zeeland after the big flood of 1953, and it wasn't newsworthy in the years before this catastrophe that killed about as many as Katrina would do decades later. 


Third, there are many more Covid patients in Louisiana hospitals than there would have been if vaccination had been more widely accepted. Only 41% of the state's population is fully vaccinated. The hospitals are already at total capacity mainly filled by anti-vaxxers, who now rely on the best scientific medical insights to cure this easily preventable disease. Other beds are filled with unvaccinated children and some vaccinated adults who got infected because of the needless high amount of covid carriers. The price to pay for loyalty to the fully vaccinated anti-vax cult leader is not only that these people risk their own lives. They now endanger the lives of others as well; by infecting others, by keeping already overwhelmed and overburdened medical staff from evacuating, and especially by being responsible that there is much less additional medical capacity in the days after Ida strikes. This double whammy of human suffering if Ida creates a disaster would have been preventable to a large extent.


Fourth, let's not forget that the pandemic may well be another manifestation of human intervention on our planet. Just like it is difficult to attribute a specific extreme weather event to climate change (although scientists are getting much better at that in recent years), we can't say that humans caused the pandemic. There has always been extreme weather, and there have always been pandemics. But what we know is that the destruction of diverse habitats brings species together that generally don't meet, which increases the risk of new deadly viruses. Diseases like Zika, Ebola, or Covid-19 developed in such areas.

Let me end with two videos that give an impression of the destructive force of hurricanes.

The first one is a visualization of the Comet program, showing the difference between the impact of a category one hurricane and the devastating force of extreme category five hurricanes.

The second video shows the impact of the surge during a hurricane in coastal areas (you can skip the first minute)

As a last comment: if you live on or near the potentially affected area, don't make any decisions based on what you read in this article. Instead, rely on the latest information from government agencies like the National Hurricane Center

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