“That storm did not just hit us because we were bad people,” said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “I know there’s this modern myth about that, that because you can get a to-go cup on Bourbon Street for 24 hours, somehow the hurricane came and wanted to smack you.” Speaking at the National Press Club yesterday, Landrieu dispensed with the notion that Hurricane Katrina had been, as some have suggested, a form of divine retribution. He also challenged the idea that Katrina was a civic failure, the result of negligence on the part of the local government. As Landrieu made absolutely clear, Katrina could have happened anywhere.
“If a Category 5 — rolling in at 12 miles per hour of speed, that has winds of 150 miles an hour — hits any city in America, you should hope that you will have gone by then,” said Landrieu. Extreme weather, he explained, will test the resolve of any metropolis. “I think Hurricane Sandy demonstrated to us that we have many, many, many vulnerable cities,” said Landrieu. “And guess what? On the scale, New Orleans isn’t even on the top. I think Miami is number one. I think Charleston is up there. New York is up there.”
Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1800 people and inflicted upwards of $100 billion in damage, offered Americans a glimpse of a high-carbon future. According to the National Climate Assessment, climate change will mean more Category 4 and 5 hurricanes like Katrina, and not just in the Big Easy. As Hurricane Sandy showed us, tropical storms can reach well beyond the Gulf Coast. Said Landrieu, “New Orleans is a canary in the coal mine for this country.”
Mayor Landrieu believes America must commit to investing in resilient infrastructure to guard against extreme weather. As he noted, it was the broken levees, owned and operated by the federal government, that rendered Katrina one of the deadliest storms in American history. In its latest infrastructure report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure a D+. (American levees earned a D-.) It’s a problem that Washington seems incapable of fixing. Speaking to Marketplace on Monday, Landrieu said, “The country ought to be thinking about the fact that Congress can’t even pass an infrastructure investment bill and the need for that so that we can be a stronger nation.”
Despite his vocal warnings about extreme weather, Landrieu has largely kept silent on the need to cut climate-altering carbon pollution. Even as the Crescent City prepares for the next big storm by strengthening levees and restoring wetlands, it continues to supply more oil and gas to the United States than Saudi Arabia. In his speech at the Vatican’s conference on climate change last month, Landrieu described Louisiana’s rich abundance of oil as a blessing and a curse. The mayor is ever the agnostic on fossil fuels, even with the BP oil spill still lingering in the rearview mirror. Said Landrieu, “We’re not in the debate of drill-don’t drill.”