Hurricane Laura and the South’s Growing Climate Crisis

Fifteen years after Hurricane Katrina made its way to Mississippi and Louisiana, and just days after the landfall of Hurricane Marco, Hurricane Laura hit Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas with sustained winds of 150 miles per hour. Meteorologists called Laura’s storm surge “unsurvivable.” The storm left at least ten dead, more than 200,000 without access to water, and nearly a million without power.

To make matters worse, Southwest Texas and Southeast Louisiana are home to many chemical plants. To shut down ahead of a hurricane, those plants have to burn off excess fuels and chemicals, releasing heavy pollutants into the air. In the days ahead of Laura’s landfall, millions of pounds of these pollutants, including carcinogens, were released into disproportionately Black neighborhoods. Laura caused a major fire at one such plant in Lake Charles, likely releasing even more of those pollutants. Preliminary estimates of the total damage from Hurricane Laura in the United States are around $12 billion, without accounting for the potential health costs associated with the pollution.

Less than a month before Marco and Laura, Hurricane Isaias caused more than a dozen tornadoes in the Carolinas, killing two people.

Many will choose to chalk this all up to just being another strange chapter in the nightmare that is 2020, but the truth is that this is all a part of a larger, troubling trend plaguing the South. Hurricanes are a uniquely Southern problem: the eight states hit most by hurricanes are Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. And, in terms of barometric pressure, a full half of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes in recorded history have all come in the last fifteen years.

That’s not a coincidence. Research shows that the likelihood of a hurricane reaching Category 3 or stronger has increased by about eight per cent every decade since 1979. While the exact causes are up for some debate, we do know for sure that the Atlantic’s rising temperatures are leading to more powerful hurricanes in at least two major ways.

First, hot water gives storms more energy, leading to stronger sustained winds. Second, increased temperatures lead to increased evaporation; as a storm passes over hot water, it absorbs more of that evaporation, which translates to more rain and more flooding upon landfall.

We have climate change to thank for the influx of devastating hurricanes, which is really just a way of saying that we have ourselves to thank. Beyond storms, climate change is devastating the fishing industry that is so vital to southern states, and likely plays a major factor in the pandemic we currently find ourselves in.

And yet, so many politicians in the South have celebrated President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, claiming that the costs are untenable. What is truly untenable for the South, though, is the cost, both in dollars and in lives, of continuing to ignore climate change.

There is plenty we can do, both on the level of policy and the individual level. The imperative is on each and every one of us to familiarize ourselves with what we can do. The New South is rising, but it’s in grave danger of drowning.

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