by Gina Solomon
This week I've been reflecting on my experiences four years ago when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the levees broke, and the city flooded. What a terrible day that was. In the aftermath, a team from NRDC contacted city and state officials, environmental justice, and community leaders to offer assistance. We heard the same question from all of them: "Is it safe to return?". Our year-long investigation, in partnership with local groups, revealed problems with mold growth and resulting respiratory hazards, contaminants such as arsenic and lead in the sediment left behind from the receding water, and some concerns about drinking water quality. These environmental health threats were all fixable, although the state and federal authorities dragged their feet and were slow to take action.
Although scientists can't say that Katrina was caused by climate change, there's agreement that climate change will increase the frequency and severity of major storms and hurricanes over time. Communities along the Gulf Coast will remain in the crosshairs for flooding disasters. That means that we are likely to see more Katrinas in the future.
The experience of Katrina made me aware of the human toll of climate change, and has given me a sense of urgency about the need to reduce greenhouse gases in order to prevent some of these future diseasters. But there are also things that need to happen to be better prepared for future public health disasters.
Four years after Katrina, it seems appropriate to list four central principles for preparing for climate change:
I. Identify Local Vulnerabilities - Maps of local vulnerabilities, including flood-prone areas, and where at-risk populations live are important to help guide preparedness and response efforts.
II. Enhance Global, National, and State Tracking Systems - Disease surveillance, improved weather and flood forecasting, and tracking of environmental conditions is vital to understand normal patterns, as early warning systems, and to know when public health intervention is successful.
III. Create Climate-Resilient Communities - Establish limits on residential and commercial expansion within flood plains and estuaries; restore and protect coastal wetlands as buffer zones.
IV. Educate People to Protect Themselves - Educate populations at risk of flooding about where to go in case of evacuation, and how to negotiate flooded transportation systems.
For more information about the health impacts of climate change and steps we can take to prepare, check out this link. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has created a new focus on preparing for climate change, yet the effort remains small and under-funded. More information about the CDC effort is here.
In honor of the people killed or displaced by Katrina, the Federal government should do more to help communities prevent and prepare for climate-related disasters and respond effectively to disasters when they do occur.