The strongest hurricane to strike Louisiana was Hurricane Ida, which made landfall on Sunday. It tied 2020’s Hurricane Laura for the title. Winds topping 150 miles per hour tore apart the electrical infrastructure, leaving a million people without power. All eight transmission lines into New Orleans were severed.
Now temperatures are in the 90s, and brutal humidity–it’s summer, after all–is plunging Louisiana into a multilayered crisis: Without power, residents who don’t have a generator will also lack fans or air conditioning. The utility Entergy says power may not be restored for three weeks, but local officials warn it could be a month for some. “I’m not satisfied with 30 days, the Entergy people aren’t satisfied with 30 days,” Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards said at a press conference Tuesday. “Nobody is content with this.
The misery is particularly acute in New Orleans and other cities which already form “heat islands” in the landscape. This is a place without sufficient trees and other green space where the built environment absorbs sunlight’s energy throughout the day and slowly releases it at night. Temperatures in urban areas can rise up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit higher than those found in rural regions. The bad news is that Climate Central published an analysis in July showing New Orleans’ heat island effect to be worse than any other American city.
This is the place to go if you want to see what climate-crisis hell looks. Barry Keim from Louisiana State University, who is also state climateologist, says that “this whole region already heats and humid during the summer.” You can also add urban heat island effects, which will only make it worse, to the mix and your air conditioner system is dead. This is a recipe to disaster.
Cities can become heat islands due to a variety of factors. Brick, concrete, asphalt and brick all absorb heat very well. These dense materials absorb heat very well, even though the air is cooling down at night. “So you get kind of this baking-in factor over the course of multiple days of heat,” says Portland State University climate adaptation scientist Vivek Shandas, who has studied the heat island effect in Portland, New Orleans, and dozens of other cities. According to Shandas, New Orleans now faces a string of heat-related problems after Hurricane Ida.
Also, the structure of the built environment plays a significant role. High buildings trap heat and absorb sunlight, while taller buildings block wind. Buildings can also produce heat, especially factories.
This is what happens in rural areas with trees. When the sun hits a grassland or forest, it absorbs the energy and releases the water vapor. A green area “sweats”, in a way, to cool down the air and make it more bearable.
If every city had trees, it would cool off. Shandas says that temperatures in New Orleans can fluctuate from block to block. Brick buildings retain heat more effectively than wood ones, while fat-freeways enjoy the sun. If buildings are interspersed by trees and there is plenty of green space like parks, the cool air will be cooled.
Shandas and others collected 75,000 temperatures from New Orleans on an August day in 2013. The coolest places were around 88°F, with the highest temperatures reaching 102°F. Shandas says, “It’s all about green space. It also has to do a lot with the layout of buildings and the materials used to build them.”
This is also due to New Orleans’ racist history of redlining. The government declared immigrant and Black neighborhoods unsuitable for investment. “These were not the places where money was being lent for homeownership–people were denied access to federally-backed mortgages,” says Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, an environmental and health scientist at Spelman College. These communities lack green space and parks. In some cases you may not have any parks.
These areas are less expensive to develop. These areas are less expensive to develop, so people invest in them by adding highways and heavy industry. Jelks says, “This area is home to warehouses and lots of buildings with heat-absorbing surfaces.” “Where you can have asphalt, little vegetation, which will cool down the environment,” he said.
Shandas claims that temperatures are much higher in redlined areas than elsewhere in New Orleans. Indeed, previous research has found that across the US, poorer neighborhoods with higher populations of people of color get up to 20 degrees hotter than wealthier white neighborhoods.
The extra heat can cause severe health problems. For instance, hotter temperatures lead to more air pollution. Elderly and young people are especially sensitive to excessive heat. Shandas says that heat kills more people each year than any other natural catastrophe. The death toll from Hurricane Ida stands in the dozens so far, but, he continues, “what is the more pernicious challenge here is the fact that heat comes slowly in after this hurricane.”
This doesn’t need to be the case. Cities can invest in greening up neighborhoods, and the federal government could deploy President Biden’s proposed Civilian Climate Corps to pay people to do the work. This would create local jobs and prepare residents for a brighter future.
But it’s not as easy as simply increasing investment, because that may end up gentrifying neighborhoods and forcing residents out. Jelks says, “We have to make sure that it’s done in an equitable manner, and put in place policy support to ensure people are able to take advantage of the new investments. Jelks says, “As we give access to communities who have historically been denied it, we need to be cautious about green gentrification.” Greenen up the area, yes, but provide affordable housing so that current residents can continue to live there.
A more fundamental aspect of city planning is that heat mitigation could be incorporated into general plans. Shandas says, “Right now there isn’t a US city I can find that actively incorporates heat into its development codes.” This is making cities less prepared for a hotter future. New Orleans, right now is an example of what this will look like.
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Publiated at Thu, 02/09/2021 22:04.56 +0000