TIME climate change

The Green Rebuilding of Post-Katrina New Orleans

Katrina Changing City New Orleans
Gerald Herbert—AP Empty lots and new buildings dot the Lower 9th Ward section of New Orleans on July 29, 2015.

'Green building means lower bills, fewer trips to the hospital for children with asthma'

When Hurricane Katrina rocked the Gulf Coast in 2005, displacing hundreds of thousands of residents, many wondered what shape a rebuilt city would take—or whether restoring the city would be possible at all. But some experts saw an opportunity in the catastrophe of New Orleans. In the aftermath of the storm, a slew of nonprofits committed millions of dollars to support the construction of green homes in the city, which in turn prompted a green building trend in the city. Now, 10 years late, green building experts say the work rebuilding there can serve as a model for other communities.

The Make it Right Foundation, founded by the actor Brad Pitt, has built more than 100 homes in the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward for local residents. The residences built by the foundation included solar panels that reduce energy use from external sources and countertops made from recycled materials. All the homes were built to LEED Platinum certification standards, the highest-level designation for sustainable building offered by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Green building offers low-income homeowners an opportunity to cut energy costs, says Make it Right senior advisor Taylor Royle. Green homes in New Orleans tend to have energy bills of around $30 per month, including gas and electricity, compared to more than $100 in conventional homes. Green building materials, which often replace materials that exacerbate respiratory disease, can also improve environmental health, especially in low-income communities where asthma is particularly prevalent.

“It’s not just because someone in the environmental community believes in green building,” said Royle. “Green building means lower bills, fewer trips to the hospital for children with asthma.”

The green building group Global Green has become a lasting presence in local New Orleans communities, offering workshops on green building and inspecting homes to help identify cost-effective improvements, says Michelle Pyne, a senior staffer in New Orleans for Global Green.

Global Green has also moved beyond building green homes to advocate for public policy that encourages green building in the public sector and other solutions to make building in the region more sustainable. New Orleans public schools—110 of which were severely damaged—now have sustainability programs and any new schools must be built to at least LEED Silver standards, Pyne said.

In addition to offering cost-saving and environmental benefits, green homes in the city have been built to better withstand hurricanes. Make it Right, for instance, builds homes elevated 5 or 8 feet off the ground. All homes include roof access to ensure that residents aren’t trapped in the attic during a flooding situation—as happened during Katrina.

New Orleans has done much to prepare the city itself for the next hurricane, with a $14.5 billion, but homes that are themselves equipped to withstand storms and flooding is also a key element in preparation. Indeed, Louisiana’s master plan, which provides guidelines for how to protect the city from future natural disasters, includes provisions to help fund elevated homes for homeowners who may not be able to afford the expense.

“Every dollar up front is more effective than five spent after the fact,” said Mike Foley, CEO of insurance company Zurich North America Commercial. “We need to shift the conversation from one of recovery to one of resilience.”

Read next: New Orleans, Here & Now

TIME climate change

Why Climate Change Could Make Hurricane Impact Worse

Victims of Hurricane Katrina stay at the Astrodome stadium in Houston.
Carlos Barria—Reuters Victims of Hurricane Katrina stay at the Astrodome stadium where 16,000 evacuees were receiving food and shelter in Houston on Sept. 4, 2005.

Sea level rise plays a key role

Hurricane Katrina surprised disaster preparedness authorities when it made landfall 10 years ago, leveling entire communities and killing more than 1,800 people. The storm caused more than $100 billion in damage, making it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. But for all the damage the storm caused in New Orleans, Katrina was a relatively weak hurricane when it hit the city.

In the academic community, the unexpected disaster prompted climate scientists to consider the link between climate change and storms. Since then, research has shown that climate change will increase the devastation caused by hurricanes as sea levels rise due to global warming. Some research has also suggested that climate change has increased the intensity and frequency of storms.

The phenomenon of storm surge plays an essential role in the worsening effect of hurricanes. Storm surge occurs when waters rise above their normal level during a storm and wind and weather conditions push that water onto shore. Thanks to global warming and rising sea levels, the potential for ocean water to be washed ashore by a storm surge has risen as well.

Read More: These Are the Cities Most Vulnerable to the Next Katrina

During Katrina, storm surge pushed ashore the water, causing levees to fail. The storm was recorded as a hurricane of category 1 or category 2 strength when it hit New Orleans, relatively weak for such a devastating hurricane. But the storm surge reached as high as 12 feet in some places, creating flood conditions across the city and wreaking havoc with the city’s levee system. Hurricane Sandy, which hit the New York City in 2012, cost $2 billion more due to sea level rise than it would have otherwise, according to a RAND report.

“The strong winds in Katrina essentially blew water from the gulf up across southern Louisiana,” said Hugh Roberts, associate vice president at ARCADIS, a firm that has consulted on Louisiana’s rebuilding efforts. “Once it hits land, it begins to build up.”

In the future, rising sea levels will only exacerbate the storm surge problem. Around the globe, sea levels are estimated to rise 1 to 3 feet by 2100 due to climate change, and researchers say that in places like New Orleans 1 foot of sea level rise may lead to a 3 or 4 foot storm surge rise.

While scientists have come to a consensus about how storm surge will affect cities, research on how climate change affects hurricane strength and intensity remains unclear, and no findings have been positive. Many peer-reviewed studies suggest that warmer weather in tropical oceans has increased the frequency of tropical storm activity, though not necessarily the intensity. Others suggest that climate change has made storms more intense. Still other research has suggested that future storms will be both more frequent and more intense.

The projection of more frequent and more intense hurricanes might surprise even the causal weather observer. Indeed, a major hurricane of category 3 or higher hasn’t hit U.S. soil since 2005, according to a study from earlier this year. But the so-called hurricane drought shouldn’t be viewed as an indication of what’s to come. This year’s strong El Niño will likely reduce the chance of powerful hurricanes.

Increased hurricane risk due to climate change presents a unique challenge for policy makers. While the federal government has promoted cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in hopes of slowing climate change, preparing for more dramatic storms requires local solutions. Even if countries around the world stem global warming, sea level rise will occur.

“There is not uncertainty about sea level rise,” said RAND researcher Jordan Fischbach, who led a Louisiana flood risk assessment team. “As we get more sea level rise, these large storm events will with certainty damage to assets and people.”

 

TIME weather

Tropical Storm Erika Kills 4 People in Dominica

Tropical Storm Erika is pictured in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Venezuela in this NASA handout satellite photo
NASA/Reuters Tropical Storm Erika is pictured in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Venezuela in this NASA handout satellite photo on Aug. 26, 2015.

The storm caused blackouts and took out water supplies on the island

(ROSEAU, Dominica) — Streets across Dominica turned into fast-flowing rivers that swept up cars as Tropical Storm Erika pummeled the eastern Caribbean island, unleashing landslides and killing at least four people.

The storm, which forecasters said could reach Florida as a hurricane on Monday, knocked out power and water supplies on Dominica as it dumped 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rain on the small island and headed west into the Caribbean Sea.

An elderly blind man and two children were killed when a mudslide crashed into their home in the southeast of the island, said Police Superintendent Daniel Carbon. Another man was found dead near his home in the capital of Roseau after a mudslide, but the cause of death was could not be immediately determined, Carbon told The Associated Press.

Police said another 20 people have been reported missing.

Erika was centered about 175 miles (280 kilometers) west of Guadeloupe, and was moving west at 15 mph (24 kph) with maximum sustained winds that had slipped slightly to 45 mph (75 kph), according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Erika was expected to move near Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on Thursday and be near or just north of the Dominican Republic on Friday as it heads toward Florida early next week, possibly as a hurricane.

Chris Landsea, a meteorologist at the hurricane center, said the storm could dissipate if it passed over Hispaniola or Puerto Rico or it could gather and pose a potential threat to Florida next week. “The uncertainties are very high,” he said.

As the storm entered the Caribbean, it did the heaviest damage to Dominica, an island of about 72,000 people of lush forests and steep terrain. Authorities were still conducting a full damage assessment after rivers surged over their banks and walls of mud surged into homes.

About 80 percent of the island was without electricity, and water supply was cut off, authorities said. Trees and light poles were strewn across streets as water rushed over parked cars and ripped the scaffolding off some buildings. The main airport was closed due to flooding, with water rushing over at least one small plane.

The main river that cuts through the capital overflowed its banks and surging water crashed into the principal bridge that leads into Roseau.

“The capital city is a wreck,” policewoman Teesha Alfred said. “It is a sight to behold. It’s a disaster.”

Erika was likely to hit the island of Hispaniola, which is shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, said chief forecaster James Franklin at the National Hurricane Center.

“That would certainly not be good news for Hispaniola,” he said. “They’re very vulnerable to flooding. And even if Erika is a weak system that could be very bad there.”

Officials shuttered schools, government offices and businesses across the region and warned of flash flooding because of dry conditions caused by the worst drought to hit the Caribbean in recent years. Authorities warned power and water service might be temporarily cut off.

Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla said the storm could bring badly needed rains to the parched U.S. territory.

“We’re happy given the dry conditions, but it does highlight the need to be on alert,” he said, adding that heavy downpours could lead to flash floods. He activated the National Guard as a precaution.

The heaviest rains were expected to hit Puerto Rico’s eastern region, with the storm expected to pass about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of the island overnight Thursday, said Odalys Martinez, with the National Weather Service in San Juan.

Erika is expected to dump between 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters) of rain across the region, with up to 12 inches (31 centimeters) in some areas.

Dozens of flights were canceled in the region, and the U.S. Coast Guard closed all ports in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Meanwhile in the Pacific, Ignacio strengthened into a hurricane. The storm’s maximum sustained winds increased Thursday morning to 90 mph (150 kph).

Hurricane Ignacio was centered about 1,135 miles (1,825 kilometers) east-southeast of Hilo, Hawaii, and was moving west-northwest near 13 mph (20 kph).

Also in the Pacific, a new tropical storm formed Thursday morning. Tropical Storm Jimena had maximum sustained winds near 45 mph (75 kph) and was expected to strengthen to a hurricane Friday. Jimena was centered about 890 miles (1,430 kilometers) south-southwest of the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula.

___

Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Associated Press reporters Ben Fox and Tony Winton in Miami contributed to this report.

TIME Natural Disasters

These Are the Cities Most Vulnerable to the Next Katrina

Katrina Changing City New Orleans
Gerald Herbert—AP Empty lots and new buildings dot the Lower 9th Ward section of New Orleans on July 29, 2015.

'The entities that were most resilient were the ones who are best at preparing for the worst'

Where should we expect the next Hurricane Katrina to hit? Despite 10 years of work and some $15 billion in investment in disaster preparedness, experts say we may still want to look to New Orleans.

Identifying the places facing the most serious risk of a devastating hurricane requires a two-pronged approach: figuring out where the next big storm is likely to strike and determining how well those locations have prepared.

In Louisiana, federal dollars have funded the creation of a 133-mile levee system designed to protect the city from a once in 100-year storm. (That means, there’s a 1% chance that a storm of that size will occur on any given year.) As a storm approaches, officials can close off 220-ton gates and activate pumps that remove rainwater from the city’s sewage system. The pumps—the world’s largest—could fill the Superdome with water in 90 seconds.

At a cost of nearly $15 billion, the system wasn’t cheap. But it may not be enough to withstand the next serious storm, one that will likely be exacerbated by global warming and changing conditions in New Orleans. For one, land in the city is sinking at a rate of nearly half an inch each year due in part to changes in the soil that have resulted from human settlement. The occurrence, known technically as subsidence, has left many parts of the sea below sea level and especially vulnerable to flooding.

And, while the city sinks, climate change has been contributing to higher sea levels, further exacerbating flood risk. Around the globe, sea levels are estimated to rise 1 to 3 feet by 2100 due to climate change. Policymakers say storm surge, a phenomenon that raises sea levels during storms and pushes ocean water onto land, has them particularly concerned. And, in recent months, research has suggested that chances of storm surge are worse than previously believed.

“Looking forward, New Orleans is faced with a double-whammy. The land on which the city is built is sinking, even faster than the sea levels are rising,” said Robert Muir-Wood, chief research officer at Risk Management Solutions.

The new levees may protect New Orleans from a 100-year event in 2015 terms, but all bets are off looking 50 or 100 years into the future. And that says nothing about what will happen if the city faces a 500-year storm. Research from RMS suggests that New Orleans currently has a 1-in-440 chance of suffering from a storm that causes $15 billion in economic loss in any given year. By 2100, that number will be down to 1-in-315 under conservative estimates and the assumption that the city continues to upgrade its current infrastructure, according to RMS.

It’s also unclear how much meaning those older storm predictions have in a global warming age. Scientists disagree on whether Katrina itself was a 100-year event, a 500-year event, or even greater. The models that go into calculating 100-year storms are constantly changing, yet the levee system, once built, will be fixed.

Some officials in Louisiana hope that they will be able to do more than work with what they already have built. A task force put together a $50 billion master plan in 2012 that was meant to more fully provide protections against devastating losses. The plan calls for a slew of different protection measures, from paying for homeowners to elevate their houses to construction of more levees.

But with a hefty price tag, funding for the program has fallen fall short of what’s needed. Nonetheless, the program sets priorities when funding does begins to flow to the region again, said RAND researcher Jordan Fischbach, who led the flood risk assessment team for the master plan.

“Do you want this to be total protection?” asked Robert Muir Wood, chief research officer at Risk Management Solutions (RMS). “The government was not prepared to invest that much.”

But, while New Orleans still has much work to do to prepare fully for the next storm, in some ways the storm has been a helpful reminder—albeit a painful one. For other regions that haven’t prepared, the next storm could only be a season away. According to RMS, three cities beyond New Orleans face especially high chances of large-scale damages: Miami, Tampa and New York City. Currently, Tampa faces a 1-in-80 annual chance of a storm surge event causing more than $15 billion in damage. The odds are 1-in-125 in Miami and 1-in-200 in New York City.

Motivating those regions to prepare, and pay for it, will be a tough task. In efforts to combat climate change, national efforts often focus on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming, while local policy makers often work to make cities and communities able to withstand climate-related natural disasters. In many places, like Florida, there’s little motivation to spend time thinking about how climate change may make the next storm worse. Though the state contains two of the four cities most threatened by rising sea levels, state policies have created a roadblock to preparation.

“The disconnect is big,” Christina DeConcini, director of government affairs at the World Resources Institute, told TIME earlier this year. “At some point it’s going to have to close.”

Read next: New Orleans, Here & Now

TIME Natural Disasters

This Graphic Shows How ‘Unimaginable’ Wildfires Are on the Rise

California Drought Crises to Come
Josh Edelson—AP CalFire firefighter Bo Santiago lights a backfire as the Rocky fire burns near Clearlake, Calif., on Aug. 3, 2015.

"We are seeing wildfires in the United States grow to sizes that were unimaginable just 20 or 30 years ago"

Officials entrusted with protecting forests around the United States from wildfires have had a tough year. Wildfires have burned millions of acres and many months remain before winter precipitation brings relief.

For the scientists who study forest fires, the scale of this destruction does not come as a surprise thanks to climate change and drought. Unusually high temperatures due to climate change has made fires easier to ignite and spread. Drought has left forest dry and killed millions of trees, creating forests of firewood ready to ignite.

These trends mean that wildfires now burn more acres and cost more money to fight. A U.S. Forest Service official said in May that the agency anticipated spending as much as $1.7 billion and mobilizing more than 10,000 people to fight wildfires this year. And that’s just one of many agencies in the fight.

“We are seeing wildfires in the United States grow to sizes that were unimaginable just 20 or 30 years ago,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in May during a congressional hearing.

Slowing climate change and drought is a tall order, far out of the scope of the average fire fighting authority. But experts say there are some temporary solutions that can slow the damage. Ecological restoration, for instance, allows forest workers to return a forest to its natural state, which decreases the chances of wildfire.

Read More: This Technology Could Help Predict Where Wildfires Strike Next

TIME Natural Disasters

This Technology Could Help Predict Where Wildfires Strike Next

wildfire helicopter
Getty Images

Scientists say the technology will be in the hands of firefighters next year

The King Fire, one the most devastating forest fires of 2014, began when an arsonist bent on inflicting damage lit a small a swathe of land ablaze. But, as with all forest fires, what transformed the blaze into a disaster of record-breaking proportions was mother nature, not the human who lit the spark. In one afternoon, the fire unexpectedly spread more than 10 miles to the surprise of those fighting it.

Firefighters are familiar with the nearly unpredictable nature of forest fires. But researchers now say they could be better prepared. After years of development, Janice Coen and her colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) say they’re preparing to launch technology that integrates data on weather, topography and other factors to predict how fires spread in a way previously unimaginable.

“With the King Fire, the operational tools didn’t really capture when the fire spread rapidly,” said Janice Coen, project scientist at NCAR. “The fire was creating its own winds and those were what was driving fire growth. Those are the types of things we can capture with this new model.”

Wildfires in the United States cost an estimated $3.5 billion dollars each year and have destroyed countless homes and communities over the past decade. This year alone a wildfire in Alaska has burned more than 5 million acres. But despite millions in funding, accurately predicting wildfire growth has remained difficult.

Read More: How Climate Change Is Making Wildfires Worse

Coen, who has an academic background in atmospheric science, said that early in her research she noticed fire patterns that resembled severe storms. Those patterns had largely escaped the attention of engineers and forest researchers, said Coen. Currently, weather forecasters pass data on anticipated weather to land agencies and scientists observing a fire. Those agencies then try to interpret how predicted weather patterns will affect a fire. The new model integrates those two steps — the weather, and the fire’s own internal patterns — and accounts for interactions between the weather patterns, the land, and the blaze itself.

The NCAR research team has received funding from NASA and has partnered with Colorado firefighters to launch the technology in 2016. Most of the tough science questions have been answered, Coen says. Now, they’re focusing on making the data accessible for firefighters on the ground.

Researchers hope that when wildfire season hits next summer, Colorado firefighters will be able to look at tablets with automatically updating data on fire growth. Once the data is in the hands of fire responders, they will be able to determine how and where a fire will grow or even predict where to allocate resources in advance of a fire.

“This is a really disruptive technology,” said Coen. “People will say it’s a perfect storm of events, it never could have been predicted: the fuel, the terrain, the weather. What I found over 20 years of working on this is that the vast majority of the distinguishing characteristics of each event can be captured with the model.”

TIME Nepal

Experts Fear Earthquake-Ravaged Nepal May Suffer Another Huge Tremor Soon

Even after the April disaster, the fault line between India and Asia remains strained

Another major earthquake in the Himalayan Mountains may be imminent, according to new research that suggests the 7.8-magnitude quake that devastated Nepal in April failed to release all of the region’s seismic energy.

For over five centuries, seismic tension has been building beneath the Himalayas as India gradually shifts northward into the continent. In recent decades, a segment of the narrowing fault line between the Indian and Eurasian Plates became locked by friction, intensifying the buildup of energy that culminated in the April 25 earthquake.

The good news, scientists say, is that the quake, which left between 8,000 and 9,000 dead in Nepal and its border countries, could have been significantly worse. When the stress finally broke the fault, at an epicenter about 50 miles northwest of Kathmandu, the expense of energy traveled to the east, opening only the fault’s shorter eastern stretch, according to two concurrent studies published Thursday in Nature Geoscience and Science Magazine.

The longer western expanse of the fault, however, remains locked, and researchers say it “calls for special attention.” The stress-strained portion, which runs for nearly 500 miles roughly from Kathmandu to the northwest of New Delhi, has not seen a major seismic event since 1505, when an earthquake believed to have measured 8.5 on the Richter Scale — significantly larger than April’s event — shook the region. The recent studies suggest that some of the energy released in the April earthquake rippled westward, compounding with the pent-up energy along this portion of the fault, possibly “facilitating future ruptures.”

“This is a place that needs attention,” Professor Jean-Philippe Avouac, the seismologist who led both studies, told BBC News. “If we had an earthquake today, it would be a disaster because of the density of the population not just in western Nepal but also in northern India.”

TIME Natural Disasters

California Wildfire Almost Doubles in Size Overnight

California wildfire in Lake County
Noah Berger—EPA Firefighters Richard Dykhouse, left, and Dan McCabe confer as the Rocky fire burns near Clearlake, Calif. on Aug. 2, 2015.

Massive blaze west of Sacramento now covers 46,000 acres

A massive wildfire west of Sacramento, California, spanned 46,000 acres Sunday, up from 27,000 acres the previous evening.

The Rocky Fire, in Lake County, was just 5 percent contained on Sunday morning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Dozens of buildings, including 24 houses, have been destroyed in the blaze.

And another 6,000 buildings are threatened by the fire, which sparked in the drought-stricken state on Wednesday.

Multiple areas near the fire were under mandatory evacuation orders, and parts of several highways were closed down, according to Cal Fire.

Nearly 2,000 firefighters were battling the blaze…

Read more from our partners at NBC News

TIME Natural Disasters

This Is What It’s Like to Get Caught in an Avalanche

A helmet cam video shows what it's like to get buried by snow

It’s every skier’s worst nightmare, but one that can indeed be survived.

Kristoffer Carlsson survived an avalanche while skiing in 2011, and brought back helmet-cam video of the snow burying him. Experts say that the best way to survive in Carlsson’s scary situation is to do exactly what he did: Use your hands to create a pocket of air as the snow falls.

TIME Natural Disasters

Yes, California Could Be at Risk of a Tsunami

Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

According to a study released suspiciously close to the release of blockbuster San Andreas

The San Andreas Fault strikes fear in the hearts of Californians. It could shift at any time and cause a devastating earthquake. Now, new research shows there’s two other fault lines off the state’s coast that could rock Los Angeles and potentially cause a small-scale tsunami.

The study, to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, shows that two underwater faults are building up stress much like the San Andreas fault and could rupture in the same way as their famous inland counterpart and generate a 8.0 magnitude earthquake. And if one does, Los Angeles and San Diego may need to prepare for a tsunami — though a relatively small one.

Read More: 3 Places Where the Next Big Earthquake Could Hit

“We’re dealing with continental collision,” said study author Mark Legg in a press release. “That’s fundamental. That’s why we have this mess of a complicated logjam.” Legg, who runs an earthquake consulting firm, has spent decades mapping off-shore faults.

In a no-doubt-purely-coincidental turn of events, the study was published just as Dwayne Johnson disaster movie San Andreas has shaken up the box office with a fictional earthquake and tsunami that leave Los Angeles and San Francisco in ruins. Seismologists say that an actual earthquake would never look anything like the one in the movie. And, while this new research suggests the possibility of tsunami, the wave wouldn’t look anything like the city-destroying one featured in the movie.

“We aren’t going to have a tsunami,” said U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Lucile Jones. “Or if we did it wouldn’t behave like the one in the movie.”

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