Nation has large stake in protecting Louisiana from storms, Mayor Mitch Landrieu says

07 25, 2012 by The Times-Picayune

New Orleans should be viewed as the "canary in the coal mine" for failures of the nation's infrastructure, including the more than 50 failures of floodwalls and levees during Hurricane Katrina, Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Tuesday told an audience of business, government and environmental leaders discussing how best to mitigate the damages of weather-caused disasters. Landrieu's comments were what he labeled a "clarion call" aimed at garnering national support for the state's $50 billion, 50-year master plan to build a sustainable coastline to protect New Orleans, other south Louisiana communities and coastal industries that include a significant share of the nation's oil and natural gas.

"We're announcing to the rest of the country that they ignore us at their peril and that it's hypocritical to talk about economic security and national security without making this a national priority," Landrieu said.

What seems like a high price tag for coastal restoration and protection pales when compared with the cost of waging 10-year wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he said.

"When somebody comes to me in the city of New Orleans and says they can't find a couple billions of dollars, when they just spent trillions someplace else, $50 billion is a lot?" Landrieu said. "When you compare it to the damage that was done (by Katrina), and the cost that you're going to incur if you don't do it, it doesn't seem to be a poor investment to make sure that the nation is secure, both in our economic and national security."

Landrieu's remarks kicked off "Gulf Coast: Preparing for Extreme Weather," a two-day conference aimed at outlining ways to improve the resiliency of coastal communities through restoration and levee projects, as well as improved building codes and land use plans.

The conference is sponsored by RenaissanceRe insurance company, Entergy Corp., WeatherPredict Consulting Inc., the National Wildlife Federation and America's Wetland.

Storms' costs to rise

Entergy Corp. has an obvious incentive in reducing damage from storm surges, said Jeff Williams, director of climate consulting for the company.

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the company was unable to serve 1.1 million customers. When that lost revenue was added to damage caused to the company's electric power and transmission assets, the company estimated its losses at $1.5 billion, which also forced it to place subsidiary Entergy New Orleans into bankruptcy, Williams said.

Climate change, including sea level rise exacerbated by subsidence along Louisiana and other parts of the Gulf Coast, will result in rapidly increasing economic costs from hurricanes, he said.

In Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi alone, by 2030, there will be $2 trillion in assets at risk from storm surges, including 50,000 oil and gas structures, 500,000 miles of electric transmission and distribution lines, and 300 electric generation facilities.

While climate change is likely to result in fewer hurricanes, those that do occur are likely to be stronger, which -- added to the higher water levels along the coast ­­-- will result in greater damage, Williams said.

The average annual loss from catastrophic weather is expected to increase by 65 percent, from an estimated $14.2 billion in 2010 to between $21.5 billion and $23.4 billion, he said.

To reduce that damage, the Louisiana Legislature this year adopted a master plan that uses sediment carried by the Mississippi River as a tool to build wetlands along the southeastern part of the state's coastline over the next 50 years, said Jerome Zeringue, deputy director of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. The state plan also would improve or build new levee systems to better protect New Orleans and other communities from surges.

The difficult human lessons learned from Katrina and Rita must be adopted by both governments and individuals, to assure that people do a better job of coping during future storms, said Pamela Jenkins, a sociology professor with University of New Orleans' Center for Hazards Assessment, Response and Technology.

The old refrain of "get in your car and go" didn't work for several categories of New Orleans residents, including the elderly, children and the mentally ill, she said. Some didn't have cars, others were separated from their parents when they were told to evacuate, while others just couldn't leave.

"The refrain should change to 'How can we help people leave the area,'" and that's exactly what local emergency preparedness organizations are trying to do, post-Katrina, she said.

Businesses urged to be ready

The New Orleans business community also should be reviewing the "common sense" lessons of Katrina, said Bill Aaron, chairman of the board of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce: review and update insurance policies now to assure they match the present value of building and contents; don't expect federal officials to provide assistance quickly in a disaster's aftermath; have a plan for both contacting and paying employees during evacuations.

"We need to realize that we have to take care of ourselves, whether it's insurance or paperwork, etc.," Aaron said.

The conference continues at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, 2 Poydras St.