In the Gulf's Rising Tide, Hurricane Sandy Strikes a Familiar Chord

Down in the Louisiana bayou, people have first-hand knowledge of the kind of suffering a maelstrom like Superstorm Sandy brings. After the titanic tempest slammed into northeast coastal communities, killing more than 100 and making thousands homeless, people in the Gulf could feel their pain.

After all, Gulf residents are habitual witnesses to raging gales that roar in on super-heated waters, swamping levees, flooding homes, washing away beachfront and protective marshlands. It’s a relentless land-killing assault that will only get worse as humanity pumps billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon pollution into the atmosphere each year.

Sea level rise already is contributing to an astounding loss of wetlands in the Gulf. Since 1932, scientists say the coastal area has lost more than 1,800 square miles—25 percent of its former size—representing 90 percent of the overall wetland loss in the continental U.S. It’s a cautionary tale for residents along the east coast, where sea levels boosted by a record arctic ice melt are expected to rise by nearly four feet by the end of the century. Scientists say storms like Sandy will become more common as warming waters and changing weather patterns create more disastrous extreme weather events. Here’s how NRDC’s Dan Lashof blogged recently:

In a nutshell, global warming heats up our oceans and loads hurricanes and other storms with extra energy, making them more violent, increasing the amount of rainfall and high winds they deliver and making flooding more likely.

Global warming also leads to rising sea levels, which boosts storm surges, and in turn lead to more severe flooding. Sea levels stretching from Boston to Norfolk, Va. are rising four times as fast as the global average, making the region more vulnerable to flooding.

Sea temperatures are also warmer. September saw the second-highest global ocean temperatures on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Off the Northeast United States in particular, sea surface temperatures are about five degrees above average.

 Watch the NRDC video "This is What Global Warming Looks Like"

Deep in the Louisiana bayou, residents know the kinds of storms that a warming world can bring. Just ask Kindra Arnesen, wife of a commercial fisherman and mother of two, who lives in the fishing community of Buras at the southern end of Plaquemines Parish. She knows from experience just how tough it is to pick up after a disastrous storm like Sandy. "Many in the northeast will find out just how hard it is to recover," she says. “I guarantee the people in New York don’t understand what just happened. Most of them haven’t had to deal with what we’ve been going through down here. It’s very hard.”

Hurricanes aren’t new to the Gulf coast, but the weather of the past decade has been particularly harsh for people in the bayou. In 2005, a record-breaking 28 tropical storms formed in the Atlantic, led by the mother of all recent cyclones, Katrina, one of the most destructive hurricanes to hit the U.S. The monstrous storm smashed into Plaquemines first and later killed more than 1,800 people, leaving more than $100 billion in its lethal wake. It was followed a month later by Hurricane Rita, a Category 3 hurricane at landfall that crashed into the Texas/Louisiana border, inundating already flooded coastal areas and killing over a hundred people as it marched inland.

Like Kindra, many fishermen's homes were wiped out by these storms. But no one was prepared for the historic man-made oil disaster that hit their coast five years later. BP’s massive Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010 killed 11 workers and spewed nearly five million barrels of Louisiana crude into some of the Gulf’s most productive fisheries. Scientists continue to study ongoing damages from the three-month, mile-deep volcano of oil that was mixed with chemical oil dispersants before it washed onto shorelines of four states. Commercial and recreational fishermen in some areas continue to report abnormally low catches, and no one knows what the long term impacts on the  fisheries will be. 

Kindra Arnesen at oil-damaged Bay Jimmy, LA, 2011  Photo: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

Residents say the oily assault is far from over, not by a long shot. Every storm that blows ashore brings with it more evidence of the Louisiana crude that gushed into the Gulf. Last August, Hurricane Isaac—a Category 1 hurricane—washed away more shoreline as it slowly swirled along the Louisiana coast, spewing tar balls back onto oil-scrubbed beaches, exposing tar mats of weathered oil that rose to the surface like crude-soaked cadavers drawn from their watery graves. Isaac damaged tens of thousands of Louisiana homes and caused millions of dollars in damages, knocking some coastal communities like Grand Isle for a loop.

For most Gulf residents, Cat 1 hurricanes are as bothersome as fleas on a feral hog. It's usually no big deal. But these days, it doesn’t take a Katrina-sized storm to wreak havoc in the bayou.  As sea levels rise, oil companies continue to drill and cut more pipelines through the fragile Louisiana wetlands, ripping apart nature's protective barrier against storm surge. Experts say flooding in the bayou will only get worse. Surging seas will swallow more and more of Louisiana’s dwindling marshlands, drowning a rich Cajun and indigenous culture under its rising tide.  

“I just don’t understand how people can call climate change a hoax,” Kindra says. “If the Mississippi River hadn’t been so low this summer we would have had a major flood here after Isaac came through here,” Kindra says. “There’s not much protection left around here after what’s happened to the delta. It’s just not sustainable.”

Kindra and other Gulf residents say they are fighting for their survival. They and state officials are worried the court ordered BP settlement will not cover long-term financial problems related to the spill; many are concerned about health problems they worry will not be covered as well. Kindra is considering moving her family out of the bayou to another fishing community that is safe from the dual threats of the petrochemical industry and rising seas.

But where? The truth is no one is really safe from the ravages of global climate change. Whether you are a fisherman in the storm-battered Gulf or a New York homeowner recovering from Sandy-slammed New York, a changing climate will likely impact your future health unless we take action now.

Fortunately, we do have solutions that can turn this around. Clean energy technologies can slow the dangerous flow of carbon pollution and create good paying jobs in the process. And as the recent election shows, Americans are ready to make that change. Here’s how NRDC’s Peter Lehner put it in a recent blog:  

Now is the time for America to come together and fight climate change. Poll after poll has shown the strong bipartisan support for clean energy solutions. Last month, Hart Research Associates found that nine out of 10 Americans say developing renewable energy should be a priority for the president and Congress, and that includes 85 percent of Republicans and 89 percent of Independents. And two thirds of Americans want to extend tax incentives for clean energy….the tide is turning. Voters just rejected the most well funded attempt to hand over our government to polluters and their allies. Voters took the country’s future back into their own hands, rather than letting polluters run the country. They—we—put faith in clean energy and climate champions instead. Now it is time for our leaders to act on that resolve.

But the question remains, will our political leaders take bold action to encourage the development of clean energy sources? Or will they push fossil fuel technologies that continue to poison the atmosphere with carbon, threatening to drown more seashore communities beneath the waves?

Voters have spoken and the path is clear. The climate is changing and the planet is already dangerously warm. It's time to hold our politicians’ feet to the fire.