This week marks the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Rita, a Category 5 storm, weakened to Category 3 before coming ashore, that caused devastation to East Texas and the city of Houston. It seems fitting that its anniversary also falls on Climate Week, an annual international summit that brings together leaders, activists and non-profit organizations—all calling for greater climate action and climate change commitments.
As our ocean continues to experience the impacts of climate change, we should be prepared for more frequent and even worse storms and hurricanes. It’s important to clarify that climate change does not cause hurricanes, but warmer ocean temperatures and higher sea levels, which are effects of climate change, are expected to increase the intensity and frequency of hurricanes and other types of tropical cyclones, such as typhoons.Even in 2020, we’ve had so many tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic, we’ve already run through the alphabetical list of 21 names for the year and have taken up the Greek alphabet in order to name the rest of the coming storms, a foreboding sign of the mythological-like disasters that our coastal communities face.
This happened in 2005 as well, the same year that both Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Katrina struck the South. This past August was the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, also a Category 5 storm that reduced to Category 3 upon landfall—but the impacts of this storm were astronomical.
I was 10 years old and living in New Orleans when the storm struck. My family was lucky enough to have the means to evacuate, but there were many that did not.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the total damage from Hurricane Katrina is estimated to be $161 billion. Numerous failures of levees around New Orleans led to catastrophic flooding, 70% of New Orleans’ occupied housing were damaged and more than one million people in the Gulf region were displaced.
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I remember looking out the window of our van as we evacuated the day before the storm was expected to hit, stuck in hours of traffic right outside the city, surrounded by a few of our possessions, the car radio rattling off news of the impeding storm as it was occasionally interrupted by the blaring alert indicating a state of emergency. I remember sitting in a hotel room in Arkansas, trying to occupy my baby sister while my parents waited for the small television to provide news of our friends and family—the gloom momentarily lifted as our dog repeatedly attempted to walk through a sliding glass door. We had boarded up the house and left our two cats at home, steadily realizing our mistake as the news showed images and videos of water levels rising and as people were stranded on their roofs, waiting for help to arrive.A few months later, I was in Virginia, living in a small apartment with my mom and sister. My dad had a job in data disaster recovery and needed to be back in the city. An animal rescue group went around New Orleans, releasing animals that were left behind and we were reunited with our cats. We returned home on Christmas Eve.
Needless to say, it was a grim Christmas as we drove around the city of New Orleans. Trees were fallen, large appliances and debris littered streets, and flood lines marred houses, but we were grateful to be together as a family, in the city we call home.
As someone who has been displaced, who has had friends and family lose their homes and lose loved ones, who has seen the city of New Orleans in shambles, I ask that you talk to your elected officials about climate change, to support local measures that aim to address this issue and to advocate for those who are most at risk.
Black, Indigenous and other communities of color are disproportionately affected by climate change and in most cases, and as was the case for Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, are the least prepared and receive the least amount of support before and after storms and other natural disasters. We need to provide support for all communities, but especially these communities that are hit hardest. If we don’t do something to address this issue and adapt, as a nation, we are going to lose people, homes and beloved places.