Obama at Katrina Anniversary Urges More Climate Resilience

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By Dean Scott and Andrea Vittorio

Aug. 27 — President Barack Obama Aug. 27 touted federal efforts to rebuild New Orleans in the 10 years since Hurricane Katrina and said he'll push the city and other local communities to prepare for increasingly severe storms linked to climate change.

“Making our communities more resilient is going to be increasingly important because we're going to see more extreme weather events as a result of climate change—deeper droughts, deadlier wildfire, stronger storms,” Obama said in his speech in the historic Louisiana city.

He said New Orleans is “becoming a model for the nation when it comes to disaster response and resilience” from the lessons local, state and federal governments learned from the 2005 storm, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Those improvements included a $14 billion system of improved levees, pump stations and gates, the president said, a system he added had withstood “the test” of Hurricane Isaac, which struck landfall in the southeastern U.S. in 2012.

Obama said he would continue to highlight the need for the U.S. to show leadership in international efforts to expand clean energy sources and cut global greenhouse gas emissions during a multi-day trip to Alaska.

Resilience Continued Theme

The president's trip to the Alaskan Arctic, the first for a sitting president, is to include a speech at an Aug. 31 State Department meeting of scientists, policy makers and businesses from around the world gathered to discuss how rising temperatures are reshaping the region.

Obama also is to visit Seward, Dillingham and other communities affected by warming global temperatures and other climate impacts.

The president's New Orleans speech was the latest reference in recent days to the importance of resilience—improving infrastructure, for example, to protect cities from rising sea levels—and the broader challenge of addressing climate change. In an Aug. 24 speech at the Las Vegas National Clean Energy Forum, Obama highlighted U.S. gains in deploying solar and other renewable energy sources during his presidency and said “no challenge poses a greater threat to our future than climate change.”

His Las Vegas speech also highlighted a number of new administration efforts to expand the use of clean energy sources. Obama at the clean energy forum also touted the first U.S. carbon pollution limits for power plants, which the Environmental Protection Agency finalized in early August, as “the single most important step America has ever taken to combat climate change” and “the first set of nationwide standards to end the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants”.

Learning From New Orleans' Experience

State and local officials in New Orleans have made an effort to rebuild the hurricane-torn city in a more resilient manner in the decade since Katrina made landfall in August 2005. For example, it redesigned and in some cases relocated schools and improved stormwater systems to reduce flooding.

But the city has faced obstacles that come with using federal disaster relief funding to build back better, rather than building back to where things were, according to an Aug. 26 study from Georgetown University's Climate Center.

“The obstacles the city encountered in deploying federal dollars bring to light the challenges faced by all communities that seek to rebuild more resiliently in the aftermath of a disaster,” according to the study, “Reimagining New Orleans Post-Katrina: A Case Study in Using Disaster Recovery Funds to Rebuild More Resiliently.”

Part of the problem, the study said, was due to the inherent limitations in the Stafford Act, the statute governing disaster recovery. Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have sought to address these issues with targeted reforms after Hurricane Katrina and later after Hurricane Sandy.

More recently, the Obama administration also tried to root out these kinds of obstacles by convening a task force of local state, local and tribal leaders who, over the course of a year, suggested ways the federal government could better serve their needs when it comes to dealing with climate change and the more extreme weather that comes with it.

Still, some programs, such as FEMA's public assistance grants, may need further reforms, the study said.

New York Flood Protection

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said Aug. 27 that his city has committed an additional $100 million in capital spending to its climate resiliency plan to bolster flood protection in lower Manhattan.

The new flood protection system will complement a previously announced $20 billion citywide resiliency plan. The broader plan builds on a blueprint set out in 2013 in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which hit the city in October 2012 causing widespread flood damage.

The mayor's announcement was timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

The lower Manhattan flood protection and resiliency measures will include coastal protection, stormwater management, housing resiliency components and a focus on collateral benefits to local communities, such as residents of city housing developments and other apartment buildings, the mayor said.

The city, he said, plans to issue a request for proposals in September, followed by “an extensive community engagement process to shape the final design.”

The city capital spending could trigger another $500 million in grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development's National Disaster Resilience Competition, if a pending application is successful, the city said.

With assistance from John Herzfeld in New York

To contact the reporters on this story: Dean Scott and Andrea Vittorio in Washington at dscott@bna.com and avittorio@bna.com, and John Herzfeld in New York at jherzfeld@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

The Georgetown Climate Center study, “Reimagining New Orleans Post-Katrina: A Case Study in Using Disaster Recovery Funds to Rebuild More Resiliently,” is available at http://www.georgetownclimate.org/sites/www.georgetownclimate.org/files/GCC-Reimagining_New_Orleans_Post_Katrina-August2015-Final.pdf.

The EPA Fact Sheet on southeastern U.S. climate impacts is available at http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/impacts-adaptation/southeast.html#ref3.

More information on New York City's resiliency plan is at http://www.nyc.gov/html/planyc/html/resiliency/resiliency.shtml