climate change

What It’s Like to Live in a City That's Slowly Drowning

Climate change is making New Orleans wetter, hotter, and more dangerous. It's a preview of what might happen to a state near you.

by Michael Patrick Welch; illustrated by Cathryn Virginia
11 November 2019, 1:40pm

Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

The River

On especially nice days, I walk with a cocktail out the door of the Old Point Bar in the sleepy Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans and head up the tall grass levee. At the top, as I sip, I look down the Mississippi River side of the levee, down the long angle of cement that leads to the wide grass batture where we often host my daughters' birthday parties. Sometimes, when the river is extra low, I walk down the sand beachhead that pokes out another 30 feet into the rushing Mississippi. For much of 2019, all of that was under water. For more than six months, I'd climb the levee to drink in peace and arrive at the top to find the river just three feet down from my shoes—the water higher than the first floor of the Old Point Bar.

Especially in recent years, heavier rainfall has combined with melting snow to cause frequent and intense floods along the banks of the Mississippi River. While many experts avoid blaming this phenomenon directly on climate change, coastal scientist John Lopez of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation was fairly blunt on the phone with me. Lopez referenced a study released in March by the National Weather Service for the Army Corps of Engineers. "It found that in the last [three to five decades] that the watershed precipitation on the Mississippi River has increased, and also the frequency and intensity of rain events all along the river," Lopez told me. "The river's levels this year derive from flooding outside of Louisiana. Climate change happening in, say, Illinois is affecting what happens in Louisiana."

Much is made about the perilous state of America's coasts in the age of climate change, but rising water also threatens the 10 states that lie along the Mississippi River, as well as the 31 states that make up the massive Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin. The Mississippi has topped many a levee just in the last couple decades, including in 2011 when it simultaneously flooded Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. This past summer, Iowa flooded again, and the river crumbled some unofficial levees near St Louis.

Louisiana is lucky and unlucky enough to sit both on the river and near the Gulf of Mexico—making our state both an ecological wonder and a laboratory for climate change problems. "Louisiana is the most vulnerable state in the country when it comes to climate change," Louisiana State University climatologist Barry Keim told me, "and maybe in the world."

Though Louisiana is already surreally hot in the summers, according to the States at Risk research project completed by the Climate Central science news organization in 2014, the number of days with an over 105-degree heat index in Louisiana will increase from 24 "danger days" in 2000 to 126 in 2030 to 151 by 2050. Research released in 2015 from Louisiana State University determined that, since the 1950s, Louisiana has seen a 62 percent uptick in extreme rain events, the sort of deluges that brought us the massive Baton Rouge floods in 2016 and the summer 2017 flood. If the rain doesn't wash us out, the sea level is also set to rise around us by almost two feet by 2050, which will also mean ungodly amounts of land loss. Because of climate change, Louisiana could double in its number of droughts, wildfires, and heat-related diseases over the next 30 years.

Climate change will cause damage around the world, but it will hit some places harder and sooner than others. The water rushing by my feet as I sip my drink atop the levee reminds me I live in such a place. And as worried as I am for myself and my neighbors, I know that rising water, heat, and storms—the diseases and other harms those things bring—will spread. What is happening in Louisiana is similar to what will happen to so many other states. Including yours.

The Pumps

In New Orleans, we already see the effects of climate change clearly. I can even hear them: Nighttime storms used to help me sleep, but now they keep me awake listening for "too much" rain—what some weathermen call "rain bombs," where several inches of rain per hour slams Louisiana. Last Mother's Day morning, after this sort of nighttime rain bomb, New Orleans residents could be found outside looking stunned as they vacuumed water from their cars on streets that, in their memories, had never before flooded. The back of my own house even filled with a couple surprise inches for the first time.

New Orleans has flooded so badly these last few years because half of the city sits below sea level, and because the intricate system of underground pumps that keeps New Orleans from filling up with water (the same pumps that put the city below sea level to begin with) haven't worked at 100 percent these last few summers. The pumps were installed beneath the ground in the to push out the same continuous groundwater build-up that prohibits the city's cemeteries from burying caskets underground. The warming climate now creates bigger rain events than our city's pumps were built to defeat. "Everybody knows that our system can [pump out] one inch [of rain] the first hour, and a half an inch every hour thereafter. But I haven't seen any evidence of that," huffed then–New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in 2017 when flood waters kept rising, seemingly defying the pumps.

"The heaviest of rains is getting heavier everywhere," warned New Jersey meteorologist and Climate Central member Sean Sublette, as we discussed the time Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston in 2017 in the most extreme rain event ever to hit a U.S. city. "So these other states are going to have to think about how they're going to mitigate flooding, especially in urban areas where the ground is less permeable. Heavy rains can create… so much water that it's overflowing the sewerage, and there are health effects that come with that. In places like Miami, or Norfolk, Virginia, you are going to have to think of other engineering solutions like walls or pumps. Each solution will have to be unique to the individual geography and geology of each city."

Water splashing against a levee in New Orleans
Flood waters from the Mississippi River splash against the levees of New Orleans. Photo by Matthew Hatcher/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

The Spillways

Louisiana and many other states along the Mississippi avert flooding by building levees—the type of walls that kept the river from creaming New Orleans this year—and also spillways, which are levees fitted with gates that can be lifted to release water, and flood certain assigned areas, taking pressure off of the river whenever it gets dangerously high. The Bonnet Carre Spillway was open for much of 2019 in order to keep the river down to at least 17 feet above sea level in New Orleans—about three feet from the tops of the levees, which, when you are up there, looks scary as shit.

"This has been America's wettest year on record in 124 years," said Matt Roe of the Army Corps of Engineers, who greeted me out at the Bonnet Carre Spillway, one hour northwest of New Orleans. On the spillway levee's left side, Mississippi water sat flat and still upon the batture, where it shouldn't have been sitting. From the spillway's right side gushed violent whitewater and invasive Asian jumping carp. "Right now, we're looking at 1.21 million cubic feet per second moving through—an enormous amount of water," said Roe.

The Army Corps opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway in March and dumped trillions of gallons of polluted river water into some of Louisiana's best saltwater fishing estuaries until the gate was closed on April 11. When the river remained stubbornly at flood level, the Corps opened the Bonnet Carre a second time a month later. The spillway, which had been opened just 13 times in its 80-year existence, had never before been opened twice in one year. For a total of 118 days this year, river water coursed across miles of designated New Orleans public green space, then into Lake Pontchartrain, then out into the Gulf of Mexico, where it did an enormous amount of damage.

Mississippi River water travels down the face of America, picking up fertilizer runoff and other poisons on its way to the Gulf. Since at least the 1970s, the river's Gulf mouth has hosted a seasonal "Dead Zone" of oxygen deficient water, where nothing can live. Because of the Bonnet Carre, the stretch between Lake Pontchartrain all the way to the state of Mississippi was attacked by green poisonous algae, amplified by fertilizer. Any sea creature that could move away did move, and anything that couldn't was killed off. Fishermen reported pulling up nothing but dead crabs and oysters, and the river water was suspected of killing off more dolphins in the Gulf than the BP oil spill. Triggered by climate change, the Bonnet Carre helped increase this season's Gulf's Dead Zone to the size of Massachusetts.

The Heat, the Bugs, the Disease

I had to cut my spillway tour short and get back in my truck to escape the heat. At the same time the river was threatening us, the New Orleans area was also in the middle of a summer of intense heatwaves.

This heat also brought with it the summertime bugs that swarm near the spillway and any other moist area. Mosquito season has been steadily increasing in length. And mosquitos bring more than just annoyance and itch; though Louisiana has yet to record a case of Zika (unlike Puerto Rico, Florida, or Texas), we do boast the country's highest rate of West Nile virus. As the climate warms across America, more northern states will welcome mosquitos, which thrive in temperatures over 80 degrees. According to a recent study in Nature Microbiology, by 2050, warming temperatures will allow humans' bloodsucking arch rival, aedes aegypti, to breed and bite as far north as Chicago.

Louisiana's climate change disease-du-jour though, is vibrio vulnificus, erroneously nicknamed the "flesh-eating bacteria" (it doesn't actually eat flesh but rather causes white blood cells to destroy flesh). In a little more than a decade the disease, said to almost exclusively attack older people, cancer patients, and others with compromised immune systems, has killed almost 400 people exposed to Louisiana's warm waters. The state's shallow, blood-temperature bayous and marshwaters have always bred vibrio—it is the same bacteria that has always made oysters less safe to eat in warmer months—but vibrio also exists in waters all up the East Coast, and seems to be expanding its reach, with recent cases as far north as the Chesapeake and Delaware bays.

As the climate warms, vibrio, like mosquitos, will have more hot, damp states in which to breed.

The Land Loss

Though sensational, the problem of vibrio isn't as perilous as sea level rise. Out in Grand Isle, fishermen suffer land loss that's visible day by day. "There's been a significant retreating coastline here," Danny Wray told me when I recently visited Grand Isle to fish away from the green algae in Lake Pontchartrain. Wray, a Grand Isle charter captain for decades, continues to watch his prospects shrink due to factors including climate change. "[Grand Isle] is the highest area of sea level rise in the northern hemisphere," said Wray. "South Louisiana's going under."

Sublette, the meteorologist, said that Louisiana, as unique as it is, shares vulnerabilities with other parts of America. "Sea level rise is a big problem in southern Florida, around Miami, and will become worse in the next several decades. Northern Virginia is also very susceptible to sea level rise with lots of infrastructure," said Sublette, "but Florida's geology is such that the water comes in from the bottom, seeping into wells that affect water tables, and adding salinity in the water supply. The water is also going to rush into every inlet on each barrier island, so that you will likely have more flooding in your inland bays than you would living on the oceanfront."

"These are things all coastal communities are going to have to deal with," he added.

Anyone who'd care to see real-time land loss should travel to Louisiana, where climate change–caused sea level rise is helping the state lose a football field's worth of wetlands every 100 minutes, as the New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert noted earlier this year—the highest rate in the United States, and one of the highest rates on the planet.

Which brings us back to Grand Isle, where a giant chunk of beach, battered for decades by increasingly brutal summer and winter storms, finally just disappeared into the water in 2017. Louisiana restored it remarkably quickly for a mere $216 million. "That's because Grand Isle has huge economic value, it's a driver," Wray explained. "You go down to other, smaller barrier islands and nobody's fixing those islands, because they don't have near the economic impact. All of the [state's] money's going to build rock jetties to protect shrimping operations and stuff in places like Grand Isle, and there's really no ongoing effort to save the small islands that also help buffer Louisiana against storms."

Wray's message was simple: As climate change–fueled disasters hit previously unschated parts of the U.S., you better live in a financially important place if you expect the government's help. Wray said that around 60 islands have been taken off Louisiana's map in the last 100 years—meaning fewer fish and birds, and more importantly a depletion of Louisiana's natural buffer against incoming storms.

"Losing these islands also means that [places like Barataria Bay are] getting larger, and deeper," said Tim Osborn of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. "That means a much bigger volume of water, all of it beating against the remaining islands." In other words, the coast's destruction will speed up the coast's destruction—until someday you'll be able buy beachfront property in northern Louisiana.

"What I see when I'm out on the water, it's like stage 4 cancer," Wray told me. "I'm glad I'm 64 years old, because I don't think there's 10 more years left out here… You're gonna see more and more other places affected by high water."

People walk along a flooded road.
A flooded street in Mandeville, Louisiana, during Hurricane Barry. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty

The Storms

The Army Corps was about to start closing the Bonnet Carre Spillway this summer when, on July 10, another rain bomb hit Louisiana, just a few summer days before tropical storm Barry. For a week, New Orleans shut down. My office flooded. During my forced break from society, I lay in bed watching the city fill up with water on social media. Businesses flooded even in historically high-and-dry areas like the French Quarter. Some parts of the state reported nine inches of rainfall in just three hours—and all this while we were still terrified that the river would top the levees.

When I moved to New Orleans some 20 years ago, before Katrina, no one would have evacuated for a Category 1 hurricane like Barry. A Cat 1 would have set off only hurricane parties in New Orleans. But a lot of my friends did leave for Barry. The extended high river season broke the rules of nature and overstayed through Spring, to bump up against summertime hurricane season—none of which was supposed to happen. With the Mississippi so high, Barry could've easily forced the river water over our levees. The Army Corps working at the spillways went into emergency response mode.

Luckily, Barry came and went like a false alarm. Still, non-federal levees (built by local parishes, rather than the Army Corps) were overrun in Myrtle Grove and other areas of Plaquemines Parish. Around 100 residents had to be rescued from floodwaters. Several Louisiana cities remained blacked out for days, affecting tens of thousands of residents.

Lopez, of Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, said he thought we'd see a lot more similar messes in the future. "I think there will be more spillway openings, though hopefully not every year," he said. "It's within the range of uncertainty."

The New, Watery Normal

The spillway finally closed on July 27, making for an official total of 123 days open since February. A month later, I went out on my boat and found thick glops of day-glo algae on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain. I've less faith than Lopez that this won't happen every year.

"It's the new normal everywhere," said Sublette. "Something predicted to happen every 25 years, you should now expect it to happen every 10 years. Things that used to happen every 100 years now happen every 25. They happen more regularly now for sure, and they're very high impact, whether we're talking about rains, floods, or droughts, or heatwave. And it will cost us either to rebuild or in human capital in terms of health impacts."

It is also just plain scary as hell. On August 27, as I headed out the door to pick up my two daughters from school, I could tell a special rain was about to explode. By the time I reached their school, floodwater was climbing up our car doors. I had to park on a raised median, remove my shoes, and wade to the school, careful not to, say, fall down an open manhole I couldn't see underwater. Inside, all the students, done with school for 45 minutes now, sat stuck in the cafeteria. It made the floating schools that are being built elsewhere in Louisiana (as well as in climate change afflicted places like Bangladesh) seem like a really good idea, I thought, while carrying my daughters back through the water to my partially submerged car.

It's gonna take a hell of a lot more than some floating schools, or some spillways or levees, to solve America's complex puzzle of climate change problems. All the states must look to each other for answers and collaboration.

Until then, though I don't love another place more than I love Louisiana, I do not feel good living here. For more reasons than just climate change, I feel increasingly guilty raising my kids here. I sometimes feel like a rube owning property here. And Louisiana is definitely not doing enough to meet the problem head on.

New Orleans has no plans yet to update our pumps, but on March 29, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced a historic lawsuit against Chevron, ExxonMobil, Entergy New Orleans, and several other oil and gas companies, demanding they repair damage to wetlands. There's also the state's Coastal Master Plan, updated in 2017 to include 124 projects (79 restoration, 13 structural protection, and 32 nonstructural risk-reduction projects) set to build and protect more than 800 square miles of new land over the next 50 years. The Master Plan, though, is really just a slate of hoped-for projects, to be hypothetically completed some time in the next 30 years, if Louisiana still exists then.

If we have to, my family and I will leave, and buy a few more years on dry land. But inevitably, climate change will follow us.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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