Billion-dollar disasters

Tony Britt sits in front of the RV he and his wife have lived in for the last month as their new mobile home is equipped with utilities. The couple is rebuilding for the second time after Hurricane Laura ripped a hole in their roof. 

In a tiny RV tucked away on a dead-end road in Sulphur, Tony Britt, 57, sits on a small cot opposite his wife, flipping through pictures of their old damaged mobile home after Hurricane Rita in 2005.

After Rita it was Hurricane Ike in 2008, which left over 3 feet of water in their house, forcing them to rebuild. Tired, overheated and stressed, the couple is rebuilding again 12 years later after 2020’s Hurricane Laura ripped a hole in their roof. They’re living in a cramped trailer they bought online until their new mobile home, built 10 feet higher than their last, is equipped with utilities.

For the last month, they’ve used a zip-up shower and a water hose to bathe, and a portable restroom. They wash their clothes at a laundromat 12 miles north, where they drive back and forth for supplies for the new house, ice and other necessities.

The couple has lived here for 25 years. Natural disasters are nothing new for them, but the last year has been rough, especially for Tony, who is on disability due to his arthritis and bad knees, which limit his ability to work around the house.

“We had hoop after hoop to jump through, worse than usual,” Tony said. “This is our fourth time dealing with FEMA, and it just seems like there’s a lot more hoops to jump through this time.”

“If we didn’t have savings, we would have been on the street,” Amy Britt, 56, added.

Six weeks after Hurricane Laura made landfall as the second strongest hurricane to hit Louisiana, Hurricane Delta came ashore just 14 miles farther east. Following the fall hurricanes, an ice storm in February and flooding in May complicated recovery efforts and further displaced residents in Lake Charles and the surrounding area.

“It’s like it’s never ending,” Tony said. “There’s a lot of depression involved. I feel like those storms have taken years off my life. I feel like I’m overwhelmed. I do deal with depression but it’s gotten worse, a lot worse, with these storms. Sometimes you just wake up and you’re like ‘Why am I still here? Why am I putting up with this?’”

Billion-dollar weather disasters in the U.S. are happening more frequently, giving communities less time to recover and prepare, an analysis from Climate Central shows. The last year and a half of back-to-back disasters in the state has left the region in a perpetual state of recovery.

The average time between weather and climate disasters totaling more than a billion dollars in damage has dropped from 82 days on average in the 1980s to just 18 days in the last five years.

Since that time, Louisiana has experienced 85 billion-dollar disasters, totaling over $265 billion in damages, the most of any state behind Texas. Louisiana was hit by the most billion-dollar floods and is tied with Alabama for the third most tropic cyclones.

Disaster recovery efforts, from both the federal and state levels, have been slow and painful for Louisiana residents. Over a year after Hurricane Laura, blue tarps remain on damaged homes, and many residents are just now beginning to rebuild.

The federal government confirmed Tuesday that around $600 million in disaster relief will be available to Southwest Louisiana, but residents, and local and state officials agree the amount is too little, too late.

At the same time, Southeastern Louisiana is in the early stages of recovery after Hurricane Ida, another record-breaking Category 4 hurricane, left thousands displaced. Housing has been the biggest issue after Ida as extensive wind and water damage and slow FEMA aid left many unhoused, as Southerly reported.

In the meantime, the state has set up base camps with tents and utilities for residents, as well as the Hurricane Ida Sheltering Program, meant to provide trailers for displaced residents, though the program comes a month after landfall.

Rising temperatures caused by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions have led to increased frequency and intensity of some weather and climate extremes since pre-industrial times, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. 

The increase in weather extremes observed since 1980 reflects an overall increase of 2 degrees Fahrenheit in global warming since the industrial revolution at the turn of the 20th century. 

We will likely see total warming reach 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit compared to pre-industrial times around mid-century, bypassing a target world leaders aimed to stay under at least until the end of the century in the Paris Agreement, according to the latest IPCC report. When and how quickly we pass this threshold depends on the speed and scale of action on reducing emissions. 

Louisiana should expect more disasters, more often, says Camilo Mora, a geography and environment professor at the University of Hawaii researching climate hazards under future emission scenarios.

“Unfortunately, our choices are now between bad and terrible,” Mora said. “It’s not going to get any better. Everybody who thinks that it’s going to get better is being naive.”

Hurricanes on average will become more intense, though they won’t necessarily strike the state more often, since the formation of a cyclone is complex. Flooding too will pose a greater threat to the state as storms will have more water vapor available in a warmer atmosphere.

The state will also continue losing coastal marshes that slow hurricanes and protect inland communities from storm surges.

For Rep. Tanner Magee, the increasing frequency of hurricanes and flooding means the state needs to think more about disaster preparedness and recovery. Magee represents Houma and eastern parts of Terrebonne Parish, which were devastated by Hurricane Ida. 

Improvements in building codes to withstand stronger wind, better drainage and levee systems are ways to prepare for bigger storms, Magee said, but the allocation of resources after each storm must also improve.

“It’s not a random event anymore,” Magee said. “My single most frustration is that I feel like we’ve had enough of these storms that I think we can do things faster than we’re doing them. I feel like we should know what we’re going to do ahead of time.”

Many residents in Southeastern Louisiana were without gas to power generators and fuel their cars to get much-needed supplies for months after Hurricane Ida. In many cases, the state had enough gas to go around, but the infrastructure and resources to distribute the gas weren't there, Magee said. 

“I think we changed our thinking that now gas stations and convenience stores are critical infrastructure,” Magee said. 

Mike Steele, communications director for Louisiana’s emergency preparedness branch, OHSEP, says the agency isn’t changing how they operate because of more disasters. 

“On any of the issues that involve climate change, that’s important, but we don’t have staff dedicated to analyze this,” Steele said. “Our planning doesn’t change if there’s a 2-degree rise in temperature. We just have to be ready for storms.”

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