How Climate Change Is Making Hurricanes Like Ida Even Worse : Consider This from NPR Hurricane Ida's winds intensified rapidly as the storm approached coastal Louisiana over the weekend — making landfall at its most powerful. NPR's Rebecca Hersher explains how Ida was supercharged by climate change.

Now the hurricane's remnants are moving north and east, where millions are bracing for flooding and tornado threats. Janey Camp with Vanderbilt University tells NPR why climate change means flooding will become more common in areas where people haven't been accustomed to it in the past.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

How Climate Change Is Making Storms Like Ida Even Worse

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1032762943/1033020193" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Louisiana's Lafourche Parish has a motto - feeding and fueling America. And that's because it's home to one of the largest shipping ports on the Gulf Coast, Port Fourchon - a port that will likely be shut down for weeks.

CHETT CHIASSON: There's vessels, you know, in places that they're not supposed to be.

CORNISH: Chett Chiasson, the executive director of the port, told NPR he wouldn't be surprised to see gas prices rise. Fourchon services a lot of deepwater oil production.

CHIASSON: There is no electricity. There will not be electricity for a long time. And in our area, in our community, we have no running water.

CORNISH: As of Tuesday afternoon, more than a million customers in Louisiana were still without power and could be for weeks.

ROD WEST: And the power outages continue to increase as the storm moved through Louisiana into Mississippi.

CORNISH: Rod West is group president of utility operations for Entergy Corporation, which provides power to four states, including Louisiana. He told NPR that damage assessments alone would take days.

WEST: We were asked even while the storm was still ravaging the service area. We were asked, well, how long is it going to take to restore the power? And the honest answer is we won't be able to know that until we know exactly what the damage is.

CORNISH: Loss of power was a big concern for area hospitals, many of which are overwhelmed with COVID patients.

JOHN HEATON: And it's especially trying time being fairly full throughout the pandemic and particularly now.

CORNISH: Dr. John Heaton, chief medical officer at LCMC Health, says his hospital system has kept the lights on. But the ICUs? They're full. If neighboring hospitals dealing with storm damage need help in the coming days, things will get really hard.

HEATON: You know, when a small rural hospital 70 or 80 miles away needs to transfer some patients, we have no ICU capacity. And it's hard to say no.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - shipping, fuel, electricity, health care, essential workers and systems straining after a powerful storm that millions more will feel in the coming days. It's exactly the kind of storm that climate change is making even worse. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Tuesday, August 31.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Now, you might remember a few weeks back, we told you about a landmark report from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It warned that human-caused climate change is accelerating and that we're running out of time to avoid its most catastrophic effects and that extreme weather events are more likely as a result.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Right now, Hurricane Ida is making its dangerous trek towards the U.S. Gulf Coast.

CORNISH: Hurricane Ida is exactly the kind of event that scientists were talking about. On Saturday evening, Ida was a modest Category 2 storm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: With 105-mile-per-hour winds, but it's poised to rapidly intensify.

CORNISH: And that's what it did, just as forecasters predicted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: So Hurricane Ida has strengthened to a Category 3 storm with winds of 115 miles an hour. It is...

CORNISH: From Saturday night...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour

CORNISH: ...Into Sunday morning...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: It's now up to 145 miles per hour.

CORNISH: ...Ida got stronger by the hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: The storm has strengthened yet again. The last time we spoke, sustained winds were 145. They're now up to 150. I want to point out...

CORNISH: All of this set the storm up to be at its most powerful, just as it made landfall over Louisiana.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Bringing as much as 20 inches of rain to some areas with the potential for destructive storm surge and strong winds. Yesterday...

CORNISH: So how did Ida get so powerful so fast?

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: So climate change is basically supercharging this storm.

CORNISH: That's Rebecca Hersher, correspondent for NPR's climate team. We spoke on Monday.

HERSHER: What climate change does is it adds fuel to a hurricane, fuel in the form of heat. So hurricanes form over water. You can think of them like engines spinning up like a propeller on a plane. And the energy for that propeller comes from the heat in the water. As the earth gets hotter, because of climate change, the water on the surface of the ocean it also gets hotter. So there's more energy for storms like Ida to get really big and really powerful.

CORNISH: What's the evidence for that? How do we know this happened with Ida specifically?

HERSHER: So we can basically observe it in real time, which is pretty terrifying. So, for example, let's talk about the wind. On Saturday, the day before Ida made landfall, it had top wind speeds of about 85 miles an hour, which is pretty serious. It can remove shingles from a roof or snap off the limb of a tree. But overnight, the storm got a lot more powerful. The top wind speeds jumped to about 150 miles an hour. That is fast enough to tear whole roofs off of houses, snap power poles, you know, uproot entire trees. And that extra power, it came from the water in the Gulf of Mexico.

CORNISH: What do you mean by that? How, like, warm was that water?

HERSHER: It was basically like a bathtub, about 85 degrees, which is a few degrees warmer than average if you look at measurements from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. So weather forecasters could watch the storm feed on that heat. And when a hurricane gains that much power that quickly, scientists call it rapid intensification. So studies have found that hurricanes are more likely to rapidly intensify because of global warming. And people who live on the Gulf Coast of the U.S., they are on the front lines of this. You know, Hurricane Harvey did this in 2017, Michael in 2018, Laura in 2020 and now Ida. They have all rapidly intensified.

CORNISH: Does the speed of the intensity translate to a more powerful storm?

HERSHER: Yes. Yes, it does. And it also gives people less time to prepare. So when we're talking about these really fast wind speeds that come really quickly, you know, there's less time. There might not be time to evacuate by the time you know the storm is going to be that powerful. And the National Weather Service tries to get around this by putting out warning, saying basically, you know, this storm is likely to get a lot stronger before it makes landfall, but it can be really hard to convince people to take a storm seriously when it intensifies really late.

CORNISH: Ida, at this point, is a tropical storm. It's heading northeast. Is climate change playing a role in kind of what happens next, how it's moving?

HERSHER: Yes, absolutely. So the hot water in the Gulf of Mexico also helped the storm suck up moisture. That falls as rain. It is really important to remember that these storms can cause flooding really far inland. So in Mississippi, we're going to see a lot of flooding. And then the track goes through central Tennessee, where they just had a lot of deadly flash floods. So people in the path need to take those flood warnings really seriously.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Rebecca Hersher with NPR's climate team.

The good news emerging after Ida's landfall is that in New Orleans, the levee system held. That's unlike, of course, what happened during Hurricane Katrina 16 years ago, when a storm surge breached levees and inundated the city. In the flooding and aftermath, more than 1,500 people died in Louisiana alone. Ida, so far, has been blamed for four deaths in Louisiana, a number that the governor warned may rise considerably. But now, people there face a new threat. Many could be without power for weeks in stifling summer heat.

As the remnants of Ida spread farther north and east, millions of people are bracing for the threat of flooding or tornadoes. And that includes middle Tennessee, which, as you just heard, is still recovering from a catastrophic storm that dumped 17 inches of rain in 24 hours. That killed at least 22 people. Climate scientists say storms like these are not just freak events, even if that's how people see them.

JANEY CAMP: I think it's more seen as an anomaly even though we've had several pretty significant flood events in the past decade.

CORNISH: Janey Camp, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University, told NPR that flooding is becoming more common in areas like Tennessee, where people haven't had to worry much about it in the past. She spoke to NPR's Ari Shapiro.

CAMP: It's becoming a regular thing, but it's hitting different people in different ways, so I don't think the general population is seeing this as the norm yet.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Even to describe it the norm doesn't quite capture it because climate change means the definition of normal is just going to keep getting worse, right?

CAMP: Absolutely. I think we're going to see more extreme events, and we're going to see flooding in areas that we historically have not and at levels that we haven't seen.

SHAPIRO: Explain why that's happening in Tennessee. Because I think many people associate climate-related flooding with coastal areas like Miami, New Orleans, cities that get hit by hurricanes. Explain why a landlocked state like Tennessee is seeing more of this.

CAMP: Well, Tennessee may be a landlocked state, but we have a lot of surface waters and rivers and streams and tributaries to the rivers and streams. But we also see low-lying areas where a lot of precipitation accumulates, and we don't have adequate stormwater infrastructure and drainage to convey that water away. That can happen in landlocked states like Tennessee.

SHAPIRO: So let's say you identify your house as being in a flood-prone area. Maybe the city is even offering to buy out houses in those neighborhoods. How likely are people to actually relocate based on a forecast of what climate change is going to do in their part of the country?

CAMP: So in the Nashville area, we've had a pretty proactive home buyout program in place for over 30 years. And the city of Nashville has a wish list of properties that they know have potential flood risk. The challenge is not everyone that is offered a buyout participates because of their connection to their home and their community. And then what we've seen in Nashville and other areas is there's limited housing stock for people to relocate to that's at a comparable value without having to move away from their local community and that network of social connections that they are tied to.

SHAPIRO: I wonder whether you think these programs that are going to require major adaptations and big adjustments in people's...

CAMP: Right.

SHAPIRO: ...Lives are likely to succeed without that buy-in from the local population.

CAMP: The timeline for the projections is often challenging for individuals, especially if you think about someone that may have lived in their home 50 or 60 years. When you say, well, with climate change, you can't live here anymore in the next 10 or 20 years, it's hard for them to kind of grasp that and think about starting over somewhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Professor Janey Camp of Vanderbilt University, who studies climate change and risk management.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.