The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Hurricane Ida shows the huge investments to protect New Orleans after Katrina paid off. It’s a lesson for other cities.

A statue of the Virgin Mary sits in a flooded yard from Hurricane Ida on Aug. 31. (Dan Anderson/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Hurricane Ida, the fifth-strongest hurricane ever to hit the mainland United States, slammed into New Orleans on Sunday, bringing to Louisiana’s southern coast 150-mile-per-hour winds and a 16-foot storm surge exactly 16 years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. The difference between 2005 and now, however, is dramatic, as well as a tribute to lessons learned and investments made after that earlier tragedy.

Ida’s impacts are by no means small. The storm destroyed a major transmission line over the Mississippi River. Along with other damage, this left 1 million people in Louisiana and Mississippi without electricity and no firm sense of when the lights — or the air conditioning in swampy New Orleans — would come back on. Hospitals packed with covid-19 patients had to evacuate, and the virus may spread among people who took refuge in shelters. The death toll rose Tuesday to four, and will likely ascend further as cleanup continues, but will come nowhere near the 1,800 lives that Katrina took.

The $14.5 billion network of seawalls and levees that the Army Corps of Engineers constructed after Katrina held up well against Ida. The two storms were not identical, so the comparison is imperfect, but images of whole neighborhoods submerged in murky water come this time from New Orleans suburbs located outside the city’s defenses. Sixteen years ago, inadequately constructed levees protecting low-lying neighborhoods collapsed against the force of a storm surge. This time, none of the major levees failed, despite some limited overtopping, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) reported.

In one of the largest civil works projects ever, the corps constructed or hardened a 130-mile ring, including a massive $1.1 billion surge barrier designed to withstand a 30-foot storm surge. Along with stricter building codes and other measures, these investments now appear to have paid off.

The lesson for New Orleans — and many other low-lying areas — is to prepare adequately for encroaching water, which will become a greater and more frequent threat as climate change proceeds. The nation must fund the infrastructure needed to protect places such as New York harbor and make tough choices about which areas are simply too expensive to protect. Even New Orleans remains vulnerable. The corps says it must spend an additional $1.7 billion raising the city’s levees because they sank as they settled post-construction — and the sea keeps rising. Some localities have struggled to persuade residents to pay for the system’s upkeep. Meanwhile, Louisiana’s wetlands, the natural barriers that have long protected the coast from storms, continue to disappear.

Leaders from the local to the federal level must not wait for another Hurricane Katrina to commit to preparing for the future that awaits. Ida suggests that major risks can be managed — if they are taken seriously.