'Stay Out of Nature's Way': How Cities Are Preparing to Face New Disasters

December 13, 2018 AT 10:15 AM

By John Schwartz

We rarely do much to protect our cities until disaster strikes. We fool ourselves into thinking we are safe, until a catastrophic event shows us how wrong we are.

New York discovered that grim fact in Superstorm Sandy. Houston in Harvey. San Juan in Maria. And, of course, New Orleans after Katrina.

Cities that have been through a disaster learn one important lesson: “Nature wins.”

That succinct message was delivered by Edward M. Emmett, the county judge for Harris County, Tex., which includes Houston, at the Cities for Tomorrow conference hosted last week by The New York Times.

The conference took place in New Orleans, which has experienced a remarkable recovery in the 13 years since Katrina. Despite 50 years of building hurricane protection around the city, its flawed flood walls and levees collapsed after the hurricane struck in 2005.

The Army Corps of Engineers would later acknowledge that it had built “a system in name only.” Now, some $15 billion later, New Orleans is safer. One of the last major pieces of the puzzle came together this year with the completion of a pumping station at the mouth of the 17th Street Canal, where the flood walls breached so calamitously in Katrina.

The 17th Street Canal pumping station in New Orleans, at the edge of Lake Pontchartrain.CreditWilliam Widmer for The New York Times

But the city’s new ring of protection could still be overwhelmed in major storms.

Other cities are still learning the lessons of New Orleans, and climate change is making the need to learn more urgent — climate change stands out as one of the greatest challenges for cities around the world. The United Nations’ most recent report on global climate laid out grim scenarios if the world’s average temperature rises by 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), or even 1.5 degrees, above preindustrial levels.

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