It’s been 10 years since the deadly storm, and Doug Bessette, a post-doctoral scholar in Penn State’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, recently saw the indelible mark Hurricane Katrina made on those hardest hit.
“They have a very unique relationship with Katrina,” said Bessette, who traveled to the city and sat down with dozens of its residents. “Almost everybody I talked to lost their house. And they know there’s a possibility it will happen again. But they aren’t afraid. They have just kind of incorporated Katrina into their lives.”
Bassette’s interviews with the people of New Orleans are helping researchers develop a decision-making tool the community can use as it plans and prepares for future risks.
The low-lying coastal city is particularly vulnerable to rising global sea level caused by melting polar ice. It also is facing land loss caused in part by oil and gas exploration and flood control that has robbed the city much of its natural buffer from coastal storms.
“You have hurricane risk, and you have land subsidence risk and climate change on top of that,” Bessette said. “Sea level rise on top of those other things is making the problem much worse. The people of New Orleans could be incorporating all these things into their risk management.”
That’s the goal of a tool being developed by the Sustainable Climate Risk Management (SCRiM), a research network centered at Penn State that links scholars at 19 universities and five research institutions across the world.
The tool will offer strategies to help mitigate climate risk in New Orleans by using both climate modeling and input from people in the community. While it is geared toward decision-makers, Bessette’s interviews are an important component for ensuring the tool is relevant.
“If you’re not representing risk in a way that people can understand, they are not going to use it or trust it,” he said. “We want to make sure people can actually engage with the results and incorporate those into their planning.”
Bessette spoke with dozens in New Orleans, from fishermen to business and religious leaders. He heard from people who want to preserve their heritage and way of life while protecting their land and homes.
They shared their experiences in the decade since Hurricane Katrina, and their vision for the future of their community. And it always seems to come back to the same thing — water.
“They have this almost paradoxical relationship with water,” Bessette said. “It infuses every part of their city and culture, yet it’s their biggest threat. They are at the same time both trying to protect themselves from this water, and relying on it.”