DisastersPredicting, Managing, and Preparing for Disasters Like Hurricane Ida

By Megan Lowry

Published 30 September 2021

Since Hurricane Katrina swept through Louisiana almost exactly 16 years ago, the National Academies have helped produce scientific insights and recommendations through initiatives to help policymakers avoid the worst impacts of future disasters.

Today, communities across Louisiana and Southeastern coasts are emerging from the shadow of Hurricane Ida. The storm has left New Orleans without power, surrounding areas flooded, and thousands evacuated from their homes.

Since Hurricane Katrina swept through Louisiana almost exactly 16 years ago, the National Academies have helped produce scientific insights and recommendations through initiatives such as the Resilient America Program to help policymakers avoid the worst impacts of future disasters — addressing questions like: How can we improve hurricane prediction? How can cities and states better manage evacuations? How can we make sure the electrical grid is ready for increasingly intense storms?

Predicting Disaster
In 2009, just four years after flooding from Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, a National Academies committee raised the alarm on how inaccurate federal flood maps can place lives, property, and infrastructure at risk. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps are used to predict who needs to be warned about potential floods, regulate building development on floodplains, and set flood insurance rates. The report laid out techniques that FEMA could use to improve the accuracy and detail of its maps, and made it clear that the costs of doing so would be far outweighed by the benefits of better information.

More recently, the Academies called for a comprehensive scientific effort to improve our understanding of the Gulf of Mexico’s Loop Current System. The Loop Current System has major implications for hurricane intensity, but despite decades of research, important questions about how it works remain unanswered. The current plays an important role in how hurricanes in the area become stronger and more destructive in the few days prior to making landfall. Hurricane Katrina, for instance, picked up wind speed dramatically as it passed over the loop current.

Since that report was published, the National Academies’ Gulf Research Program has helped to invest in better scientific tools to measure and understand the current through the Understanding Gulf Ocean Systems grant program. One of these grants supports temperature-sensing buoys placed on the Gulf that can record surface temperature and the depth of warmer waters, both of which can affect how storms intensify as they move over the Gulf.

More accurate storm prediction can mean better leadership as a storm approaches, but as climate change continues to pose an increasing risk for coastal flooding and more intense storms, a more unified and long-term vision for coastal risk management is needed, says a 2014 report from the National Academies.

Managing Dual Disasters
The ongoing pandemic adds another layer of risk and complexity as leaders decide how to respond to the storm. The risk of COVID-19 can make traditional evacuation and sheltering plans less safe. For example, crowding along evacuation routes at restaurants, rest stops, and hotels can increase the risk of transmission.

A recent rapid expert consultation explored how emergency managers and decision-makers can update their sheltering and evacuation plans during the pandemic to keep their communities safe. Good risk communication is key, it says, and it’s important for people to understand when a disaster like a hurricane may outweigh the increased risk of catching COVID-19 — as well as the best ways to keep themselves and their families protected against the virus while evacuating.

At a webinar in summer 2020, disaster management experts agreed that communities that have seen both higher rates of COVID-19 and economic decline in the past year-and-a-half, including communities of color, will require more preparation and recovery assistance in the event of a disaster like Ida.

Storm-Ready Infrastructure
Today, New Orleans is grappling with electricity outages across the city, and may be without power for days. The past few years have seen an increased frequency of large outages precipitated by floods and hurricanes, according to a report published earlier this year, which recommends the U.S. take steps to improve the electric grid in the face of these new challenges, prioritizing sustainability, resiliency, and reliability.

As climate change is predicted to increase the intensity of hurricanes for years to come, it’s clear the Southeast will need infrastructure, disaster management, and storm and flood prediction tools that can contend with the growing risk to its communities.


Megan Lowry is a National Academy of Sciences media officer for behavioral and social sciences; education; and earth and life studies, including environment and biotechnology.