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Bourbon Street during a citywide power outage caused by Hurricane Ida in New Orleans on Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. Photo: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The powerful hurricane that plunged New Orleans into darkness for what could be weeks is the latest sign that U.S. power systems are not ready for a warmer, more volatile world.

The big picture: “Our current infrastructure is not adequate when it comes to these kinds of weather extremes,” Joshua Rhodes, a University of Texas energy expert, tells Axios.

  • Climate science studies show extreme weather events, from wildfires to stronger hurricanes, are expected to affect the U.S. with greater frequency and ferocity than in previous decades.
  • There is also the risk of "compound events" with concurrent drought and fires in one part of the country and floods and hurricanes hitting another.

Catch up fast: Entergy, the utility that serves much of Louisiana, said Hurricane Ida's "catastrophic intensity" knocked out all eight transmission lines that serve New Orleans.

  • As of Tuesday morning, more than 1 million customers were still without power in Louisiana, according to PowerOutage.us.
  • "There are about 10 parishes that the electrical grids are completely collapsed and damaged, smashed, out — however you want to put it," Jefferson Parish Emergency Management director Joe Valiente tells NPR.

Why it matters: The last few years have brought clear signs that point toward the conclusion offered by Rhodes and other experts.

  • In California, the dangerous combination of drought and high temperatures is worsening wildfires and straining the grid. Outdated transmission lines touched off California's deadliest fire on record.
  • California power giant PG&E, in June, announced a multiyear plan to bury 10,000 miles of lines underground at a cost of $15 billion-$20 billion.
  • Texas suffered deadly outages last winter when Arctic air barreled far southward. Judah Cohen, a meteorologist at AER in Massachusetts, tells Axios that event may have had ties to climate change based on how a rapidly warming Arctic is affecting the polar vortex.

What they're saying: WIRES, a power industry group pushing for modernized transmission, said Ida's damage "only reinforces the need for a more resilient grid."

  • "Extreme weather events like Ida show the value of investment in local transmission projects to replace aging transmission infrastructure with stronger more resilient build out," said Larry Gasteiger, the group's executive director, in a statement.
  • Rhodes, for his part, has emphasized the usefulness of placing transmission lines underground.

What we're watching: How power companies and policymakers do — or don't — respond at local, state and national levels.

  • The bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate earlier this month contains grid modernization and resilience funding, but is nowhere near the scale needed to fully address the challenge while building out new transmission, experts say.
  • The bill's various provisions include directing the Energy Department to establish a $5 billion grant program for grid hardening to help reduce the impacts of extreme weather events.

The bottom line: Building resilience isn't cheap, even if it ultimately saves money and, more importantly, lives.

Go deeper: Climate change lurks behind Hurricane Ida's unnerving intensification rate

Go deeper

Axios roundtable on the future of climate change and lung health

On Wednesday, September 15, Axios’ health care reporter Caitlin Owens and climate and energy reporter Andrew Freedman hosted a virtual roundtable discussion with policy leaders, healthcare professionals, and environmental experts on the impact of climate change on people living with respiratory illnesses. 

Andrew Lindsley, Medical Director and Asset Lead at Amgen, started off the conversation by addressing the gravity of climate change as it relates to lung health and respiratory diseases.

  • “Climate change can directly cause or aggravate pre-existing respiratory diseases, and they can drive an increased exposure to risk factors associated with respiratory diseases, including asthma.”

National Assistant Vice President of Healthy Air at the American Lung Association, Laura Kate Bender, explained how recent research confirmed that devastating wildfires have negatively impacted air quality levels. 

  • “What we found is that we are continuing to see the impact of climate change on the quality of the air nationwide. Where that really showed up in this year’s report was with particle pollution. We saw more people were exposed to harmful short-term levels of particle pollution that we can tie back to the wildfires.”   

Executive Director of Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute, Dr. Gabriel Filippelli, referenced a study he conducted in several U.S. cities to highlight the connection between small vehicle transit usage and decreases in levels of NO2, a harmful lung irritant.  

  • “It shows a roadmap that with different transportation systems of different models or even electrifying vehicles, it can have a significant local improvement in air quality and also deal with climate change at the same time.” 

Abby Young, Manager of Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s Climate Protection Program, described how climate change especially exacerbates health issues among vulnerable populations.

  • “When a community is already suffering from a high degree of air pollution and respiratory ailments, and then you layer on all these impacts that we’re talking about from climate change, you make a bad situation even worse.”

Interim Director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School for Public Health, Aaron Bernstein, emphasized the importance of broader social change in ensuring equitable access to healthcare. 

  • “My biggest hope in this year is that we realize that we can no longer work on issues related to climate or pandemics by trying to build more technological limbs on a tree of life. Through our technologies, our ventilation systems, our vaccines, our drugs. We obviously need those, they’re critical and we have to get people vaccinated, but as we’ve already shown, those things benefit the people who are least at risk first.”   

Research scientist at the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford University, Dr. Juan Aguilera, noted the importance of understanding the intricate make-up of particles that enter our lungs as air quality levels continue to fluctuate.

  • “We’re currently researching on what are the effects on the immune system, because as we breathe in these pollutants, it’s also important to notice what’s in the pollutants. We can no longer just focus on the size of the particle, we must know what’s in the particle and what are the effects on the respiratory system, the circulatory system, and the immune system. We’re getting to that point.” 

Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association, articulated the significance of focusing on vulnerable communities in mitigating the effects of climate change on a policy level. 

  • “We ought to recognize that the fact that we have these vulnerable communities and where they are, it’s not a secret. These are the same communities that have food insecurity, housing insecurity, income insecurity. While they may have been exposed to some degree because of wildfires that are broader in nature, in terms of polluting the air and floods that are now capturing the communities in which they live, we just have to remember that these communities, while everyone will experience them pretty much the same, these other communities are much less resilient, and they don’t recover.” 

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) acknowledged the crucial role that policymakers play in shaping the future of environmental policy, noting the opportunity and responsibility that lawmakers have to act quickly on the matter. 

  • “I, for one, will be working to ensure passage of the Build Back Better Act, it has this huge footprint that will implement provisions throughout the country and the state to be able to assure that the warming climate will be addressed.” 

Thank you Amgen for sponsoring this event. 

Pelosi's back-to-school math problem

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) may need votes from an unlikely source — the Republican Party — if she hopes to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill by next Monday, as she's promised Democratic centrists.

Why it matters: With at least 20 progressives threatening to vote against the $1.2 trillion bipartisan bill, centrist members are banking on more than 10 Republicans to approve the bill.

By the numbers: Haitian emigration

Expand chart
Data: CBP; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

The number of Haitians crossing the U.S.-Mexico border had been rising even before their country's president was assassinated in July and the island was struck by an earthquake a month later.

Why it matters: A spike during the past few weeks — leaving thousands waiting in a makeshift camp under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas — has prompted a crackdown and deportations by the Biden administration.