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date: 11 December 2018

Climate Change and the American City

Summary and Keywords

American cities developed under relatively quiescent climatic conditions. A gradual rise in average global temperatures during the 19th and 20th centuries had a negligible impact on how urban Americans experienced the weather. Much more significant were the dramatic changes in urban form and social organization that meditated the relationship between routine weather fluctuations and the lives of city dwellers. Overcoming weather-related impediments to profit, comfort, and good health contributed to many aspects of urbanization, including population migration to Sunbelt locations, increased reliance on fossil fuels, and comprehensive re-engineering of urban hydrological systems. Other structural shifts such as sprawling development, intensification of the built environment, socioeconomic segregation, and the tight coupling of infrastructural networks were less directly responsive to weather conditions but nonetheless profoundly affected the magnitude and social distribution of weather-related risks. Although fatalities resulting from extreme meteorological events declined in the 20th century, the scale of urban disruption and property damage increased. In addition, social impacts became more concentrated among poorer Americans, including many people of color, as Hurricane Katrina tragically demonstrated in 2005. Through the 20th century, cities responded to weather hazards through improved forecasting and systematic planning for relief and recovery rather than alterations in metropolitan design. In recent decades, however, growing awareness and concern about climate change impacts have made volatile weather more central to urban planning.

Keywords: climate, weather, cities, urban development, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes

American Cities and Climate Change

Early American urbanization occurred at the tail end of the Little Ice Age, a period of planetary cooling stretching from 1350 to 1850 in which average temperatures in North America fell by about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Thereafter, the North American climate warmed, a phenomenon that most scientists attribute, in part, to the burning of fossil fuels. Since 1901, the average temperature in the continental United States has increased about 1.6 Fahrenheit degrees. During this period, the United States experienced a 5 percent increase in precipitation along with an uptick in heavy rain events.1 These continental trends unfolded across dramatic regional variations in climate, making human adaptation to meteorological conditions a highly localized endeavor. Furthermore, for people living in cities, what mattered was not so much the overarching characteristics of climate but rather the daily and seasonal circumstances of weather, manifested as highly variable fluctuations in rain, wind, and temperature.

Changes in the social organization and physical form of US cities over the course of two centuries profoundly altered the urban impact of these weather fluctuations and propelled a process of continuous adaptation. As the increasingly complex and interlocked networks that underlay critical urban functions interacted with the non-linear dynamics of weather, cities faced novel hazards and magnified risks. Ultimately, urban ecosystems, in which climate and weather played crucial roles, proved far more complex and unpredictable than 19th- and 20th-century developers, policy makers, and planners imagined.

Climate and Urban Settlement

Euro-Americans were highly attuned to climate and weather as they sought to replicate Old World urban patterns amid the more volatile and extreme environments they encountered on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean. Prevailing temperatures, moisture levels, and air circulation patterns were not simply assessed in terms of familiarity and comfort; they were understood as critical determinants of bodily health. Through much of the 19th century, settlers staking claim to unfamiliar territory relied on reigning medical theories to distinguish the relative advantages of both regional and highly localized environments as defined by wind vectors, heat, and humidity.2 Appealing climatic attributes were publicized relentlessly by urban boosters to attract migrants, especially in the nation’s interior where speculative competition for urban primacy was fierce. Climatological considerations, however, were at best secondary in determining the location of towns or the internal form of growing cities. For one thing, no medical consensus existed regarding the health implications of specific meteorological conditions. Moreover, geographic factors related to economic potential such as the quality of harbors, proximity to transportation routes, and access to raw materials and markets generally overrode concerns about environmental salubrity.3 Within cities, the presence of refreshing breezes propelled the formation of elite enclaves on high ground as urban terrain became more segregated by socioeconomic status in the early 19th century. On the other hand, plans to relieve urban dwellers from excessive heat through the generous placement of parks fell victim to a voracious real estate market that maximized profit through the construction of a denser (and hotter) built environment. After 1850, business interests became more inclined to advocate for large parks, recognizing the profits to be made through adjacent property sales.4

Nowhere was climatological urban boosterism employed more aggressively or to greater effect than in the American Southwest where real estate and business interests marketed aridity and warmth as consumer amenities. Plentiful sunshine, mild temperatures, and ocean breezes figured prominently in the gush of promotional literature emanating from southern California following the arrival of railroads in the 1870s and 1880s. Vividly illustrated brochures and magazines, initially aimed at convalescents and tourists, fueled the growth of many fledgling communities that eventually formed parts of greater Los Angeles and San Diego. By the 1920s, southern California’s pleasant weather had coaxed the permanent relocation of over a million Americans from eastern portions of the country. Los Angeles’ newfound status as a booming metropolis was assisted by the westward migration of weather-dependent industries such as aviation and filmmaking.5 Urban boosters in Phoenix followed a similar script in the 1930s, rebranding their city as the “Valley of the Sun” to lure seasonal seekers of health and leisure.6 Scorching desert heat in summertime, however, posed an obstacle to year-round habitation. Civic leaders thus seized on incremental advancements in mechanical air cooling over the next several decades to counteract negative perceptions of its weather. As early as 1940, Phoenix proclaimed itself the “air-conditioned capital of the world.” Only with the widespread adoption of household units cooled with chemical refrigerants in the 1960s and 1970s, however, did meteoric population growth vault Phoenix into the ranks of the nation’s top ten cities.7 Yet even where climate boosterism and weather considerations seemed to matter most, a multiplicity of unrelated factors including cheap land; accessibility of suburban-style private homes for middle-class households; and low-tax, pro-business, anti-union politics proved equally instrumental in fueling Sunbelt urbanization in the 20th century. Although not inconsequential, the connection between urban settlement patterns and climate in American history can best be described as tenuous.

Likewise, climatic influences on early American urban architecture were overshadowed by the strong inclination to follow European precedent. A tight connection between climate and design can be found in the example of the raised Creole cottage with open-air passageways that became popular in 18th-century New Orleans on account of the region’s warm temperatures and soggy soils. More typically, however, European designs underwent selective modification to accommodate environmental particularities. In northern colonies, the substitution of roof shingles for thatch was most likely a concession to harsher winters, as were the construction of larger fireplaces and more generous use of weatherboarding for insulation. More comprehensive attempts to design homes in concert with nature persisted, perhaps best exemplified by Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie-style houses of the early 20th century, which integrated indoor and outdoor elements to maximize energy efficiency and comfort during the steamy summers and hard winters of the American Midwest. The more general trend, however, especially pronounced after World War II, was toward a uniformity of national styles that defied environmental distinctions. Especially after World War II, when central heating and air conditioning became widespread, the demise of regional architecture included the gradual disappearance of features—shutters, large porches, vestibules, thick walls—that once afforded passive climate control.8

Storms and the City

If weather played a secondary role in determining where cities appeared and how they were built, the process of urbanization profoundly influenced the ways in which Americans experienced the effects of weather. Population growth combined with the outward spatial expansion of cities in the 19th century turned predictable rainfall irregularities into damaging floods. Rising demand for fresh water for drinking, bathing, street cleaning, firefighting, and flushing human waste frequently outstripped the ability of cities to capture local rainfall, especially during dry seasons. Chronic water shortages became endemic in east-coast cities and towns by the mid-19th century, prompting the construction of engineered hydraulic systems that enlarged catchment basins and stored excess capacity in reservoirs. Some of the worst instances of urban flooding, such as the notorious calamity afflicting Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889, resulted from the collapse of poorly constructed reservoir dams in the aftermath of heavy rain.9

Further west, cities located along the nation’s great interior rivers benefited from reliable freshwater supplies but faced increasing threats of inundation as settlement spread from well-protected high ground to low-lying floodplains. Between the American Civil War (1861–1865) and World War I (1914–1919), periodic bouts of intense precipitation caused rising waters of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers to spill over their banks onto recently settled terrain. Urban settlement in flood-prone districts was typically initiated by railroads that preferred to stretch their routes across flat bottom lands due to the ease of construction. Factories gravitated to these transportation corridors, thereby encouraging surrounding settlement by laborers and their families. In this manner, industrial geography and topography conspired against working-class families, immigrants, and people of color, who bore the disproportionate burden of river inundation.

The damage incurred by flooding was particularly devastating when key nodes in urban infrastructure—bridges, water pumping stations, electrical generators—were rendered inoperable, as was the case in Kansas City after more than ten inches of rain fell in late May of 1903 and caused rivers to overflow their banks. Although the tens of thousands of African Americans and European immigrants who occupied the packing house districts adjacent to the surging Kansas River suffered the greatest losses, a near-total breakdown in municipal services produced calamity throughout the bi-state metropolis. For nearly a week, residents were without electrical power, telephone communication, piped gas, and most dangerously, potable water. Indeed, the most lethal consequence of the flood may have been the outbreak of typhoid fever that was estimated to have sickened approximately 1,500 people and killed another 135 along the flooded river corridor between Topeka and Kansas City. Damage to transportation systems magnified losses and delayed recovery. Six feet of water at Union Depot halted incoming and outgoing trains, thereby stalling the delivery of needed provisions, including coal and meat. Deprived of electrical power, streetcars remained out of commission for nearly two weeks. Of the seventeen bridges connecting the Kansas and Missouri sides of the metropolis, only one remained in operation. Blocked routes and immobilized vehicles hindered rescue efforts and permitted the spread of uncontained fires.10

As municipal governments turned to professional planners for guidance during the Progressive era, destructive storms, like the one that crippled Kansas City in 1903, prompted the formulation of comprehensively engineered urban hydrological systems. Based on extensive measurements of rainfall, runoff, and stream flow, these plans reconciled the appetite for developable land with the need to protect fixed investment by directing storm water through subterranean sewers and barricading major rivers with artificial barriers. In New Orleans, for example, a drenching rain on August 13, 1894 dumped more than a billion gallons of water on New Orleans and gave Progressive reformers the ammunition they needed to authorize a plan for draining the city’s swampy terrain by way of street gutters, branch drains, canals, and a central outflow channel that pumped rainwater to peripheral lakes. By 1908, New Orleans had constructed more than forty miles of canals assisted by seven pumping stations.11

Likewise, Pittsburgh encountered disastrous flooding in 1907, prompting its Chamber of Commerce to commission a study for regional watershed management. The resulting report, issued four years later, recommended an ambitious program of environmental intervention that included the obligatory flood walls in the downtown area, urban land reclamation through the filling of river back channels, impoundment of reservoirs upstream, and the creation of forest reserves in headwater areas.12 Three straight days of heavy rainfall in the midst of a wet El Nino cycle had a similar effect in Los Angeles County in February 1914, providing the impetus for a comprehensive flood-control plan that called for fortified embankments along a straightened Los Angeles River, dams and reservoirs on tributary streams, and a relocated outlet to the sea.13 In each of these cases, financial stringency delayed full implementation until the federal government was more forthcoming with funds during and after the New Deal.

Once in place, engineered hydraulic systems proved no panacea and worked less to eliminate floods than to alter the scale and geography of risk. Too often, physical protections against flooding emboldened developers to build in precarious zones that were among the first to go under water when rain exceeded expectations or when flood-control infrastructure malfunctioned. A 1958 study conducted by a University of Chicago research team concluded that twenty years after the federal government had committed to huge flood-control expenditures, financial losses attributable to flood damage had actually increased.14 Even when physical protections worked as intended, they merely shifted the burden of flooding from one location to another. While safeguarding downtown districts and other critical nodes from rising rivers, pumping stations and levees displaced excess flow to low-lying areas where unprotected streams overflowed and overburdened sewers backed up into basements and streets. Sewer overflows became especially hazardous in older northeastern and midwestern cities where storm water with raw sewage travelled through the same pipes. Moreover, when urban expansion entailed the drainage of wetlands, cities lost an important ecological buffer that had previously mitigated floods by storing and slowly releasing large volumes of rainwater.

The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1993 exposed the inequities and shortcomings of engineering solutions as it rolled across metropolitan St. Louis in late July. Heavy rains throughout the Upper Mississippi watershed earlier that summer swelled the river as it charged southward toward the confluence of a cresting Missouri River. Although the maximum discharge at St. Louis, just below this conjuncture, was significantly lower than it had been in previous periods of high water, artificial confinements along the river banks pushed the Mississippi to record heights. Yet, most of St. Louis City remained secure behind a fifty-two-foot flood wall that was authorized to receive federal funds in 1949 due to the high value of commercial and industrial properties along eleven miles of waterfront. Predominantly white working-class residential districts situated further downstream, however, had not met federal cost-benefit thresholds and faced the full force of the gushing Mississippi as it backed up through smaller tributary streams and damaged hundreds of homes.15

As urban populations became increasingly dependent on interconnected or “tightly coupled” infrastructural networks in the late 19th and 20th centuries, weather-related malfunctions scaled toward the catastrophic. The advent of the wired and piped city in the late 19th century created new opportunities for storm-related disruption and calamity. Snowfalls that minimally hampered the mobility of horse-drawn vehicles thoroughly disrupted urban transportation systems dependent on steam power and electricity, as New York City residents first discovered during the Great Blizzard of 1888.16 High winds from hurricanes, nor’easters, and tornadoes wrought havoc with overhead lines and cables critical to the functioning of telegraph, telephone, and electrical services. By September 1938, when hundred-mile-per-hour gales swept across New England, its cities and towns were fully electrified. The hurricane downed twenty thousand miles of hanging wires, knocking out power throughout the region for weeks.17 Exposed power lines were also vulnerable to snow and ice accumulation as well as nearby trees that became unstable when their limbs were covered in ice or their roots were loosened by rain-saturated soil.

Even cities like New York City and Chicago that buried wires underground were not immune from the cascading effects of weather-induced malfunctions. In 1977, a lightning strike on two 345-kilovolt power lines in Westchester County triggered a cascade of mechanical breakdowns and human errors that quickly plunged most of New York City into darkness, quiet, and stillness. The “blackout” also generated arson and looting sprees in several neighborhoods, revealing the extent to which the power networks that connected city dwellers also played a role in the maintenance of social order.18

Extreme Temperatures in the City

Urban growth and increased interconnectivity also complicated efforts to mitigate the impact of temperature extremes. In northern latitudes, city dwellers met the challenge of cold winters with incremental advancements in interior heating; over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, inefficient open fireplaces gave way to closed stoves and furnace-based central heating. These technological leaps made freezing temperatures survivable and improved thermal comfort but at the price of increased carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion. The grave dangers associated with excessive heat, on the other hand, persisted well into the 20th century.

For much of the 19th century, summer mortality exceeded that of other seasons, primarily due to illnesses related to food spoilage and the proliferation of water-borne bacteria. Sanitation reforms and public regulation of food and milk supplies in the early 20th century reduced this peril, but city dwellers continued to suffer from the direct impact of excessive heat, especially when it descended on cities for prolonged periods.19

The heatwave of 1901 killed approximately ten thousand people in the northeast and Midwest, and large cities were hit hard. Deaths attributed to heat exhaustion topped four hundred in New York City and 250 in St. Louis. Horses, still vital to urban transportation systems at the turn of the century, also fell victim to heat stroke, although some cities reported that they were better cared for than people due to their high investment value. An even more severe heatwave swept much of the nation in the 1930s. Although the unusually hot and dry weather of this period is normally associated with the plight of farmers on the Great Plains, the impact on cities was significant due to both the influx of Dust Bowl refugees and extraordinarily high death rates. The summer of 1936 was particularly hot due to a high-pressure system that stalled over continental United States for six weeks, sending temperatures soaring above the one hundred degree Fahrenheit mark in forty-six states. More than five thousand deaths were recorded with high mortality rates affecting all of the nation’s large cities. Among the adaptive legacies of this brutal spell was the switch from incandescent and fluorescent lighting in urban schools and hospitals.20

Summer mortality, morbidity, and discomfort in cities were aggravated by the growing density of the human-constructed environment, which raised temperatures between five and nine degrees Fahrenheit over surrounding rural areas where natural vegetation utilized solar radiation in the cooling process of evapotranspiration. Unlike natural vegetation, the primary building materials of American cities—asphalt, concrete, glass, tile—absorbed solar radiation during the daytime and emitted it as heat overnight. Emissions from factories, power plants, cars, trucks, and by the latter part of the 20th century, air conditioners, raised temperatures further.21 In the mid-20th century, the term “urban heat island” was coined to describe the temperature discrepancy between urban and rural areas.

In the face of searing summertime heat, urban populations adopted coping strategies that varied in use according to one’s financial means. Long before the term “urban heat island” was popularized, city dwellers recognized the temperature differential between built-up areas and surrounding forests, prompting the flight of wealthy families to country estates and seaside retreats during hot summer months. Those who remained in the city took advantage of the cooling functions of water and vegetation as best they could. Through the 19th century, many cities contained an abundance of water features—streams, ponds, springs—to which lower-income populations had free and easy access. Abandoned quarries created by the extraction of clay and stone provided another source of accumulated water that functioned as swimming holes. As comprehensive urban drainage and landfilling eliminated many of these unregulated water features from the urban landscape, Progressive-era reformers established recreation centers with public swimming pools that teemed with supervised bathers on hot summer days. In the latter half of the 20th century, however, resistance among white families to racially integrated leisure spaces and budgetary constraints led to the closure of many public swimming pools.22

Natural vegetation offered another widely sought source of heat relief. Large landscaped parks with shaded foliage, grassy fields, and water features became regular features of big cities in the latter half of the 19th century and were supplemented by scattered patches of designated greenery. As historian Colin Fisher demonstrated in his study of Chicago, these city parks were widely used and enjoyed by the urban masses, and they became important cultivators of ethnic and racial identity.23 On warm summer days, they provided a pleasant setting for festivals, athletic events, and informal leisure. During the hottest of summer nights, they were converted to open-air dormitories, where drowsy families with sheets and pillows in tow reaped the cooling benefits of evapotranspiration. Cities periodically prohibited overnight sleeping in public parks, however, sending those in search of cooling breezes to less comfortable tenement rooftops and fire escapes.24

Widespread household adoption of mechanical air conditioning toward the end of the 20th century reduced the discomfort and peril of excessive heat considerably, but its salutary effects were not distributed equally. Technology for refrigerating and dehumidifying interior space was pioneered by industrial engineer Willis Haviland Carrier in 1902, but for more than fifty years its application was confined to factories, movie palaces, and department stores.25 By the early 1970s, however, most new homes constructed in US cities included centralized cooling systems, and by the mid-1980s about two-thirds of American households enjoyed some form of mechanical air conditioning in their homes. Remaining households, disproportionately comprised of the poor, the elderly, and people of color, had fewer cooling options at their disposal. With sharp reductions in the number of people seeking nighttime relief in city parks, outdoor spaces lacked the critical mass of people to assure public safety, thereby inducing many to take their chances inside their baking homes. The resulting social skew in mortality rates was dramatically exposed during the Chicago heatwave of 1995 when more than seven hundred people, many of them elderly and poor, perished during a week of above-average temperatures. In his retrospective social autopsy of this calamity, sociologist Eric Klinenberg discovered that well-to-do and middle-class households made it through the episode by turning on their air conditioners or fleeing the city for cooler climes. Deaths occurred disproportionately in neighborhoods characterized by limited social services, social isolation, and concentrated poverty.26

Understanding the Weather and Disaster Planning

If infrastructural and mechanical interventions did not eliminate weather disasters, there was much that could be achieved to better prepare urban populations for them and reduce losses in their aftermath. Enhanced capabilities for anticipating extreme weather ultimately saved thousands of lives in American cities but advancements in meteorological knowledge came slowly. Only after the Civil War did public opinion begin to break away from the perception of violent storms as inscrutable acts of God and begin to see weather as a puzzle to be unlocked through empirical research. Meteorological study received an important boost in the 1870s when the federal government, under the auspices of the US Army Signal Corps, assumed responsibility for collecting weather data and issuing forecasts. In 1890, those duties were transferred to the newly created US Weather Bureau. With the science of meteorology still in its infancy, however, weather predictions remained unreliable well into the early 20th century. As late as 1900, few local newspapers provided readers with daily forecasts, and those that did were often ridiculed for their erroneous prognostications.27 Some of the worst weather catastrophes of this era, including the Great New York City Blizzard of 1888 and the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, caught victimized populations unaware and off guard.

During the 1930s, new techniques for analyzing air masses and fronts improved forecasting capabilities and made it possible in the postwar years to issue advance warnings of impending storms. Simultaneously, Cold War anxieties about thermonuclear attacks on civilian populations provided the impetus for federally funded research on disaster preparedness and the rise of a disaster-planning profession. Insights gleaned from this new field of study also found application in natural disaster planning, as reflected in the proliferation of underground shelters, the implementation of radio and siren-based warning systems, and the development of mass evacuation protocols.28

Significantly, the federal government became more directly involved in disaster relief and recovery during the Cold War era. Prior to World War II, the task of picking up after natural disasters primarily fell to local communities and specialized volunteer organizations such as the American Red Cross. Although the Red Cross was not specifically urban in its mandate, the agency was instrumental in dispensing medical care and provisions in many cities, beginning with a series of floods in cities and towns along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in the early 1880s.29 The Federal Disaster Relief Act of 1950 was the first in a series of laws authorizing the president to issue disaster declarations and disperse direct financial assistance to disaster victims. The emergence of an “all-hazards” emergency planning and response paradigm in the 1960s and 1970s culminated in the establishment of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1979.30

Improved emergency management techniques heightened expectations for efficient recovery operations and also produced widespread frustration when those expectations were not met. Botched responses to weather disasters had especially severe repercussions for local office holders, as Mayor Michael Bilandic learned after it took weeks for Chicago to dig out of a January 1979 blizzard. Popular exasperation about the slow pace of street plowing took its toll on Bilandic, a protégé of longtime political boss Richard Daley, and contributed to the electoral defeat of the Democratic Party machine in that year’s mayoral election.31

Improvements in weather forecasting, warning communication systems, and disaster planning had a decisive effect on human casualty rates but did little to reduce the amount of property damaged by hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. Indeed, losses from property damage measured in constant dollars continued to rise dramatically into the 21st century.32 Some of these losses were offset through the expansion of insurance coverage. Localized disasters typically produced upticks in the purchase of insurance policies as specialized coverage became available for tornadoes and wind storms in the late 19th century. Private insurers were reluctant to insure against water damage, however. The large numbers of uninsured losses from Hurricane Betsy in 1965 prompted passage of the National Flood Insurance Act in 1968, with the dual purpose of making flood insurance more affordable and reducing floodplain development. Under its provisions, the federal government subsidized flood insurance premiums in jurisdictions where local governments discouraged new construction or rebuilding in flood-prone areas. In 1973 the program became mandatory for all federally guaranteed mortgages sold in flood hazard zones.33 Insurance coverage had a minimal effect on reducing property destruction, however; indeed, it often worked in conjunction with the extension of protective public infrastructure to embolden urban expansion into perilous areas. In the case of the National Flood Insurance Program, its intended effects were undermined by a combination of relaxed provisions and local governments bent on development granting waivers. One indication of the program’s limited effectiveness was the high percentage of repeat claims, roughly 50% percent, filed by policy holders between 1978 and 1994.34

Twenty-First-Century Storms and Resilience Planning for Cities

A series of deadly and costly tropical storms in the early decades of the 21st century highlighted the continuing vulnerability of cities to extreme weather and propelled more systematic consideration of climate change in resiliency planning for cities. During the 20th century, dozens of easterly tropical storms that assumed hurricane proportions in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico wrought havoc on American coastal cities. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 remains the deadliest in the nation’s history, claiming over six thousand casualties. Subsequent tropical cyclones, including the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926, Hurricane Betsy in 1965, Hurricane Camille in 1969, and Hurricane Andrew in 1992, resulted in less death but more destruction due to the penchant of Sunbelt migrants to build near the water. What was different about Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and the one-two punch of Hurricanes Harvey and Maria in 2017 was their occurrence in the midst of growing scientific certainty and rising public awareness of human-induced global warming. Each of these tropical storms highlighted different aspects of the urban predicament. Together they exposed deep flaws in the structural forces that drove urban growth and allocated catastrophic risk. Several initiatives in the 2010s sought to address these deficiencies within a more holistic and flexible planning paradigm that went beyond technical solutions by addressing social conditions and urban design.

By any measure, Hurricane Katrina ranked as one of the worst natural disasters in the nation’s history. The body count of 1,833 was the highest for a domestic natural disaster since the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane, and the death toll of nearly 1,500 in New Orleans was the highest for any United States city since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Hurricane Katrina was also the most expensive in the nation’s history. Much of the death and destruction in New Orleans was due to the failures of an elaborate internal levee system that was undermaintained and underfunded for years. The stress on the city’s flood-control infrastructure, however, was exacerbated by a century of wetland drainage that had removed natural buffers for storm water absorption and further sank the elevation of settled districts. Levee construction along the Mississippi River also contributed to the loss of surrounding wetland buffers by preventing natural sediment deposition along the alluvial floodplain.

Above all, Katrina exposed glaring racial disparities in social impacts. The concentration of poor African Americans in the lowest elevations of the city assured that they would bear the brunt of any failure to contain an incoming storm surge, and that is precisely what occurred. Those most vulnerable to flooding were also least equipped to follow an evacuation plan that relied on private automobile transportation. In the nightmarish week after the storm, tens of thousands of predominantly poor and black survivors struggled without food, water, or shelter. Twenty thousand refugees were penned into the fetid and sweltering Superdome while others slogged through flooded streets searching for escape routes and waited on rooftops for airborne rescue. A highly militarized relief operation (the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] had recently been rehoused under the Department of Homeland Security) criminalized stranded and homeless populations. As geographer Neil Smith noted, “we see, that one’s chances of surviving a disaster are more than anything dependent on one’s race, ethnicity and social class.”35

If New Orleans’s uniquely susceptible topography and gross political ineptitude made Katrina a weak indicator of more generalized urban failures, a series of devastating storms in the following decade spoke more forcefully to a pervasive critique of two centuries of American urban development. Although Hurricane Sandy was recategorized as a post-tropical cyclone by the time it made landfall south of New York City on October 29, 2012, its high winds and storm surge assaulted the metropolitan area with enough force and fury to destroy more than nine hundred buildings, claim at least seventy-three fatalities, and inundate fifty-one square miles of coastline in New York City alone, earning it the informal moniker of “superstorm.” In the subsequent mayhem, more than four million households remained without electrical power for days, subways were idled, bridges and tunnels were impassable, and a shortage of gasoline created chaos and long lines at filling stations. The storm’s repercussions were felt far beyond New York City as approximately twenty thousand flights were cancelled, and for the first time since the Great Blizzard of 1888, the New York Stock Exchange suspended operations for two straight days.36 Five years later, in one of the Atlantic Ocean’s most active storm seasons, Hurricane Harvey soaked Houston with an unprecedented 120 billion gallons of rain. Overtopped bayous and reservoirs forced thousands of people from their homes and caused more property damage than any storm besides Katrina. Post-mortems on both Sandy and Harvey blamed the extent of damage and misery on what had become the usual set of historical suspects—the destruction of protective wetlands, the expansion of urban development into high-risk flood zones, and the tight coupling of transportation, power, and provisioning systems.37 One notable element of the post-Harvey analysis was the conclusion drawn by generally cautious climatologists that global warming was a likely contributor to the storm’s severity.38

Katrina, Sandy, and Harvey along with slightly less notorious 21st-century accomplices—Rita, Ike, Irma, Wilma, Maria—compelled urban planners and policy makers to take the threat of climate change more seriously and think more systematically about adaptive practices. Previously, climate change operated within the more static framework of sustainability planning, where it argued for reducing carbon footprints through stricter energy efficiency standards in new construction, transit-oriented development, greater use of renewable energy sources, and more parks, trees, and green spaces. The enormous disruption caused by Katrina, Sandy, and Harvey suggested that mitigation efforts alone were unlikely to shield cities from environmental adversity. Resilience emerged as a conceptual basis for policies and plans that aimed to improve capacities for recovery and constructive transformation in the aftermath of unforeseeable external shocks, especially those precipitated by global warming. Informed by the precepts of tactical urbanism, resilience planning moved beyond technocratic solutions by encouraging grass-roots participation in the pursuit of more flexible and creative synergies between natural and human systems, including social and governmental structures.39

Resilience planning was embraced most fervently by coastal cities that had the most to lose as global warming raised sea levels. New York City already stood in the vanguard of sustainability planning when Superstorm Sandy arrived. But in its wake, the Rockefeller Foundation and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development nudged the city toward a resilience paradigm by funding six projects under the auspices of the Rebuild New York campaign that employed participatory design practices to better prepare it for future shocks. Among the funded projects were the Big-U, a proposed ten-mile berm surrounding lower Manhattan that simultaneously defended settled land against storm surges and provided neighborhood amenities such as parks and bicycle paths. Building on this concept, the Rockefeller Foundation launched its 100 Resilient Cities initiative in 2013 to further propagate resilience planning through competitive awards that included technical assistance and funds for personnel. New Orleans and New York City were among the eleven US cities selected in 2013 to join the initial cohort of thirty-two. For all its attention, resilience planning did not garner universal praise. New York City’s Rebuild By Design, for instance, was criticized for not going far enough to reform urban politics and address social conditions. Indeed, some critics derided resilience planning as a cover for the perpetuation of neoliberal political economies.40

Discussion of the Literature

A well-defined body of literature about the history of American cities and climate does not exist. Indeed, the study of climate and historical change remains in its infancy, and most scholarly research in this area probes long-term change at regional scales. Among the relatively small number of works that examine weather impacts on urbanization, two overlapping historical subfields inform scholarly analysis: environmental history and the history of technology. Whereas environmental historians are more likely to assign agency to the intricacies of weather dynamics, historians of technology emphasize the adaptive responses to meteorological events. A burgeoning social science literature about urbanism and climate focuses in its historical treatments on the social and political aspects of recent hurricanes, floods, and heat waves.

Since the 1990s, American historians have published several works that take weather as the primary focus of inquiry. Among them, Blake McKelvey’s Snow in the Cities: A History of America’s Urban Response lies squarely in the history of technology tradition, approaching the interaction between winter precipitation and urbanization through a lens of transportation systems and snow removal devices. William Meyer’s Americans and Their Weather offers the most comprehensive treatment of how cultural perceptions, social arrangements, and adaptive technologies interacted with weather conditions in the United States, although his coverage is not specifically urban.41 Meyer’s fierce stand against weather determinism places him in line with prevailing scholarly opinion. Bernard Mergen’s Weather Matters: An American Cultural History since 1900 probes shifting popular understandings of weather in the 20th century and reflects a decisive cultural turn in the recent literature.42

A larger body of work encompasses case studies of weather-induced natural disasters. David McCullough’s narrative of the Johnstown Flood, published in 1968, provided a template for such studies by combining dramatic narrative with a sharp critique of human landscape interventions.43 As this genre of analysis evolved, historians devoted more attention to the ethnic, racial, and class divisions that shaped social impact of floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and heat waves.44 Few, if any, domestic natural disasters have spawned as much scholarship across humanities and social science disciplines as Hurricane Katrina. Although most accounts of Katrina expose the folly of past environmental decisions, authors generally assign culpability for human suffering to the incompetence of public officials charged with emergency management responsibilities.45 Social science literature on the calamity often couches the disaster within an indictment of neoliberal politics.46

In the 1990s, several historians began moving beyond case studies toward a more comprehensive examination of natural disasters. Approaching the topic from the perspective of environmental history, Ted Steinberg showed how power hierarchies were perpetuated through the “naturalizing” of human-induced social catastrophes such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes.47 Scott Knowles’ study of disaster experts reflected a growing interest among historians of technology in the social and cultural formulations of innovation and risk.48 Kevin Rozario added a valuable cultural dimension to the historiography of disaster by elaborating on America’s morbid fascination with calamity and its inclination to view tragic events optimistically, as agents of progress.49

The unnatural underpinnings of natural disaster also received illumination in studies of particular cities, most notably Los Angeles. For Mike Davis, human meddling on behalf of the wealthy and powerful magnified the volatility of Southern California’s natural environment, producing an urban “ecology of fear.”50 Focusing more narrowly on the magnification of flood hazards in the Los Angeles basin, Jared Orsi castigated bureaucratic rigidity for a series of ill-informed engineering decisions.51 The shortcomings of human hydraulic engineering also looms large as a theme in environmental histories of New Orleans, as exemplified by the scholarship of Craig Colten, Ari Kelman, and others.52 Phoenix and Tucson, on the other hand, have emerged as exemplars of cities that owed their explosive growth to the emergence of weather as an amenity in the 20th century.53 Andrew Needham’s study of Phoenix also demonstrates the metropolis’s contribution to climate change through its dependence on coal production.54

Another strand in the historiography of urban weather consists of scholarship on technologies that have developed to overcome climate constraints and weather hazards. Joel Tarr and Martin Melosi pioneered historical studies of urban sewerage in the 1970s, a topic that touched on the challenge of excess rainwater. Their work on urban infrastructure continued well into the 21st century.55 Since the 1990s, the topics of air-conditioning and refrigeration have captured increasing notice from historians, with emphasis shifting from an engineering perspective to a more nuanced social and cultural analysis.56

Primary Sources

The major source of climate data in the United States is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Raw weather data from National Weather Service monitoring stations, including temperature and precipitation readings, is available for American cities and towns going back to the 1870s, in many cases. This data, which can be accessed through the NOAA’s online data portal, can be used to identify extreme weather events and to reconstruct long-term climatic trends. In addition, researchers can access regional and statewide publications dating to the late 19th century that provide descriptive overviews of weather conditions. Beginning in 1959, NOAA’s monthly publication, Storm Data, provided qualitative assessments of storm occurrences and unusual weather phenomena. These reports, arranged chronologically by state, contain information on storm paths, deaths, injuries, and property damage, and can be accessed online.

Investigating the impacts of weather and climate on urban society requires a more decentralized approach, although records of the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency housed at the National Archives permit a national overview of natural disasters. In the aftermath of major storms, state legislatures sometimes commissioned reviews of relief and recovery efforts. Genealogical records such as death certificates are valuable for assessing mortality risks associated with extreme weather events. For the more mundane challenges posed by fluctuations in rainfall, wind, and temperature, the best sources are reports issued by city agencies, particularly sewer boards, health commissions, and parks departments. Finally, local newspapers should not be overlooked as a rich source of information about individualized and informal adaptations to a variety of weather conditions. Only recently has climate figured prominently in city planning; plans developed under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiatives can be accessed online.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Ackerman, Marsha. Cool Comfort: America’s Romance with Air-Conditioning. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Davis, Mike. Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998.Find this resource:

Knowles, Scott Gabriel. The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Kohn, Edward P. Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Basic Books, 2010.Find this resource:

McKelvey, Blake. Snow in the Cities: A History of America’s Urban Response. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Mergen, Bernard. Snow in America. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Mergen, Bernard. Weather Matters: An American Cultural History since 1900. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Needham, Andrew. Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Orsi, Jared. Hazardous Metropolis: Flooding and Urban Ecology in Los Angeles. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Platt, Harold L. Sinking Chicago: Climate Change and the Remaking of a Flood-Prone Environment. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2018.Find this resource:

Smith, Carl S. City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Steinberg, Ted. Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Valencius, Conevery Bolton. The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land. New York: Basic Books, 2002.Find this resource:


(1.) Jerry M. Melillo, Terese Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, eds., Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment (Washington, DC: US Global Change Research Program, 2014), 28–37.

(3.) Timothy R. Mahoney, River Towns in the Great West: The Structure of Provincial Urbanization in the American Midwest, 1820–1870 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990); and William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: Norton, 1991), 36–39.

(4.) Catherine McNeur, Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998); Robin Faith Bachin, Building the South Side: Urban Space and Civic Culture in Chicago, 1890–1919 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); and Carl S. Smith, The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

(5.) Carey McWillams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (Santa Barbara: Peregrine Smith, 1979), 96–112, 331; and Roger D. Launius and Jessie L. Embry, “Fledgling Wings: Aviation Comes to the Southwest, 1910–1930,” New Mexico Historical Review 70 (January 1995): 1–27.

(7.) Michael F. Logan, Desert Cities: The Environmental History of Phoenix and Tucson (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), 137–157.

(8.) Jay D. Edwards, “The Origins of Creole Architecture,” Winterthur Portfolio 29 (Summer–Autumn 1994): 155–189; Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 104–121; and William B. Meyer, Americans and Their Weather (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 28–32, 179–180.

(9.) Michael Rawson, Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 75–128; Matthew Gandy, Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002), 19–51; and David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 54–56.

(10.) Amahia Mallea, A River in the City of Fountains: An Environmental History of Kansas City and the Missouri River (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018).

(11.) Ari Kelman, “‘The Catfish Became the Companion of the Crawfish’: Struggling to Reclaim New Orleans’ Wetlands,” Human Geography 32 (2004): 157–180.

(12.) Timothy M. Collins, Edward K. Muller, and Joel A. Tarr, “Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers: From Industrial Infrastructure to Environmental Asset,” in Rivers in History: Perspectives on Waterways in Europe and North America, ed. Christof Mauch and Thomas Zeller (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), 41–62.

(13.) Jared Orsi, Hazardous Metropolis: Flooding and Urban Ecology in Los Angeles (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004), 11–54; and Blake Gumprecht, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999), 167–191.

(14.) Gilbert F. White et al., Changes in Urban Occupance of Flood Plains in the United States Department of Geography Research Paper No. 57 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1958).

(15.) Stanley A. Chagnon, ed., The Great Flood of 1993: Causes, Impacts, and Responses (New York: Westview, 1996); and Andrew Hurley, “Floods, Rats, and Toxic Waste: Allocating Environmental Hazards Since World War II,” in Common Fields: An Environmental History of St. Louis, ed. Andrew Hurley (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1997), 242–262.

(17.) William B. Meyer, Americans and Their Weather (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 166–167.

(18.) David E. Nye, When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 105–136.

(19.) Meyer, Americans and Their Weather, 125–126.

(20.) Philip J. Hutchinson, “Journalism and the Perfect Heat Wave: Assessing the Reporting of North America’s Worst Heat Wave, July–August 1936,” American Journalism 25 (Winter 2008): 31–54.

(21.) Anne Whiston Spirn, The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 52–55.

(22.) Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

(23.) Colin Fisher, Urban Green: Nature, Recreation, and the Working Class in Industrial Chicago (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

(26.) Eric Klinenberg, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

(29.) Marian Moser Jones, The American Red Cross: From Clara Barton to the New Deal (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 37–60.

(30.) Mergen, Weather Matters, 275–285; and Knowles, The Disaster Experts, 250–279.

(31.) Stephan Benzkofer, “1979 Blizzard Was Debacle,” Chicago Tribune, January 5, 2014, 19.

(32.) Mergen, Weather Matters, 188; and Dennis S. Mileti, Disasters By Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States (Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 1999), 65–104.

(33.) Knowles, The Disaster Experts, 256.

(35.) Neil Smith, “There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster,” Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from the Social Sciences, Social Science Research Council, 2006.

(36.) Adam Sobel, Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future (New York: HarperCollins, 2014).

(37.) Ted Steinberg, Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 326–352; Ashley Dawson, Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (New York: Verso, 2017), 1–6; and Devanandham Henry and Jose Emmanuel Ramirez, “On the Impacts of Power Outages during Hurricane Sandy—A Resilience-Based Analysis,” Systems Engineering 19 (January 2016): 59–75.

(38.) Mark D. Risser and Michael F. Wehner, “Attributable Human-Induced Changes in the Likelihood and Magnitude of Extreme Precipitation During Hurricane Harvey,” Geophysical Research Letters 44 (December 2017): 457–464.

(39.) Adriana X. Sanchez, Jeroen van der Heijden, and Paul Osmond, “The City Politics of an Urban Age: Urban Resilience, Conceptualisations, and Policies,” Palgrave Communications 4, no. 25 (2018): 1–12; and Judith Rodin, The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong (New York: Public Affairs, 2014).

(40.) Ashley Dawson, Extreme Cities, 157–187.

(41.) McKelvey, Snow in the Cities; and Meyer, Americans and Their Weather.

(42.) Mergen, Weather Matters.

(43.) McCullough, The Johnstown Flood.

(44.) Kohl, Hot Time.

(45.) Douglas Brinkley, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (New York: HarperCollins, 2006); and John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein, Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006).

(46.) For example, Cedric Johnson, The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans (Minneapolis: The University of Minneapolis Press, 2012).

(47.) Steinberg, Acts of God.

(48.) Knowles, The Disaster Experts.

(49.) Kevin Rozario, The Culture of Calamity: Disaster and the Making of Modern America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

(51.) Orsi, Hazardous Metropolis.

(52.) Craig Colten, ed., Transforming New Orleans and its Environs: Centuries of Change (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001); Ari Kelman, A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003); Craig E. Colten, Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004); and Craig E. Colten, Perilous Place, Powerful Storms: Hurricane Protection in Coastal Louisiana (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2009).

(53.) Michael F. Logan, Desert Cities.

(54.) Needham, Power Lines.

(55.) Joel A. Tarr, Search for the Ultimate Sink (Akron: University of Akron Press, 1996); and Martin V. Melosi, The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

(56.) For example, Gail Cooper, Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900–1960 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998); Ackerman, Cool Comfort; and Jonathan Rees, Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).