If you’ve tuned into any news source recently, then you know that it seems as though we just can’t catch a break from disasters, either natural or manmade. First, Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane, made landfall in the United States causing widespread destruction in Texas. Then, just days later as the nation was still recovering from Harvey, Irma slammed into the Caribbean and parts of southern Florida, destroying homes and businesses. After that, Hurricane Maria wiped out much of Puerto Rico. Maria and Irma both reached hurricane Category 5. This season, four deadly hurricanes have already made landfall in the United States, racking up an estimated $200 billion in damages, and hurricane season won’t be over until November 30.
It is likely that these hurricanes were influenced by global warming, as a warmer atmosphere can absorb more moisture. Also, if the air warms, some of the heat is absorbed by the ocean, and warmer seas feed the growth of tropical storms. When a tragedy like the Las Vegas shooting occurs, we ask ourselves, “How could this have been prevented?” We rarely, however, ask the same question of a natural disaster. Although natural disasters cannot be entirely prevented, the death and destruction they cause can be mitigated. That human element makes natural disasters less, well, natural.
When disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and wildfires strike, many people’s survival instincts often kick in. In the case of weather events with warnings, some heed the warnings and flee the affected area if time permits, others choose instead to hunker down and wait out the storm, often with tragic consequences. In the aftermath, nations offer their support in the gradual process of recovery and reconstruction. But what if some of these cyclical methods that we see time and time again in response to natural disasters could be avoided?
Thinking about such matters is not new for me. In the early 1970’s, for example, I served on the staff of the House of Representatives committee with responsibility for disaster issues. In 1980, I was selected to be on an expert writing committee, which prepared for NSF a report on Flood Hazard Mitigation, which was then transmitted to Congress. After every significant flooding event, be it riverine or coastal, I pull this report which 20 colleagues and I co-authored, off the shelf and re-scan it to remind myself of our recommendations, and the fact that although consistently acknowledged, so few of them have been meaningfully pursued or adopted, and so many of the consequences we predicted occurred yet again.
Having returned recently from the Netherlands, I was again reminded that some fundamental things could be done to help prevent flooding, but the ones that might work are so costly that the likelihood of their being undertaken in the U.S. is always small. Instead, small steps are taken, which simply encourage people, who think they are now protected, to put themselves back in danger. As my old friend and mentor, Professor Gilbert White used to say, “the trouble with most structural flood prevention projects is that they simply trade periodic damaging floods for the occasional disastrous one.” Floods, as he put it, are an act of God, but flood losses are largely an act of man.
What differentiates a natural weather pattern from a natural disaster is not the intensity of the event in question, but rather the intersection of human activity with a natural hazard. To a certain extent, these catastrophes we call natural disasters are inevitable, but to dismiss a natural disaster as purely natural downplays the importance of taking measures to prepare and plan for them. With proper planning and implementation of technology, many lives could be saved, cities could be better protected, and enormous amounts of money could be saved.
Let’s start with an old example. The deadliest hurricane that anyone living today is bound to remember is Hurricane Katrina from 2005, but the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, as well as the most fatal hurricane, ever recorded was one that struck Galveston, Texas in 1900. As this was the inaugural year of the National Hurricane Center responsible for tracking damage from hurricanes, it is impossible to say whether this storm was any more intense than Katrina or Irma, but regarding the fatalities and destruction it caused, it was the worst. It became known as “The Galveston Horror.” Inaccurate predictions and the absence of effective warning systems left the residents of Galveston unprepared for the impending storm; an estimated 6,000-12,000 people perished.
The vibrant city of New Orleans suffered the brunt of the damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and although the city’s spirit refused to die, and it has largely regained its distinct NOLA charm, the lives of many of the people who called the city their home will never be the same again. On a structural level, the city could have fared much better had there been more effective flood protection in the form of levees and floodwalls, in place. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent over $14 million on stronger flood fortifications that the city should have had in place before Katrina struck. It was known, long before Katrina swept across the coast of Louisiana, that New Orleans was particularly vulnerable because much of the city is below sea level, yet it took one of the most devastating natural disasters of all time to spur the government toward effective action.
On another level, there were many socioeconomic issues at play in the nation’s response to the destruction Katrina left in her wake, which Gregory Squires and Chester Hartman discuss in their book, There is no Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina. As stated in the book’s synopsis, “The disaster will go down on record as one of the worst in American history, not least because of the government’s inept and cavalier response. But it is also a huge story for other reasons; the impact of the hurricane was uneven, and race and class were deeply implicated in the unevenness.”
Then there are the most recent catastrophic hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria) of this 2017 season, and we can examine them with a critical eye as well regarding preparedness and response. Perhaps most obviously, despite a long history of repeated flooding, Houston does not have any flood evacuation zones in place. If it did, perhaps fewer lives would have been lost, as people could have evacuated in a more organized and informed manner. Rescue efforts could have been reduced and also more efficient if city officials were properly equipped to relocate high flood risk neighborhoods to safer locations based on historic flooding patterns. Currently, however, most flood insurance allows people to collect for damages and then move right back into the flood hazard zone.
As of this writing, it has been a month since hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico. Since some 3 million people are still without electricity, and it’s estimated that about 1 million people do not yet have running water, the governmental response to Puerto Rican relief efforts has become a major political issue.
As politics and socioeconomic issues are considered, these disasters we call natural suddenly seem less so. We may know that we cannot prevent the natural phenomena from occurring, but we certainly do have a say in how we both prepare for and respond to natural disasters.