Jordan Candler / February 22, 2018

The Untold Story Behind Huge Natural Disaster Costs

Growing population, too much or insufficient infrastructure, and urban planning all play a role.

The year 2017 will go down as historic in terms of meteorological catastrophes. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 16 individual billion-dollar disasters ravaged the U.S. last year, putting it neck and neck with 2011, which also saw 16. All told, the annual economic toll skyrocketed to a record $306.2 billion. This dwarfs the previous record of $214.8 billion set in 2005.

Houston and Puerto Rico come to most people’s minds when they think about the meteorological impacts of 2017. In Puerto Rico, the residual effects of Hurricane Maria are still evident. Despite the hurricane’s hitting last September, a USA Today article dated Feb. 12 reported that 400,000 customers remain in the dark. Indeed, the situation in Puerto Rico will no doubt leave a permanent scar.

Predictably, the magnitude and overall number of storms in 2017 prompted many of the usual suspects to immediately blame global warming. While the NOAA report concedes that an “increase in population and material wealth” in combination with “the fact that many population centers and infrastructure exist in vulnerable areas like coasts and river floodplains, while building codes are often insufficient in reducing damage from extreme events” have all contributed to the increase in billion-dollar events since 1980, it nevertheless claims that “[c]limate change is also playing an increasing role in the increasing frequency of some types of extreme weather that lead to billion-dollar disasters.”

Unfortunately, the narrative we see today proves that one of NOAA’s crucial points — “building codes are often insufficient in reducing damage from extreme events” — was put in the report more out of obligation than out of serious concern for its overall impact. The U.S. is coming out of a hurricane lull and is nowhere close to its 1930s-50s apex. This isn’t just ominous for our future; it also means that, right now, something other than global warming has to be contributing to the cost in a major way. Sadly, more attention is not being given to the socioeconomic and policy decisions that afflict the economy far more than we realize.

Puerto Rico is Exhibit A. Last week the Miami Herald published a tantalizing analysis under the revealing headline, “Half of Puerto Rico’s housing was built illegally. Then came Hurricane Maria.” The article tells the story of a woman named Gladys Peña whose ordeal is familiar to thousands of residents: “Peña had no blueprint for her house. No permits. No inspections. No insurance. Not even title to the land underneath it.” Unsurprisingly, her home was absolutely ravaged by winds and water.

Even some of the flooding on the island appears linked to laziness and tawdry behavior. Still relaying Peña’s story, the Herald reports that on the heels of the wind “came the flooding, because the community was built on former wetlands bordering a mangrove canal where water no longer flows because of heavy sedimentation and the accumulation of years of illegally dumped trash.”

To its credit, the Herald importantly notes: “In Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory with an official poverty rate of 44 percent, such ‘informal’ home construction has for generations been more the rule than the exception, in particular in towns and rural areas outside San Juan, but in extensive stretches of the capital city as well. And that is one overriding reason why Hurricane Maria caused such widespread and calamitous destruction as it raked across the length and breadth of the island on Sept. 20 last year.” If only more researchers and pundits would admit it.

Fortunately, infrastructure and building codes aren’t this bad closer to home, but even Florida is learning the consequences of complacency. After going a decade without a major hurricane — during which time the state population vastly expanded — reality is suddenly settling in. If weather and climate are indeed cyclical, then it stands to reason that the hurricane drought wouldn’t last forever. Indeed, it didn’t. The question is how bad will it get in the years ahead — and history suggests it could get really bad. Moreover, there is plenty of added infrastructure standing in hurricanes’ way.

Our way of life absolutely dictates some of the chaos that storms provoke, whether it be from poverty-inducing policies or, on the flip side, even technological advances. This is virtually the only way in which we can be confident that storm impacts are at least partially man-made. An island like Puerto Rico was ill-prepared to handle a storm like Maria just like a massive city with as much concrete and residents as Houston was ill-prepared to handle a storm like Harvey. Ironically, just as a poverty-ridden island is a sitting duck, a sprawling city’s ability to weather a storm is entirely dependent on its leaders prioritizing preparedness.

There’s no stopping hurricanes, but there are certainly ways to mitigate their impact. Imagining that curtailing global warming is the panacea certainly won’t help — especially as populations soar, attenuate policies remain elusive in many areas and the number of hurricanes is naturally expected to increase. Remember: The increasing dollar amount of disasters is happening at the same time our world is becoming more complex and hurricanes are roaring back from a lull. All the while, socioeconomic standings and policy prescriptions are pivotal players when it comes to the cost of natural disasters, yet they are treated like side notes. Why?

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