Natural…Or Man-Made Disaster?

PERSPECTIVES


by PETER MAURER

Hurricane Harvey was a disaster that devastated parts of Texas and Louisiana. At press time, Hurricane Irma is barreling for Florida with the potential for damage and loss of life that will exceed Harvey. And as we sit and watch endless videos online and on TV about these disasters, our hearts will go out to those impacted.

And yet, despite my compassion and empathy for those whose lives, homes, jobs, and businesses have been – and will be – affected by these hurricanes, there is a part of me that knows that we, as people, are partly to blame.

I’m not talking so much about the impact of warmer ocean waters because of global warming leading to more dangerous hurricanes and tropical storms, but rather where we choose to build our cities and homes, and how we build those structures.

There can be no doubt that many coastal cities sprang up because of easy access to oceans and rivers, then, and still, the conduit through which we import and export the goods we need. But we also are uniquely attracted to water, and having homes and cottages on the water’s edge.

Combine these two things, and you have a disaster just waiting to happen. Put people, flimsy structures, poor drainage, and over-development together, and you get Harvey, Irma, Katrina, Sandy, Andrew, and many other historic hurricanes whose names have been retired due to the damage they wrought upon the country.

Katrina occurred not because the storm surge overwhelmed the dikes and barriers that protect a city that is beneath sea level, but because the Army Corps of Engineers built a series of dams on the Mississippi River to control the flooding that naturally occurs along its flood plains.

Those dams slow the water, which results in the sediment building up behind the dams rather than in the Gulf where the channel islands formed a natural barrier to storm surges that never would have gotten through to go up the river and inundate New Orleans. Less sediment reaching the Gulf meant that those natural barriers broke down slowly over time, allowing the storm surge to reach the city.

Harvey’s impact was exacerbated by the fact that since 2005, Houston’s explosive growth added 25% more concrete to the landscape, resulting in less land to absorb the rain, more water running off into the drainage system, and poor urban planning with respect to elevation and flood plains.

Yes, Harvey’s prodigious rainfall was made worse by a stubborn weather front that prevented the hurricane from moving very far or very fast, but there still would have been massive flooding and loss of property even if it had moved on after dropping a more typical 12-20 inches of rain.

Sandy, Andrew, and Irma destroyed many seaside homes and businesses with their surges, but we never learn. The insurance companies and businesses will have people rebuild a few hundred feet further back from water’s edge, but storm surges can travel miles inland, so what is a few hundred feet further back?

Flood insurance is something many Harvey and other hurricane victims do not buy because of the cost, but the cost is determined by the risk, and if you live in a hurricane-prone region, your premiums are going to be high because it really is just a matter of time before you get flooded.

Statistics show that 75% of federal flood insurance claimants are repeat claimants, meaning that they rebuild in the very same area.

We either need to rethink letting people and businesses rebuild in the same areas, or come up with a much better way to ensure the structure’s survivability, either through stilts or drainage systems that make sense.

Otherwise, we will be asked to repeatedly rebuild these homes and businesses through higher taxes. I should not be asked to pay repeatedly for someone else’s foolhardy decision, as harsh as that may sound. Mother Nature isn’t going to change her habits, so the best thing we can do is get out of her way.