Hurricanes, Part Two: Hurricane Destruction and Flood Disasters are Man-Made

5 May

By Mike McGee

Back in 2012 I wrote a blog entry on preventing hurricanes (tropical cyclones), which is posted at . Earlier this year I had a personal correspondence with the eminent scientist Dr. Chris Landsea, who is the NOAA’s Joint Hurricane Testbed Director and National Hurricane Center Science & Operations Officer. Chris was impressed by my desire to find ways to prevent hurricanes. He also had some words which inspired me to think of most hurricane, earthquake and flood disasters as being man-made.

He was quite certain, though, that the prevention methods I described in my blog would not work, and gave good scientific reasons for his conclusion. Since I am not a weather scientist I have accepted that he is correct. Still, there remains in my blog a call for scientists to find valid methods to prevent hurricanes at the source, using the burgeoning technology of the twenty-first century.

Then Chris wrote something that riveted my attention and spurred me on to write this present blog entry. Maybe what he said will rivet your attention also:

“Perhaps the best solution,” he wrote, “is not to try to alter or destroy the tropical cyclones, but just learn to co-exist better with them. Since we know that coastal regions are vulnerable to the storms, building codes that can have houses stand up to the force of the tropical cyclones need to be enforced. The people that choose to live in these locations should be willing to shoulder a fair portion of the costs in terms of property insurance – not exorbitant rates, but ones which truly reflect the risk of living in a vulnerable region. In addition, efforts to educate the public on effective preparedness need to continue.”

I may not be a scientist, yet as a retired attorney I know quite a lot about building codes and insurance costs and the logistics of risk management. So now I’m in my element as I write my analysis of how to co-exist better with both hurricanes and floods. Hurricanes are also known as “tropical cyclones,” which better describes the worldwide occurrence of such storms and includes within its purview Atlantic storms in the US. Floods can be deluges associated with hurricanes; or they can, and frequently do, stand on their own as major disasters. Here goes:


“Everybody’s always known that if a hurricane ever hit New Orleans head-on, the city would be wiped out. The whole damn town was nothing but a big bowl sitting below sea level – a bowl of filth waiting for a purging flood. Even the people who lived there knew it. But they just kept the party going, and pretended it would never happen.” Natchez Burning, by Greg Iles, page 529. New York: William Morrow, 2014, 791 pages.

Even though this quote is from a novel, it is a very realistic, even poetic, rendering of the true state of the largely man-made disaster which occurred when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005.

A MAN-MADE disaster? How can this be true??? Unfortunately, there is no doubt that this is so with regard to most such disasters, including the aftermaths of both hurricanes and floods. And the truth of this assertion can be easily demonstrated by a few simple facts. It’s not like global warming, where there is only a theoretical and unproven causal relation between the acts of man and possible warming. Hurricanes and floods are real and very tangible, and cause and effect is not in doubt.

To come at it from another perspective, we can look at an analogous discussion of the recent earthquake disaster in Kathmandu and throughout Nepal. The only commonality between hurricanes and earthquakes is that both are “natural” phenomena. Seismologist James Jackson, head of the Earth Sciences Department at the University of Cambridge in England, said that while the trigger of the disaster is natural, “the consequences are very much man-made…. It’s buildings that kill people, not earthquakes.”

Clearly poorer nations such as Nepal do not have the financial ability to ensure that their buildings are safe from natural disasters. It would be a horrible mistake to blame these nations for building structures that cannot withstand these disasters, and we will not do so here. We are speaking in this blog mostly about hurricanes in the United States and in other developed countries, and we will use the United States as our primary example of how hurricane and flood disasters are man-made, and that the amelioration of these disasters must also be man-made.

Notice that I am not saying that hurricanes are man-made. I am saying that hurricane disasters are man-made. Hurricane disasters are almost entirely due to the way people build buildings and other facilities, and the way we all fail to plan ahead for the very tropical storms which they know to a certainty will arrive sooner or later. People have a natural and normal tendency to believe that natural disasters “just happen.”

Unlike earthquakes, hurricanes and floods are not usually known for “killing people,” except for a few monster typhoons in the Pacific which are beyond the purview of this discussion. What hurricanes and flooding do with such efficiency is to destroy buildings, including homes and commercial structures; along with power and water plants, levees, electrical distribution, and government facilities. When people die or are injured it is usually due to the destruction of a weak home or building, or to the physical failure of a home or weak building or other structure to provide shelter from the storm.

In the United States at least, there are predictable paths along which hurricanes travel, and predictable physical stresses on homes and buildings and other structures when hurricanes do travel on one of these predictable paths. Even so, most US homes and buildings in storm areas routinely fall apart like a stack of matchsticks when a hurricane comes, or are thoroughly soaked by water when a rising water flood comes. Not only that – we all seem to be surprised when a hurricane or flood comes. People in the storm path will rush around like a disrupted ant colony, trying to buy plywood to cover windows and desperately filling sandbags to stanch the water, and trying to find ways to evacuate.

I believe that we as a people are better than this. We have the capacity to plan ahead. Here in the US, though, we also have the capacity to ignore, or be in denial about, these vast forces of nature which in everyday life seem so far away from us as to be “unimaginable.” We need to imagine fully the unimaginable. By doing so, we can reduce the human and economic costs of the great hurricanes and floods.

(We are intentionally leaving out tornado damage from this analysis. These disasters are much more random and have different dynamics for pre-disaster preparation.)

The primary losses in a serious hurricane and associated floods are economic losses, often running into the billions of dollars even for smaller category 3 hurricanes. It is the same for the vast areas flooded each year by high waters. People are stranded on rooftops and their homes and businesses are lost. The US economy, mostly through insurance payments and the distribution of tax dollars, absorbs these losses in an effortless manner and everyone rebuilds; and then we go on to build even more of the same types of structures as before, in the same locations.

Everyone just keeps the party going, and pretends it will never happen again. The human and economic costs of such “business as usual” are no longer justifiable with the vastly increased population and the vastly increased complexity of construction. The vastly increased pace of development also leads to a shoving aside of many standards relating to hurricanes or floods.

It is entirely predictable that hurricanes and floods will continue to come year after year. There may not be one this year or next year, yet there will definitely be another disaster. Yet there are few who will plan for this future disaster, and many who will not even buy insurance to cover quite predictable future losses. Many of these people figure that their insurance will pay for any financial losses, and if they don’t have full insurance, they’ll be bailed out by the government using our tax money.

Of course it is appropriate for the government to spend tax dollars to provide for disaster relief, including finding and rescuing stranded people, the restoration of public services including flood remediation, and the provision of temporary food and housing and other efforts to relieve suffering. Coming in after the fact to reimburse people with tax money for property losses when they have failed to plan ahead is another thing entirely.

Of course it is appropriate for insurance companies to pay out for insured property losses and other losses. The problem is that even in the face of enormous payouts the insurance companies seem to be taking a very passive approach to what their policyholders may or may not do to build their properties in ways which will withstand hurricanes and other storms, and which will avoid floods and their watery aftermath. Insurers also seem to have little stake in how communities prepare for storms, and how building codes may be strengthened to make properties more hurricane-proof.

One of the problems faced by private insurance companies is that they tend to be competitive, as they should be. What if one insurer, before Katrina, had canceled all its thousands of property and casualty policies in New Orleans because the levees were too weak and the building codes were too weak? We know what would have happened. A dozen other insurers would have crowded into the market and issued policies to these same people, at about the same prices as the cancelled policies. This is not a criticism; it’s just the way free-market competition works.

So who or what could have made the whole New Orleans area care enough about weak levees and weak building codes to do something about it before Katrina? Let’s face it. These are really boring subjects. Most of us have no tolerance for reading engineering reports on levee construction. Even fewer of us can even locate, not to mention read or understand, building codes. It is unlikely that there ever was going to be a great public outcry to accomplish these necessary tasks. This is human nature. It’s too complicated to look at today. Tomorrow is another day.

Even more certain is how difficult it is to mobilize public opinion in any of the hundreds or thousands of local areas around the entire Atlantic hurricane corridor of the United States. Efforts to eliminate specific threats such as inadequate levees or new construction on at-risk land are inevitably local in nature. Building codes are also local in nature. Local factors are like a thousand different strands which would have to be woven together in order to have the kind of standards that nationally based private insurers, and government programs such as FEMA and flood insurance, could use to actually do something about the problem of lack of preparedness.

Billions of federal, state and local tax dollars are spent on rescue, recovery and remediation after such disasters, and the taxpayers continue to pay and pay without a thought for tomorrow. With proper building codes and standards, proper flood control methods, and proper standards for advance preparedness, more people can shelter in place, and perhaps half as many people will need rescuing, and less tax money will need to be spent on each hurricane or flood disaster. We attacked the federal government for its delays in getting taxpayer provided disaster relief to New Orleans after Katrina. If we were to have sturdy enough advance planning, there will not be nearly the need for the taxpayers to provide for people, since not nearly as many persons would be actually displaced by hurricanes or floods.

Maybe what we need to bring to bear on the subject is a bunch of bureaucrats. So maybe we need FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), perhaps in coordination with the NOAA, to begin to study and set realistic Model Standards for hurricane and flood preparedness. Such standards would include developing adequate building codes, providing adequate separation of structures from known flood areas or elevating them above flood high water marks, and the examination of local structures nationwide such as levees and other protection methods to assure adequacy.

Or a private organization may be able to do the job; made up of insurers and engineers and scientists and builders and community leaders and other individuals who may have an interest in setting Model Standards to reduce the damage caused by hurricanes and floods.

Without question the issues surrounding hurricane and flood preparedness are deeply profound and have great meaning for all of us. Billions of tax money is spent every year to save and restore people from the predictable consequences of hurricanes and floods. More billions of private money is spent by insurers and others to restore people from the same consequences. Incredible numbers of people are displaced and have to “start over” after each disaster.

If homes and businesses were hurricane and flood resistant, there would be much less need for disaster relief, since many people could shelter in place in their homes or businesses through storms and floods. These people would need to have storm shutters ready to go up, to cover all the windows and doors. They would need to be prepared with a few days’ supply of clean water and non-perishable food. They might need a few flash lights and camp stoves to cook on if the electricity goes out, if they can’t afford a generator.

If communities were hurricane and flood resistant, there would be fewer electrical outages and fewer surges of deep water, and basic services such as police and fire may be able to continue uninterrupted.

No one wants to be forced from their home by catastrophic wind and water damage, to wander the countryside in a car with only a suitcase, all personal possessions and family photos and records destroyed along with mementos of the past. Such dislocation is supposed to happen in Nepal, or in Afghanistan or in other war-torn areas. Not right here in the good old USA. We all appreciate the stability of home and family and place of worship and the other steady things that make up daily life. Lack of meaningful storm and flood standards – building codes in particular- should not continue to uproot us like refugees.

From Copyright © 2015 by Michael H. McGee. All commercial rights reserved. Non-commercial or news and commentary site re-use or re-posting is encouraged. Please feel free to share all or part, hopefully with attribution.

One Response to “Hurricanes, Part Two: Hurricane Destruction and Flood Disasters are Man-Made”

  1. HomeFreeKids July 12, 2015 at 2:26 am #

    “If a tree falls in the forest and there’s isn’t a soul around to hear it, does it make a sound”? This sort of reminds me of that phrase. Hurricanes have always been around. And when they hit an uninhabited region, we don’t bat an eye. However, now we build massive buildings, create overcrowded cities (I spent enough time in New Orleans, to know that it was a disaster waiting too happen) and in areas with a lower income, the structures are not sound. The planet has been turbulent since it began. It’s just that now….humans inhabit the earth. I’ve often wondered…is it Global Warming? Or is it the norm? We certainly wouldn’t be the first species to go extinct on the planet. So it’s not too far fetched that the climate is changing as well. Or maybe…it’s a little of both. Fabulous article, btw. I’m fascinated by …well….basically everything earth 😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: