People who live in areas prone to flooding or other disasters can be forgiven for thinking they’ve lived through so many “once in a century” weather events they mathematically must have been here since the time of the Pharaohs.
For whatever reason, destructive storms, drought-related wildfires and other events are becoming harsher and more frequent. If it’s your house that gets destroyed, the debate over whether it was due to manmade global warming or long-term climatic change is beside the point.
We can’t eliminate the storms, but we can hedge against their effects. A good place to start would be with storm mitigation. The 1968 National Flood Insurance Act was a federal insurance program aimed to encourage people in flood-prone areas to move to safer ground, or at least to flood-resistant structures, in exchange for flood insurance that no private insurer would offer because of the outsize risk. The program never fully worked as intended because of opposition from homeowners, developers and waterfront resorts.
The Census Bureau says that more than half the U.S. lives within 50 miles of the coasts. Those who live on the actual coasts favor living right on the water, especially on barrier islands that are basically moving sandbars.
The lessons of Hurricane Katrina seem to be slipping from memory. The 2005 storm was the nation’s fifth deadliest, claiming more than 1,800 lives, and its most expensive, costing around $108 billion in damages. About a third of New Orleans’ population never moved back.
A principal reason behind Katrina’s devastation: Human activity, including channels dredged in the Mississippi and its feeder rivers, destroyed protective mangrove swamps and effectively created super highways for storm surge.
While Sandy was not a particularly powerful hurricane, it had a 1,000-mile reach and killed more than 100 people in 10 states. Though the damage is still being totaled, Sandy will likely be our second most expensive storm after Katrina.
And lest the need for foresight and preparedness be lost on us, another big storm, a nor’easter, is taking aim later this week at the Delaware and Raritan bays, areas already pounded by Sandy.
We can’t say we weren’t warned.