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How Many Hurricanes Must It Take?

Yves here. I suspect readers will be frustrated with this article, even though it makes an important point: that governments have low-cost measures they can take to reduce the human and financial toll of hurricanes. But with what are likely to be limited exceptions, these measures are stopgaps. US military planners have predicted since the early 2000s that the world will see mass migration based on climate change, due primarily to flooding of low-lying areas. Moreover, even with better planning and efforts to reduce the impact of floods, such as protection of wetlands, I am not sure how much can be done to protect sewer systems.

No one wants to admit that hundreds of millions of people will need to move over the next century, yet many of them are not deemed to be valuable enough workers to be worth subsidizing to relocated. So what does that leave as an alternative? Death and disease in place? Or as the US planners anticipate, mass migrations? If so, what happens then? Internments? Don’t kid yourself, low-skill, low-income people will not be welcome.

By Edward B. Barbier is Professor in the Department of Economics and Senior Scholar, School of Global Environmental Sustainability, Colorado State University. Originally published at Triple Crisis

In November 2013, I posted “Typhoon Haiyan and a Global Strategy for Protecting Coastal Populations” on Triple Crisis. I argued that:

“Given the scale and frequency of recent coastal disasters—Typhoon Haiyan, Hurricanes Sandy, Katrina, and Rita, the Fukushima and Indian Ocean Tsunamis—it is time to develop a global strategy for protecting coastal populations. There should be two elements to this strategy: a short-run emergency response and investments in long-term global adaptation.”

I developed this theme further for a Perspectives article in Science, “A global strategy for protecting vulnerable coastal populations,” which was published in September 2014. In 2015, on the tenth anniversary of the US Gulf Coast disasters, I was asked by Nature to reflect on “Hurricane Katrina’s lessons for the world.” Once again, I called for coastal protection plans, similar to the Louisiana Coastal Master Plan, for the world’s most vulnerable people.

As I stated in the Nature article:

“The most vulnerable are poor, rural populations in developing countries that live less than 10 metres above sea level, in low elevation coastal zones (LECZs). In 2010, around 267 million people lived in the rural areas of LECZs. By 2100, the figure is projected to be 459 million.”

The recent devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria across the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Florida, and Texas are yet another sober reminder that it is the poorest nations, regions and populations that are the most vulnerable to coastal disasters, and which need assistance in terms of immediate emergency response as well as long-term recovery efforts.

In the aftermath of an emergency, saving lives and providing relief to survivors is of paramount importance. Such a response depends on supplying the “Three Ts”: telecommunications, transport and tonnage. The failure to deliver an adequate response was evident in the post-disaster problems encountered in the Caribbean. Even the United States, with its vast federal resources for emergency relief, could not mobilize assistance quickly and sufficiently for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria. International relief efforts helped, but also faced logistical difficulties that depended on donations and charities—much of which were raised only after the disaster struck.

Sadly, such outcomes are likely to occur again and again across the world. Many island countries and low-lying coastal areas—especially where the vulnerable poor reside—are ill-prepared for the scale and intensity of damages from the direct hit of for hurricanes or other coastal disasters.

This does not have to be the case. In my 2014 Science article, I outlined what a two-tier global strategy for protecting vulnerable coastal populations could look like. The strategy is summarized in the figure below.

 

The additional investment required is not expensive. For example, a global emergency task force that is well-equipped and capable of restoring telecommunications and transport and coordinating international and domestic relief support would need approximately $2 billion in initial funding and around $400 million in annual operating costs. An additional $600 million would finance a program to support long-term global adaptation in vulnerable coastal zones, which could also assist the development of coastal management and adaptation plans for many regions of the developing world.

Governments do not need to do this on their own. The global insurance and reinsurance industry also has a vested interest in coastal investment and protection plans. Industry insured losses for Hurricane Maria in the Caribbean will be between $40 billion and $85 billion, with Puerto Rico accounting for more than 85% of the damages. A study commissioned by Lloyds estimates that insurers have paid out over $200 billion in claims for damages due to coastal floods in the past 10 years. These losses could be dramatically reduced if the insurance industry invested in conservation of wetlands, such as mangroves and marsh, which provide natural protection against these risks. For example, as the study for Lloyds cites, marsh wetlands in the northeast United States saved more than $625 million in flood damages from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. As global flood losses are expected to rise from $6 billion annually in 2005 to an estimated $52 billion in 2050, the insurance industry has an incentive to finance coastal habitat conservation, which can be up to 30 times cheaper than investing in seawalls and other physical flood control infrastructure.

So, I ask the question again: How many more hurricanes must it take before the international community, including industries that have much to gain or lose from natural disasters, develop a global strategy for protecting vulnerable coastal populations?

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28 comments

  1. david

    “The additional investment required is not expensive. For example, a “global” emergency task force that is well-equipped and capable of restoring telecommunications and transport and coordinating international and domestic relief support would need approximately $2 billion in initial funding and around $400 million in annual operating costs.”

    even if the calculation is based on administration and logistics only (which doesn’t appear to be) the numbers are false -$400 million??? – for the word “global” to be used.

    “Let them eat cake” as the Lady said. Life is about personal choices, regardless of economic resources for the individual, which includes Risk Assessment and the probability of an event – anticipation.

    This is a promotion for a major worldwide tax on energy with the proceeds going to those “individuals” who would administrate the $$$ Trillion(s) for their “vigorish” and then inevitably redirected to the next Marxist game plan.

    Let those who are the best equipped via planning and foresight weather the storm and let the rest wash out to sea and the world will be a better place.

    1. False Solace

      “Let those who are the best equipped via planning and foresight” meaning, the foresight to have been born to parents rich enough to move. Forgive me for not agreeing that letting the rest “wash out to sea” would make the world a better place.

    2. Old Jake

      “Let those who are the best equipped via planning and foresight weather the storm and let the rest wash out to sea and the world will be a better place.”

      Just a modest proposal? Yet I fear that will be the policy, official or not.

    3. Lil’D

      “Not expensive…”

      The decision makers use a different currency.
      It is politically cheaper to engage in dollar-expensive cleanup than to engage in sensible (in my opinion) prevention

  2. WobblyTelomeres

    Even the United States, with its vast federal resources for emergency relief, could not mobilize assistance quickly and sufficiently for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria

    Could not or would not?

    1. RUKidding

      Exactly. Trump chose not to respond quickly and the response is still inadequate (at least in PR).

      Why do I say this? I happened to be in the Virgin Islands when Hurricane Hugo hit in September 1989.

      The devastation from Hugo in ’89 was perhaps a bit less – especially in PR – than Maria this year, but it was still very bad (and a terrifying experience to live through. I hope that I am NEVER that frightened again in my life time).

      GHW Bush the elder was Potus, and I have to give him credit that the Military and Nat’l Guard were there within about 36 hours of the ending of the storm. And I was evacuated within 48 hours.

      As I was leaving, there were already aid workers there providing food and water, as well as medical care, plus they had already started on clearing the roads.

      Trump left PR to rot & fester while he played golf. I suspect that he didn’t realize – really – that PR was part of the United States.

      It’s a disgrace what happened, but I fully expect more of the same in the future. For some reason, US citizens appear to believe that we should all just figure it out on own. Not good.

    2. Thor's Hammer

      “Even (***the united states***) Cuba, with its (***vast federal***) limited capital resources (***for emergency relief***,) could (***not***) mobilize assistance quickly and sufficiently for (***Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands***) its citizens after Hurricane Maria.”

      1- There is no systemic reason for a capitalist market system to plan for the future beyond the short term individual interest of it’s ruling classes who own its capital assets. Their goal is to turn all citizens of the underclasses into wage and debt serfs with no power over the future of their lives.
      2- For all of its perceived and actual flaws, even a poor country with limited resources can create what is recognized as the best civil defense warning and hurricane preparation system in the Caribbean. If you prioritize health care and social organization above profit for the ruling classes you end up with a different ability to mobilize after disaster.

      Nothing could symbolize the US response more clearly than a Navy hospital ship sitting offshore with only a fraction of its beds in use weeks later, or the funneling of $40 billion in reconstruction “aid” to a two man political crony company in Whitefish Montana.

  3. Wukchumni

    Not really doing anything in regards to the situation in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, are #4, #7 & #11 on Tainter’s list of why complex societies have collapsed in the past. How many of the other 8 factors apply now, in a non hurricane vein?

    1) Depletion or cessation of a vital resource
    2) The establishment of a new resource base
    3) The occurrence of some insurmountable catatrosphe
    4) Insufficient response to circumstance
    5) Other complex societies
    6) Intruders
    7) Class conflict, societal contradictions, elite mismanagement or misbehavior
    8) Social dysfunction
    9) Mystical factors
    10) Chance concatenation of events
    11) Economic factors

  4. rd

    In the US most of the coastal zone and floodplain land use planning is managed on a local basis. This generates property tax revenue for those localities. However, most disaster relief funding comes from the state and federal level who have generally abdicated their role in land use planning. So the entities that are making the decisions are different from the entities that pay for the consequences which leads to short-sighted poor decision-making.

    The insurance industry is generally not engaged with flood issues in the US. If they can demonstrate that it was water that caused the damage, instead of wind and debris, then they can walk away from the claim in most cases. So we are seeing that the insurance industry has pushed for good codes to prevent wind damage but it does nothing about where the structures are located. So we are seeing dramatic decreases in wind damage compared to Hurricane Andrew and the federal government picks up the tab on flooding. the one thing that will probably get the attention of the insurance industry regarding flooding is the cost of flooded cars, since they are covered under car insurance. However, since pretty much every car of value in the country is insured, they have a very large pool of premiums to draw from compared to the number of damaged cars (something the US still needs to learn about health insurance) compared to houses where most homes are not covered at all for flood insurance..

    The recovery from Hurricane Harvey in particular is going to be interesting since so much of that damage was non-sea surge flooding from the long rains. The flood insurance market in Houston was a mess because the land use planning was non-existent and flood zone mapping was very out of date. Many people who were flooded were not insured through FEMA, so are facing large losses. Do we as federal taxpayers simply start bank-rolling replacement in kind for uninsured flooded properties badly sited? Or do we start to take control of this and force modifications in land use in exchange for one-off. Unfortunately, I think the current political climate wants government to help make people whole while not “over-regulating the market place” which is just going to be a recipe for a bigger future disaster.

    1. Lyle

      Whenever mitigation measures such as raising the height of first floors etc are proposed the real estate industry has a tantrum. Since the main cause of deaths from hurricanes is flooding both fresh water and storm surge, elevated floors are a simple mitigation strategy. (This applies both to storm surge and fresh water flooding) The Texas governor suggested mitigation measures after Harvey, the Texas Real estate and construction industry threw a tantrum and forced him to back down.
      Of course today as a home purchaser you can look at maps and see if the property you are looking at is likley to flood (A lot of the homes in the more central parts of Houston are ones that repetitively flood. (There was no excuse for the homes built behind the dams below their rims but that the government did not spend the money in the 1940s to buy that land)

      1. fido

        I suspect a great many of people whose homes have been flooded multiple times and are a liability to FEMA wouldn’t mind having the government purchase them out. It’s a pipe dream, but we could use a new Resettlement Administration to rehome people in better locations.

      2. rd

        They can do this because they know the federal government will keep mailing checks to flooded homeowners whether or not they were insured.

        1. fido

          Yes, they can, but it’s a nuisance to have to repair damage and replace property even if someone else is paying for it. If there was assistance to move people out of flood plains, I’m sure there would be lots of takers. Wealthy people’s beach homes might be another matter, but that’s not everyone we’re talking about (it might, however, be a larger proportion of liabilities measured in dollars though.)

  5. Lee

    <a href="http://geology.com/sea-level-rise//

    You can check the link above to see how your or any other area will be affected.

    About half of the low lying island in SF bay where I live is landfill that will be permanently inundated with 1 or 2 meters of sea level rise. The developers are building like crazy or seeking to build on the few remaining undeveloped portions of the landfill. The city, regional and state authorities are offering them all manner of encouragement and inducements. Fortunately, we don’t get hurricanes here….or at least not so far.

  6. Lee

    http://geology.com/sea-level-rise/

    You can check the link above to see how your or any other area will be affected.

    About half of the low lying island in SF bay where I live is landfill that will be permanently inundated with 1 or 2 meters of sea level rise. The developers are building like crazy or seeking to build on the few remaining undeveloped portions of the landfill. The city, regional and state authorities are offering them all manner of encouragement and inducements. Fortunately, we don’t get hurricanes here….or at least not so far.

  7. elissa3

    I suspect that no serious measures will be taken until after an important city is hit, hard. NYC, DC, perhaps Miami. By then it will be too late, of course.

    1. Chris

      Thank you, Elissa. The deaths of brown people won’t change things.

      To quote the final para – How many more hurricanes must it take before the international community, including industries that have much to gain or lose from natural disasters, develop a global strategy for protecting vulnerable coastal populations?

      Climate change has failed to move the global community, so not hopeful

    2. lyman alpha blob

      I’d make one small distinction – nothing will happen until the rich areas of cities like that are hit. Until then it’s still quite profitable to have storms and tsunamis clear the real estate of poor people so luxury resorts can be built.

  8. JTMcPhee

    Re sewers: I seem to be finding another hobby horse to ride (like Haygood and Venezuela and others?). In a lot of places where billions of other non-Exceptional humans live, human poop is collected and composted and its nutrient values are conserved. But that is all “icky,” isn’t it? Don’t see all those Facebookers and twitterers managing a composting toilet, no matter how simple it is, and how not dependent on pipes in the ground, or the massive use of drinkable fresh water needed to shoot the tirds downstream to a billion-dollar “waste treatment plant.” (Which also in other places, where pipes are used to “flush it away,” other low-tech approaches to treating the “stuff” at lower cost seem to work out, though not if near rising sea level of course: “Small Towns Build Artificial Wetlands to Treat Sewage,” http://www.nytimes.com/1988/11/29/science/small-towns-build-artificial-wetlands-to-treat-sewage.html.

    And the infrastructure to support that composting is also simple, but requires social changes that are difficult to imagine happening in the Land of the Nacerima, that oddly familiar-seeming tribe reported in anthropology annals after it apparently died out for unknown reasons: http://www.sfu.ca/~palys/Miner-1956-BodyRitualAmongTheNacirema.pdf,

    1. Anon

      Modern sewer systems have probably done more for general public health in the 20th Century than any other public infrastructure. The system, however, is dependent on available water and plenty of electricity (for the pumps/motors).

      It is electricity that allows the modern sewage system to occupy a relatively small footprint compared to natural system wetlands. The availability of power/small footprint is what will allow sewage systems to deal with sea level rise: relocating the plant and pumping sewage to a higher location is not an impossible task.

      That is not to say that climate change/sea level rise shouldn’t be dealt with at it’s origins (increased CO2). But don’t bet on a prompt response. The linked article on the potential of using sewage wetlands was written some 30 years ago; few have been built.

    2. Lyle

      Actually many places take the sludge that results from sewage treatment plants and make fertilizer out of it see Houactinite for an example from Houston. Now inland away from the coast water that goes thru sewage treatment plants goes back into the river for further use in NM for example a lot of irrigation water comes thru that albuquerque sewage plants. Also so on the Mississippi river system. Actually except where you dump the treated water to the sea the water is reused (if nothing else pump the treated water back into the ground)

  9. Jim Haygood

    AFP:

    Miami (AFP) – More than 73,000 people have fled emergency conditions at home for Florida since Hurricane Maria devastated the US territory in the Caribbean, an island of about 3.4 million.

    https://www.yahoo.com/news/more-73-000-puerto-ricans-flee-florida-hurricane-045107314.html

    That’s over 2 percent of the population gone in a month to Florida (and not counting IL, NY, etc). As the expression went during the early days of the AIDS crisis, “And the band played on …

    Even lifting the burdensome Jones Act permanently is beyond the capacity of our petrified imperial regime.

    Intentionally or not, depopulation is the policy. Oh well, it’ll help flip Florida Democratic. :-)

  10. Synoia

    The most vulnerable are poor, rural populations in developing countries that live less than 10 meters above sea level, in low elevation coastal zones (LECZs) In the Tropics.

    In the tropics because the Coriolis effect will magnify sea level rise at the equator, and be smaller towards the poles (Possibly proportional the Cosign of latitude, but I have difficulty believing sea level rise will be zero at the poles).

    1. rd

      Sea level rise is less of an issue in northern latitudes because the land is still rising after being pushed down by the mile thick continental glaciers that melted 10,000 years ago. Scandinavian countries have real estate laws to address who owns newly created land because over decades rising ground comes out of the sea. The same will occur as glaciers melt on Greenland, Baffin Island, and Antarctica.

  11. VietnamVet

    The people currently in charge of the USA built housing developments in rice fields, flood reservoirs and wildfire lanes. It is ridiculous to think they have the slightest concern for the future of the lower classes while they are getting rich from privatization and resource extraction. Their thinking is anti-science and short-term. At its base is the hatred of others that justifies the never ending wars for profit.

  12. larry

    Climate change may be progressing much faster and, therefore, be potentially more difficult to deal with than anyone has thought. An article yesterday in the UK Independent contended that an error in the estimate of the temperature of the deep oceans has led to erroneous calculations in how quickly climate change is progressing

    “Until now, scientists believed that the temperature of the ocean depths and the surface of the polar ocean 100 million years ago were about 15 degrees warmer than they are today. But they might in fact have stayed relatively stable – making the warming we’re currently undergoing far more alarming. … The researchers believe that scientists have been overlooking crucial processes when they calculated the temperature of the seas millions of years ago. In so doing, they may have been mistakenly thinking that they were warmer than they actually are.”

    Here is the link: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/climate-change-worse-water-temperature-reading-scientists-global-warming-ice-melt-weather-a8020696.html

  13. james brown

    Late to the game but I’ll comment anyway. I left the coastal area of Florida I lived in for 50 or so years and moved inland due to the very active hurricane season a year or so previous. We bought acreage in North Florida. Tropical Storm Debbie soon made a showing and dumped 30+ inches of rain in a weekend. The whole county was devastated. We escaped the wide spread flood damage by pure dump luck. We paid no attention to drainage when we bought. A year later we moved to another location a bit closer to civilization. We paid close attention to drainage this time and the area had never recorded hurricane strength winds. I figured home free. Hurricane Irma made it’s appearance and our area at one time was predicted to get 100 mph winds. We have a pole barn with a couple of shed type extensions built from it’s foundation. One large 24′ x 24′ section would clearly not have made it though those kind of conditions and I determined the tin roof was a debris field waiting to happen and our home (mobile), RV and autos were all down range. In prepping for the storm my only option was to pull the roof completely off. Of course the storm didn’t hit with anything like the predicted conditions but I was forewarned. I’ve undertaken a complete rebuilding of the pole barn and it’s attachments with a mind to it withstanding conditions this area has never experienced. I’d certainly hate to still be living close to the coast.

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