Note: In addition to books available in the collections of Fontana Regional Library and the NC Cardinal consortium I used articles from databases in NC Live.
In recent weeks three category four or five hurricanes devastated multiple Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico, the Gulf coast of Texas and the whole state of Florida. Remnants of Irma made their way into Western North Carolina toppling trees and damaging power lines and buildings. Historic flooding are part of both hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida. NOAA (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) had already charted nine weather events in the United States this year that cost at least a billion dollars each before the two hurricanes landed on our shores. (1) In this blog I am not concerned with the cause of these horrendous storms but why the cost of them goes up exponentially every time another one makes landfall in heavily populated areas.
Having lived in both the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, I am familiar with the damage and loss of life caused by rivers rising out of their banks and strong winds generated by tornados. The difference between a hurricane and tornado and is the extent of the damage and the geographic size of the storms. The latter can do serious damage to a limited area; a hurricane, on the other hand, can travel thousands of miles and can be as large as Irma, which was over 400 miles across,(2) and its damage is the result of very heavy winds (according to Saffir–Simpson hurricane scale, a category 5 hurricane can have sustained winds of 157 mph. Compare that with a F5 tornado on the Fujita scale, which can have wind speeds up to 318 mph.) and torrential rain and storm surges that cause heavy flooding, especially near shorelines. And, of course, widespread power outages. (3)
Catastrophic weather events have part of our country’s history for years. Not only have hurricanes laid waste to states bordering the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, but the middle of the country has to deal with tornados and flooding from streams in the Missouri and Mississippi Valleys. Texas has had the misfortune of having to deal with all of the above.
There is no doubt these storms are growing in size and power whatever the reason. And, because of the growing population living where hurricanes usually make landfall, the damage they do is putting a burden on federal, state, and local governments, and therefore on us, the taxpayers as well. Damage from these storms not only affects residential neighborhoods but often industrial and business section of cities too. Anyone who watched the television coverage of Harvey in Houston and felt the effects on their pocketbook of the gasoline pipeline being closed for a few days because of floods in Harris County, Texas, knows this for a fact.
The winds and rain from hurricanes can cost business and industry millions of dollars. Two years ago five scientists published an article in the science journal Natural Hazards entitled “Vulnerability of an industrial corridor in Texas to storm surge.”(4) The area studied in this article was the Houston Ship Channel Industrial Corridor which is laden with storage tanks containing toxic materials that can be released in a serious flood. True to their warning, Business Insider passed along an AP report on explosion and a fire at a Houston suburban chemical plant as a result of flooding from Hurricane Harvey. An mile and half buffer was established around the Arkema plant and the approximately 5,000 people nearby were warned to evacuate. (5) In its September issue Oil Spill Intelligence Report® reported three major oil spills and 20% of the nation’s oil refining was of offline as a result of 51 inches of rain pouring down on the greater Houston area. (6)
If you have lived in a residential area affected by a severe storm that toppled trees and power lines over a wide area, the resulting power outages for a majority of people whose homes were nearby is arduous. I lived in one such city about twenty-four years ago when we were hit by an ice storm. Our house was without electricity for five days. Friends who lived two blocks to the west were deprived of power for three weeks because workers for the power company had to go into each back yard on their block to fix the problems. In the current era, utility companies use modern technology, such as weather radar, to predict where most outages will occur and mutual assistance from other utilities to help with power restoration. (7)
Local governments have implemented stricter building codes to mitigate structural damage that is the result of hurricane force winds. These ordinances do help cut the cost of rebuilding. What hasn’t happened, according what I have read, is building restrictions in floodplains. As hurricanes increase in size, the more moisture that comes from their clouds means more flooding. Katrina, Ike, Harvey, and Irma are cases in point. Eastern North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, southeastern Texas, and other places that are below or barely above sea level are targets for devastating flooding. Hurricane season isn’t over for this year yet. We’ll see what the remainder of 2017 and next year’s season brings to those areas who are the most vulnerable.
(1) https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/events/US/1980-2017 According to NOAA, the estimated cost for these nine events is $10 billion.
(2)According to Simon Winchester in his book, Pacific, Typhoon Tip in 1979 was 1380 miles wide. Winchester, p. 246.
(3) A news report from Miami told of residents of a high rise apartment building camping in the their parking lot after they been eight days without power. WLOS, September 20, 2017.
(4)Daniel W. Burleson, et al., “Vulnerability of an industrial corridor in Texas to storm surge,”Natural Hazards (77): 1183-1203. NC Live
(5) Frank Bajak, Reese Dunklin, and Emily Schmall, Associated Press, “Harvey ignites a second fire and explosion at Houston chemical plant,” Business Insider, September 2, 2014.
(6)Oil Spill Intelligence Report®, September 11, 2017, pp. 1-2. NC Live
(7)Jump, Peter and Janneke Bruce. Electric Perspectives; Washington28.3 (May/Jun 2003): 22-39. NC Live
For further reading:
Heidi Cullen, The Weather of the Future
Verne Huser, The Rivers of Texas
Simon Winchester, Pacific : silicon chips and surfboards, coral reefs and atom bombs, brutal dictators, fading empires, and the coming collision of the world’s superpowers
and the articles cited above.