Dis­as­ters pound North Amer­ica in 2017

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - NEWS - BY SETH BOREN­STEIN

NEW OR­LEANS — North Amer­ica couldn’t catch a break in 2017. Parts of the United States were on fire, un­der­wa­ter or lashed by hur­ri­cane winds. Mex­ico shook with back-to-back earth­quakes. The Caribbean got hit with a string of hur­ri­canes.

The rest of the world, how­ever, was spared more than usual from the drum­beat of nat­u­ral catas­tro­phes. Pre­lim­i­nary re­search shows there were fewer dis­as­ters and deaths this year than on av­er­age, but eco­nomic dam­ages were much higher.

While over­all dis­as­ters were down, they smacked big cities, which were more vul­ner­a­ble be­cause of in­creased de­vel­op­ment, said econ­o­mist and geo­physi­cist Chuck Wat­son of the con­sult­ing firm Enki Re­search.

In a year when U.S. and Caribbean hur­ri­canes set a record $215 bil­lion in dam­age, ac­cord­ing to in­sur­ance gi­ant Mu­nich Re, no one in the con­ti­nen­tal U.S. died from storm surge, which tra­di­tion­ally is the No. 1 killer dur­ing hur­ri­canes. Fore­cast­ers gave res­i­dents plenty of ad­vance warn­ing dur­ing a sea­son in which storms set records for strength and du­ra­tion.

“It’s cer­tainly one of the worst hur­ri­cane sea­sons we’ve had,” National Weather Ser­vice Di­rec­tor Louis Uc­cellini said.

The globe typ­i­cally av­er­ages about 325 dis­as­ters a year, but this year’s to­tal through Novem­ber was less than 250, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­tre for Re­search on the Epi­demi­ol­ogy of Dis­as­ters at the Univer­sity of Lou­vain in Bel­gium. They in­cluded flood­ing and mon­soons in South Asia, land­slides in Africa, a hur­ri­cane in Ire­land, and cy­clones in Aus­tralia and Cen­tral Amer­ica. Colom­bia ex­pe­ri­enced two bouts of floods and mud­slides.

Dis­as­ters kill about 30,000 peo­ple and af­fect about 215 mil­lion peo­ple a year. This year’s es­ti­mated toll was lower — about 6,000 peo­ple killed and 75 mil­lion af­fected.

Was it ran­dom chance, sta­tis­ti­cal quirk or bet­ter pre­pared­ness? Ex­perts aren’t cer­tain, but per­haps it’s a lit­tle bit of each.

“This has been a par­tic­u­larly quiet year,” said De­barati GuhaSapir who heads the dis­as­ter re­search cen­ter. “The thing is not to be … com­pla­cent about this.”

But quiet de­pends on where you live.

The U.S. had gone more than a decade with­out a Cat­e­gory 3 storm or larger mak­ing land­fall on the main­land. The last few Septem­bers — nor­mally a peak hur­ri­cane month — had been record quiet un­til this year when Har­vey, Irma, Jose and later Maria popped up and grew to su­per strength in no time, said Colorado State Univer­sity hur­ri­cane re­searcher Phil Klotzbach.

“Septem­ber was just bonkers. It was just one af­ter the other, you couldn’t catch a break,” he said.

There were six ma­jor At­lantic hur­ri­canes this year; the av­er­age is 2.7. A pair of re­cent stud­ies found fin­ger­prints of man-made global warm­ing were all over the tor­ren­tial rains from Har­vey that flooded Hous­ton.

Re­searchers at the Univer­sity of South Carolina es­ti­mated eco­nomic dam­age from this year’s dis­as­ters, ad­justed for in­fla­tion, was more than 40 per­cent higher than nor­mal, mostly be­cause of Har­vey, Irma and Maria. By many pri­vate mea­sures, Har­vey over­took Ka­t­rina as the costli­est U.S. hur­ri­cane, but the weather ser­vice hasn’t fin­ished its cal­cu­la­tions yet.

Much of the dam­age and deaths — storm surge and oth­er­wise — from hur­ri­canes strik­ing the Caribbean are still un­known. The National Hur­ri­cane Cen­ter hasn’t fin­ished tal­ly­ing its data.

Uc­cellini, of the weather ser­vice, said warmer than nor­mal wa­ters and un­usual steer­ing cur­rents made the hur­ri­canes es­pe­cially dam­ag­ing, com­bined with boom­ing de­vel­op­ment in dis­as­ter-prone ar­eas.

“We are build­ing in the wrong places. We are build­ing in ar­eas that are in­creas­ing in risks,” said Su­san Cut­ter, di­rec­tor of the Haz­ards and Vul­ner­a­bil­ity Re­search In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of South Carolina.

Wild­fires blazed nearly year­round in the U.S., fanned by re­lent­less winds and parched con­di­tions. Some 9.8 mil­lion acres of land have burned, mostly in the West, nearly 50 per­cent more than the av­er­age in the past decade.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.