Why more dam­age now? It’s us, not the storms

Pop­u­la­tion growth along coast blamed for big­ger im­pact

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Gre­gory Korte

Three cat­a­strophic hur­ri­canes made U.S. land­fall within 30 days of each other last year, caus­ing more than $250 bil­lion in losses.

By the time the winds died down and the flood­wa­ters re­ceded, Har­vey, Irma and Maria were three of the five most de­struc­tive hur­ri­canes in U.S. his­tory – and 2017 was the costli­est hur­ri­cane season ever.

But de­spite that ex­cep­tional clus­ter of storms, it’s not that hur­ri­canes are get­ting stronger or more fre­quent that’s mak­ing them more ex­pen­sive.

It’s that there’s more in the way for the storms to de­stroy.

As Hur­ri­cane Florence takes aim at the Caroli­nas this week, emer­gency man­age­ment of­fi­cials, me­te­o­rol­o­gists and in­sur­ance com­pa­nies are look­ing as much at what’s in its path as they are

“There’s just more peo­ple in harm’s way, un­for­tu­nately. And not only are there more peo­ple, but we’re more af­flu­ent than our par­ents were.”

Phil Klotzbach a me­te­o­rol­o­gist at Colorado State Univer­sity

the strength of the storm it­self.

“The dam­age trend is ob­vi­ously through-the-roof up, but most of that trend is due to pop­u­la­tion growth along the coast­line,” said Phil Klotzbach, a me­te­o­rol­o­gist at Colorado State Univer­sity. “There’s just more peo­ple in harm’s way, un­for­tu­nately. And not only are there more peo­ple, but we’re more af­flu­ent than our par­ents were.”

Those mov­ing to the coasts are liv­ing in larger houses and own more cars, but their houses are also closer to­gether. That means more im­per­vi­ous sur­faces – such as roads and rooftops – and less area for the flood­wa­ters to go.

So even as bet­ter con­struc­tion meth­ods have re­duced the wind dam­age in many places – es­pe­cially Florida, where Hur­ri­cane Andrew in 1992 in­spired an over­haul of build­ing codes – storm surge and flood­ing have taken over as the pri­mary con­cern.

The fre­quency and in­ten­sity of hur­ri­canes

“Florence is go­ing to pose a triple threat of im­pacts in terms of high winds, coastal surge and then in­land flood.” Steve Bowen a me­te­o­rol­o­gist with risk man­age­ment firm Aon Ben­field

have ebbed and flowed through­out the last cen­tury, but there has been no mea­sur­able in­crease in ei­ther over that time, sev­eral stud­ies have found. If any­thing, in fact, there has been a slight de­crease.

That doesn’t mean that cli­mate change isn’t hav­ing an ef­fect. As sea lev­els rise, storm surges are reach­ing far­ther in­land.

And one study pub­lished in July showed that trop­i­cal cy­clones across the world are ac­tu­ally slow­ing down. James Kossin of the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion found the av­er­age hur­ri­cane slowed about 10 per­cent from 1946 to 2016.

Slower hur­ri­canes – such as Hur­ri­cane Har­vey – can dump more rain on an area be­fore mov­ing on, adding to their de­struc­tive power.

Last year’s blitz of hur­ri­canes was all the more un­usual be­cause the East Coast had en­joyed more than a decade of rel­a­tive calm. Be­fore Hur­ri­cane Har­vey hit Texas in Au­gust 2017, the last ma­jor hur­ri­cane to hit the con­ti­nen­tal United States was Wilma in 2005.

Fore­cast­ers say it’s too soon to tell how de­struc­tive Hur­ri­cane Florence will be – but it has the po­ten­tial to be on par with last year’s his­tor­i­cally de­struc­tive storms. “Florence is go­ing to pose a triple threat of im­pacts in terms of high winds, coastal surge and then in­land flood,” said Steve Bowen, a me­te­o­rol­o­gist with risk man­age­ment firm Aon Ben­field.

He said much will de­pend on when, where and how fast it hits ground.

“You like to say in sports that it’s of­ten a game of inches,” Bowen said. “In this case, it’s a mat­ter of miles that can make a dif­fer­ence of bil­lions of dol­lars.”

Kim Weather­ford sur­veys dam­age at his Texas va­ca­tion home af­ter Hur­ri­cane Har­vey. RACHEL DENNY CLOW/USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

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