We’re Not Prepared: The Hard Lesson of Hurricane Harvey Still Needs Heeding

Ever picking the losing team, from the Confederacy to Russia to child molesters, Trump moved to drop climate change from the United States’ national security strategy even as the threat has grown larger than ever before. Where simple ignorance was previously sufficient, outright delusion is now necessary to ignore the obvious changes in weather and climate in the lifetime of even young adults.

Only those on the fringe, which unfortunately includes the current president of the United States, are actually still trying to pretend climate change doesn’t exist. Scientists, ever conservative in their statements, are now willing to point to specific events as the direct result of climate change. We’re past hedging and we’re well past uncertainty.

Hurricane Harvey’s wrecking of Houston may be remembered as a major turning point in the discussion, as there has perhaps never been this much outrage or demand for accountability aimed toward the GOP, the White House, and even the governor of Texas. It used to be easy to be a GOP politician in oil country and count your money, but Governor Abbott took heat for continuing the longstanding tradition of pulling out oil with no regard for the consequences. None of that oil money went to climate change-ready infrastructure, to disaster relief, to a rainy day fund. It went into the pockets of billionaires.

Unfortunately, these kinds of life-destroying, community-crippling, government-bankrupting disasters are only going to become more frequent. We know this is going to continue to happen, even with serious CO2 mitigation efforts. Are we ready? A paper presented at a gathering of geophysicists this month says no, not at all. The paper authors used flood physics and geological and geographic maps of the contiguous United States to determine the flood risk over the next decades and century, and their predicted damage (accurate, they say, to 90%), far exceeds what the United States government itself has predicted or is prepared for. That’s before the new federal policy, by the way, of pretending the problem doesn’t exist and the risk is therefore, presumably, zero.

This is also an issue for American installations overseas, according to the United States Government Accountability Office, which also released a report just this month. That report tasks the Department of Defense specifically to better integrate climate change into its operational and budgetary planning around the world, so as not to be caught unawares.

We’re all still making a mental adjustment to the changed world we find ourselves in, but unfortunately this really can’t wait. What happens if instead of building up flood- and other disaster-ready infrastructure we just keep waiting for cities to be destroyed and then build them up afterwards? Insurance companies are well aware of the problem, even if some parties in the federal government want to bury their head in the sand. But even these professional risk-assessors are likely to reach a point where they can’t function as an industry anymore. No company can draw enough premiums to rebuild multiple cities every year.

The only way both the public and private sector don’t collapse in the face of an unending stream of mega-disasters is if we do the work to mitigate, reverse, and yes, weather the damage. It won’t do to keep responding after the fact, three steps behind the science.

Photo credit: NASA

44 comments

Marie W
Marie W1 months ago

Thank you for sharing

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven7 months ago

Thank you

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven7 months ago

Thank you

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Jerome S
Jerome S7 months ago

thanks

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Jerome S
Jerome S7 months ago

thanks

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Mike R
Mike R7 months ago

Thanks

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld7 months ago

Annabel B.,
That may be happening. I am taking the same wait and see attitude as are most meteorologists. NOAA has repeatedly stated (most recently this month) that it is premature to conclude that global warming has had a detectable impact on hurricane activity. Not that it has not. Only that it is not detectable. Part of the problem is that increased tropical activity in one basin tends to coincide with decreased activity in another. Globally, hurricane activity in 2017 was 20% below average. Shocking to those of us in the Atlantic basin, but unsurprising to those in the Pacific. Warming has most likely caused increased rainfall from these and other storms. Increased flooding and decreased drought seem to verify that, as well as overall increased precipitation. Have a happy new year.

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Annabel Bedini
Annabel Bedini7 months ago

Dan B
I think the point is that exceptional hurricane and cyclone activity, and also the exceptional quantities of rainfall associated with them, are happening closer together. The big gaps between 1893, 1959 and 2005 are now shortened to a mere 12 years. But we will have to see what happens in the future.

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld7 months ago

Annabel,
Yes. That is true about two storms at once. Accordingly to both the weather channel and the national climate center, 2017 was in a virtual tie for 4th most active with 1925, 1995 and 2004. This is based on accumulated cyclone energy (ACE), which takes into account storm strength and endurance for all storms in a season. The top three are 2005, 1959, and 1893. Rounding out the top ten most active years are 1933, 1961, and 1955. 2017 was definitely very active in the Atlantic basin. However, it was not exceptional, like 2005 or 1950.

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Annabel B
Annabel Bedini7 months ago

Dn B
I know from experience that there's no point in arguing with you because you always know best, but here's a quote from Business Insider: 'This is the first time in known history that the Atlantic has had two storms with 150+ mph winds raging at the same time: Irma and Jose.' All hurricane watch web-sites agree that 2005 broke all records but 2017 is close behind. That is, the two most exceptionally active hurricane seasons in recorded history are the two most recent. I'd call that a warning.

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