In 2005, one of the most powerful category 5 hurricanes to ever make landfall in the United States struck New Orleans and the surrounding area, overwhelmed its crumbling defense systems, caused the mass migration of millions of people, laid waste to vast parts of the coastline and infrastructure, and ultimately caused over 1800 deaths. Estimated damage, in 2013 adjusted dollars, was over $100 billion, with total federal aid to date totaling nearly $120 billion. Due, in no small part, to ineffective response from hollowed out government agencies, the country and world were subjected to truly horrific images previously relegated to the plight of third world countries. Indeed, things were so bad that even Cuba and Venezuela pledged assistance. Over seven years later, New Orleans is still struggling with the aftermath, with many communities still slowly recovering as the events have faded from public memory, and the city itself, arguably, has yet to return to its former glory.
Fast forward to 2012. In October of that year, Hurricane Sandy struck the U.S. East Coast, making landfall in the area between New York and New Jersey. Although “only” a category 2 hurricane when it hit, at 1100 miles in diameter, it was the largest Atlantic storm on record, and ultimately affected 24 states, including the entire eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine. A storm surge of over 20 feet swamped New York City and flooded much of its infrastructure. Overall damage was initially estimated at around $75 billion. Although the government response this time around was, arguably, vastly superior than Katrina, as of this writing, many people are still struggling with the aftermath, and the U. S. government, grudgingly, just authorized some $60 billion in aid to assist in restoration.
What are some lessons can we learn from these tales? Well, first, federal aid and support are critical for effectively managing the preparation prior to a major storm, the storm itself, and the aftermath. Only the federal government has the resources and authority to coordinate efforts involving multiple states. Second, there is only so much that can be done to protect people and infrastructure from the damage incurred from large storms. Sea walls can only be made so high; infrastructure can only be hardened so much, etc. And third, the aftermath can linger for years, even with well managed recoveries, and can be exceedingly costly. Many people who were dislocated never return; low priority infrastructure does not get fixed, etc.
Now, consider the current political environment for federal spending, combined with the effects of global warming on storm size and frequency. At this time, there is enormous political pressure to defund federal disaster relief programs and shift funding back to the states, all of which are struggling with sluggish economies and budget deficits incurred during the second largest financial collapse in the last century. At the same time, global weather models are predicting both stronger storms, and an increasing frequency of such storms (whether you believe global warming was/is caused by humans or not, this is a measurable fact). So, we are experiencing ever increasing likelihoods of substantial, costly, and enduring damage to infrastructure at a time when there is ever lowering political will and capital to protect and restore it. Doesn’t seem to bode well for keeping the lights on, eh?
Some food for thought; more on this next post.