Hurricane SandySandy in perspective

Published 2 November 2012

Hurricane Sandy has left death and destruction in its path, and it broke a few records, but there were worse hurricanes; since 1900, 242 hurricanes have hit the United States; if Sandy causes $20 billion in damage, in 2012 dollars, it would rank as the seventeenth most damaging hurricane or tropical storm out of these 242; the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 tops the list; Hurricane Katrina ranks fourth; from August 1954 through August 1955, the East Coast saw three different storms make landfall — Carol, Hazel, and Diane; each, in 2012, would have caused about twice as much damage as Sandy

Hurricane Sandy has left death and destruction in its path, but Roger Pielke, a professor of environmental studies and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, says we should keep Sandy in perspective. He makes these points in an article in the Wall Street Journal:

  • Terrible as Sandy was, we are currently in a relative hurricane “drought.”
  • Hurricane Sandy broke some records. Its central pressure was the lowest ever recorded for a storm north of North Carolina (the record Sandy broke: that of the Long Island Express hurricane of 1938).
  • Along the East Coast, Sandy caused more than fifty deaths, left millions without power, and caused an estimated $20 billion or more in damage.

It is possible to compare hurricanes and make rough comparisons over time by adjusting past losses to account for inflation and the growth of coastal communities.

  • Since 1900, 242 hurricanes have hit the United States. If Sandy causes $20 billion in damage, in 2012 dollars, it would rank as the seventeenth most damaging hurricane or tropical storm out of these 242.
  • The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 tops the list, according to estimates by the catastrophe-insurance provider ICAT, as it would cause $180 billion in damage if it were to strike today. Hurricane Katrina ranks fourth at $85 billion.
  • From August 1954 through August 1955, the East Coast saw three different storms make landfall — Carol, Hazel, and Diane. Each, in 2012, would have caused about twice as much damage as Sandy.
  • The United States is currently in an extended and intense hurricane “drought.” The last Category 3 or stronger storm to make landfall was Wilma in 2005. The more than seven years since then is the longest such span in over a century.
  • Flood damage has decreased as a proportion of the economy since reliable records were first kept by the National Weather Service in the 1930s, and there is no evidence of increasing extreme river floods.
  • Historic tornado damage, adjusted for changing levels of development, has decreased since 1950, paralleling a dramatic reduction in casualties. The tragic impacts of tornadoes in 2011, including 553 confirmed deaths, were comparable only to those of 1953 and 1964, but such tornado impacts were far more common in the first half of the twentieth century.
  • The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that drought in U.S. central plains has decreased in recent decades.
  • Even when extensive drought occurs, the United States fares better. For example, the widespread 2012 drought was about 10 percent as costly to the U.S. economy as the multiyear 1988-89 drought, indicating greater resiliency of American agriculture.

“There is therefore reason to believe we are living in an extended period of relatively good fortune with respect to disasters,” Pielke writes. “A recurrence of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake today, for example, could cause more than $300 billion in damage and thousands of lives, according to a study I co-published in 2009.”

Pielke says that the reason why today’s disasters, which are physically powerful than previous ones, have such staggering financial costs is that there are more people and more wealth in harm’s way. This is dues in part to local land-use policies, and in part to incentives such as government-subsidized insurance, but mostly to the fact that people prefer being on the coast and near rivers.

Pielke also says that the relatively low number of casualties caused by Sandy is a testament to the success story that is the U.S. National Weather Service, and to the efforts of those who emphasize preparedness and emergency response in the public and private sectors.

In light of the essential role the National Weather Service has played in helping communities prepare for disasters, it is worrisome that the U.S. polar-satellite program, which is crucial to weather forecasting, has been described by the administrator of the federal agency that oversees it — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — as a “dysfunctional program that had become a national embarrassment due to chronic management problems.”

Pielke concludes: “The only strategies that will help us effectively prepare for future disasters are those that have succeeded in the past: strategic land use, structural protection, and effective forecasts, warnings and evacuations. That is the real lesson of Sandy.”

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