The Hurricane Election?
A Seasonal Story that Deserves More News—and More Action
It’s only weather and shouldn’t be taken personally—but still, it can seem like a cruel joke. Even as Gustav spent itself against the Gulf Coast earlier this week, Hanna churned off the Bahamas and Ike and Josephine spun into existence, forming a tropical storm trio across the Atlantic and bringing this year’s named storm total to ten—and it’s just September 3. We’re only now entering the peak of hurricane season, which lasts for three more months. We could see eight more named storms before it all wraps up, and several more U.S. landfalls. In fact, we could see one or more Category 5s.
There’s still a great deal that we still don’t know about hurricanes.
Meanwhile, hurricanes are already disrupting the political campaign season in a massive way, moving even ahead of the struggling economy as a central focal point of media attention. We could be en route to a repeat of 2004, when four hurricanes—Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne—crisscrossed Florida during the election home stretch and drew both Bush and Kerry down to survey the damage and offer their aid and support. But of course, the stakes are higher now, post-Katrina, than they were then; we all realize the full severity of the danger from these storms, something that seems to have been conveniently forgotten for decades as the Atlantic went relatively quiet during the 1970s and into the early 1980s.
But if we’re going to see an election punctuated by storm threats and looming disasters, let’s hope we can translate all that blaring 24-7 media attention into something beyond mere shots of CNN’s Anderson Cooper dodging flying billboards—namely, constructive policy action on the part of whichever candidate attains the highest office (or even action by Congress before the election). Consider the following pressing hurricane-related policy issues, which remain unaddressed:
Research Funding. There’s still a great deal that we still don’t know about hurricanes. In particular, while the National Hurricane Center has become masterful at forecasting their tracks, it isn’t nearly as good at predicting their intensities—and Hurricane Gustav provides a perfect example. Gustav intensified much more, and much more rapidly, than forecast before smacking Cuba; and yet the storm failed to intensify as feared when it tracked over the deep, warm Gulf of Mexico loop current. Until we achieve a mastery of hurricane intensity forecasting that can rival our mastery of hurricane track forecasting, the U.S. coastline will remain exceedingly vulnerable to storms that behave unexpectedly—in other words, many or most of them.
You might think, therefore, that the funding of hurricane research would be a priority. But it has now been fully three years since Katrina, and Congress still has not passed legislation to create a so-called National Hurricane Research Initiative, which would better align our scientific priorities with the incredible danger that hurricanes pose to us. In 2006, the National Science Board reported that “the present Federal investment in hurricane science and engineering research relative to the tremendous damage and suffering caused by hurricanes is insufficient and time is not on our side. The hurricane warning for our Nation has been issued and we must act vigorously and without delay.” But of course, we delayed: Although the NSB called for an immediate $300 million-per-year ramp up in federally funded hurricane research, it still hasn’t happened.
The Insurance Crisis. The hurricane years of 2004 and 2005 caused unprecedented damage in the United States, and racked up more than $70 billion in insured losses. Insurers and reinsurers alike were staggered—they had never seen anything like it. And of course, they began trying to raise rates dramatically, or even to pull out of coverage for some vulnerable areas.
In the state of Florida the insurance situation has perhaps been the most dramatic—according to a study by Environmental Defense, homeowner’s rates increased 77 percent between 2001 and 2006. By 2007, such trends resulted in a special session of the Florida state legislature, in which elected representatives did something overwhelmingly popular (but otherwise questionable)—they tried to lower rates by having the state (and its taxpayers) assume much more hurricane risk exposure through Florida’s so-called “catastrophe fund.”
No matter how you slice it, then, global warming worsens hurricanes.
Now, though, we find Florida’s leaders complaining because rates haven’t declined anywhere near what had been hoped for. The truth is that although they have been vilified, for the most part insurers are simply responding to an increased recognition of risk, and trying to price it into their calculations. There is no easy answer when millions of people are living in vulnerable places, and have been encouraged to do so by decades of quiet hurricane years and artificially low insurance rates. Now that the weather (and insurance market) are adjusting, there will continue to be a lot of pain and disruption, unless and until we find a comprehensive policy to adapt our societies to the real risk we face.
Global Warming. Which inevitably brings us to contemplating the future—one in which we will be even more exposed to hurricane risks. While it remains hard to predict precisely what global warming will do to hurricanes, we know that it will raise sea levels, and probably intensify storms on average, not to mention increasing their rainfall rates. No matter how you slice it, then, global warming worsens hurricanes—and, accordingly, hurricane-related insurance costs—which makes it a more-than-legitimate topic to invoke in the context of this year’s hurricane threats and landfalls.
From a policy perspective, however, irrespective of what we do to mitigate global warming through reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, hurricane risks (much like sea level rise) call for a national global warming adaptation agenda that does not currently exist. We are already committed to substantial global warming, and can think of its effect on hurricanes, sea level, and much else as the metaphorical ball that has already left the pitcher’s hand and is traveling towards home plate. We haven’t had our eye on that ball for some time.
The Next New Orleans. It is a matter of continuing mystification to me: Why not start now when it comes to protecting other major cities that could see hurricane catastrophes? At the top of the list are Houston, Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg, Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, and New York. There ought to be, but is not, a comprehensive plan to protect these cities in a manner parallel to the ongoing Army Corps of Engineers work in New Orleans. Sure, the cost would be great, but not as great as the cost of a worst-case-scenario hurricane landfall. Projections for a catastrophic strike on Miami—where a Hurricane Ike could arrive by week’s end—estimate that damages could exceed the $80 billion total caused by Katrina, and cost $ 100 billion or more over all.
And for that matter: The New Orleans situation remains singularly unimpressive. Gustav was a Category 2 storm at landfall and missed the city, but still represented a close call for its levee system. It is easy to imagine a far, far worse hurricane in terms of its track towards New Orleans and its intensity. Three years after Katrina, we haven’t done nearly enough to protect the city, and another menacing hurricane season should inspire us to redouble our efforts.
Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.
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