One of the most damaging and costliest weather events in United States history occurred along the east coast on October 28-30 2012. There are already many experts pontificating on where this storm stands in historic terms and what can be implied by its occurrence with regards to the future of the planet.
However, for me, the piece in the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 1 from Dr. Roger Pielke Jr. provided the most reasonable assessment of Sandy. Following is the article, with my highlights of the important points he brings out.
Roger Pielke: Hurricanes and Human Choice
Hurricane Sandy left in its path some impressive statistics. Its
central pressure was the lowest ever recorded for a storm north of North
Carolina, breaking a record set by the devastating “Long Island
Express” hurricane of 1938. Along the East Coast, Sandy led to more than
50 deaths, left millions without power and caused an estimated $20
billion or more in damage.
But to call Sandy a harbinger of a “new
normal,” in which unprecedented weather events cause unprecedented
destruction, would be wrong. This historic storm should remind us that
planet Earth is a dangerous place, where extreme events are commonplace
and disasters are to be expected. In the proper context, Sandy is less
an example of how bad things can get than a reminder that they could be
In studying hurricanes, we can make rough comparisons over time by
adjusting past losses to account for inflation and the growth of coastal
communities. If Sandy causes $20 billion in damage (in 2012 dollars),
it would rank as the 17th most damaging hurricane or tropical storm (out
of 242) to hit the U.S. since 1900—a significant event, but not close
to the top 10. 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.
To put things into even starker
perspective, consider that from August 1954 through August 1955, the
East Coast saw three different storms make landfall—Carol, Hazel and
Diane—that in 2012 each would have caused about twice as much damage as
While it’s hardly mentioned in the media, the U.S. 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. Although the tragic impacts of tornadoes in 2011 (including
553 confirmed deaths) were comparable only to those of 1953 and 1964,
such tornado impacts were far more common in the first half of the 20th
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports
that drought in America’s central plains has decreased in recent
decades. And even when extensive drought occurs, we fare better. For
example, the widespread 2012 drought was about 10% 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. 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.
So how can today’s disasters, even if
less physically powerful than previous ones, have such staggering
financial costs? One reason: There are more people and more wealth in
harm’s way. Partly this is due to local land-use policies, partly to
incentives such as government-subsidized insurance, but mostly to the
simple fact that people like being on the coast and near rivers.
Even so, with respect to disasters we
really do make our own luck. 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 parallel efforts of those who emphasize
preparedness and emergency response in the public and private sectors.
Everyone in the disaster-management community deserves thanks; the
mitigation of the impacts from natural disasters has been a true
national success story of the past century.
But continued success isn’t guaranteed. The bungled response and
tragic consequences associated with Hurricane Katrina tell us what can
happen when we let our guard down.
And there are indications that we are setting the stage for making
future disasters worse. For instance, a U.S. polar-satellite program
crucial to weather forecasting has been described by the administrator
of the federal agency that oversees it—the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration—as a “dysfunctional program that had become a
national embarrassment due to chronic management problems.” The lack of
effective presidential and congressional oversight of this program over
more than a decade can be blamed on both Republicans and Democrats. The
program’s mishandling may mean a gap in satellite coverage and a
possible degradation in forecasts.
Another danger: Public discussion of
disasters risks being taken over by the climate lobby and its allies,
who exploit every extreme event to argue for action on energy policy. In
New York this week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared: “I think at this point
it is undeniable but that we have a higher frequency of these extreme
weather situations and we’re going to have to deal with it.” New York
Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke similarly.
Humans do affect the climate system, and it is indeed important to
take action on energy policy—but to connect energy policy and disasters
makes little scientific or policy sense. There are no signs that
human-caused climate change has increased the toll of recent disasters,
as even the most recent extreme-event report of the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change finds. And even under the assumptions of the
IPCC, changes to energy policies wouldn’t have a discernible impact on
future disasters for the better part of a century or more.
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.
Mr. Pielke is a professor of environmental studies
and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental
Sciences at the University of Colorado.