Thursday, October 24, 2013

Great Hurricanes and their Consequences

When disasters hit coastal areas these days lots of stuff gets destroyed and people's lives are deeply disrupted. That was probably always true except there were fewer people and less infrastructure on the coast the farther back we go in history.

The deadliest Atlantic hurricane was the Great Hurricane of 1780 which was also known as Huracán San Calixto, the Great Hurricane of the Antilles, or the 1780 Disaster, depending on who wrotes about this storm. Although data collection was sketchy in those days the estimate is that as many as 22,000 people died. Mújica-Baker, Frank. "Huracanes y Tormentas que han afectado a Puerto Rico". Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico, Agencia Estatal para el manejo de Emergencias y Administracion de Desastres. p. 11.

On Sept. 8, 1900, a very powerful Category 4 storm, with sustained winds of more than 130 mph (209 kph), slammed into the shore at Galveston, Texas killing as many as 8,000 people. In the absence of a robust weather forecasting systems and since Galveston is an island with only one bridge to the mainland residents of the seaside resort town were caught off guard and trapped in the brutal tide surge, punishing winds, and ceaseless rain. However, the Weather Bureau did warn of a severe storm but as the record shows people in Galveston stayed to watch the fury and the huge surf not aware of the enormous risk. (Image courtesy of NOAA)

In 1928 the San Felipe-Okeechobee Hurricane hit Florida centering on the South Florida Lake Okeechobee. This storm caused a lake surge of 6 to 9 feet (1.8 to 2.7 m) killing almost 2,000 people.

In 1935 before hurricanes were named, the so-called Florida Keys Labor Day Hurricane slammed into the state. Since measuring hurricanes was in its infancy we only knwo that this storm recorded pressure of 26.35 inches measured at Long Key, FL making this the most intense hurricane to hit the United States. 

There were other storms in 1969, Hurricane Camille, Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was the most damaging storm in U.S. history up to that date. Andrew, a Category 5 storm,caused $26.5 billion in damage, 23 deaths in the United States and three more in the Bahamas. Andrew had estimated winds of an astonishing 167 mph (269 kph). 

In 2004 Hurricane Charley killed 10 people in the United States and caused an estimated $14 billion in damages. The great increase in coastal infrastructure and residence made Charley the second costliest hurricane to date.  

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was only a Category 3 storm. However it was a huge storm and "...storm surge flooding of 25 to 28 feet (7.6 to 8.5 m) above normal tide level occurred along portions of the Mississippi coast, with storm surge flooding of 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6.1 m) above normal tide levels along the southeastern Louisiana coast. Ultimately, this storm surge was responsible for much of the damage as it flooded coastal communities, overwhelmed levees, and left at least 80 percent of New Orleans underwater. By the time the hurricane subsided, Katrina had claimed more than 1,800 human lives and caused roughly $125 billion in damages. It was the deadliest hurricane to strike the United States since the Palm Beach-Lake Okeechobee hurricane of September 1928."(LiveScience)

We have left out many other lesser storms that had terrible effects in the araes affected but were not at the scale seen above.

Hurricane Sandy which is more commonly called "Superstorm Sandy" was the second-costliest hurricane in United States history.

"One year after Hurricane Sandy devastated coastal New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, the broad signs of recovery are undeniable. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved 182,000 individual and household applications for assistance in the three states, totaling $1.4 billion. It has made $3.1 billion available to repair roads, bridges and other publicly owned property after one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. President Barack Obama signed a bill allocating $50.5 billion in disaster aid." Bloomberg (For full article)

Clearly the coastal zones of the Caribbean and the American Atlantic coast are the bulls eye for hurricanes and this area stretching from Central America, the Gulf of Mexico all the way to New England is expected to bear the brunt of growing climate change, sea level rise and the potential for increasingly powerful and devastating coastal climate events. (See NOAA images of before and after Sandy at Long Beach, New York below. For an EXCELLENT interactive site of more images at NOAA click here)
Massive and powerful storms have always slammed into the Caribbean and Atlantic coast of the United States. In the past when there areas where barely populated and there was meager infrastructure the storms were absorbed by the dunes, shifting barrier islands, mangroves, marshes and wetlands and other natural ecosystems which yielded to the fury. Eventually things went back to normal albeit with differently sculpted landscapes.

As soon as humans settled and developed these ecosystems all manner of artificial structures constructed by humans and people themselves got in the way of these natural events. It was only then that these enormous systems became disasters. Remember that if a tree falls in the forest but there is no one to see or hear it it will not be reported and it's as if it had never happened.

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