Humans exacerbate 'natural' disasters





While storms such as Hurricane Katrina are sometimes called an act of God or a natural disaster, the devastation they leave behind is not. Some scientists believe even the storms themselves could be at least partly man-made.

In New Orleans, the worst-hit parishes were the lower-income ones. But the city also ignored the power of nature. More than 1 million acres of Louisiana's coastal wetlands, or 1,900 square miles, have been lost since 1930, due to development and the construction of levees and canals. Barrier islands and stands of tupelo and cypress also vanished. All of them absorb some of the energy and water from storm surges, which, more than the rain falling from the sky, caused the current calamity.

The temporary lull in hurricane activity in Florida, from 1969 to 1989, spurred a reckless building boom, for example, putting billions of dollars worth of condos and hotels within reach of storm surges, notes Roger Pielke Jr., of the University of Colorado, Boulder. The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 would have caused an estimated $90 billion damage had it occurred in 2000, he calculated. It caused just over $1 billion, in today's dollars.

It isn't only hurricanes whose destructiveness has been increased by human actions. Tornadoes turn mobile homes into matchsticks (one of Steinberg's first jobs was at a New York brokerage firm, where he followed the trailer-home industry). From 1981 to 1997, he found, more than one-third of all deaths from tornadoes occurred among people living in mobile homes; federal regulations didn't require them to withstand high winds, and a 1974 statute actually pre-empted stricter state standards with more lax federal ones.

Throughout the South and Midwest, mobile-home communities and poor neighborhoods are also much more likely to be sited in flood plains.




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