October 11, 2015

The Human Factor In So-Called “Natural” Disasters

Our family was fortunate this past weekend in not experiencing any property damage or loss of power from Hurricane Irene. 700,000 other residents of Connecticut were not so lucky. However, as I have thought about this disaster and others through which I lived during my lifetime, I have increasingly realized that much of the devastation of natural disasters is not “natural.”

Sometimes, the influence of bad human decision making on the scope of a disaster is obvious: Hurricane Katrina would not have been anything more than just another bad Gulf Coast hurricane, had the levees protecting big portions of New Orleans not failed to protect the city against water damage. The levees were not built to protect against Category 4 or 5 hurricanes, so a disaster of the type that happened was inevitable and experts were not surprised when it happened. Experts warned of this kind of problem, but were ignored year after year. Nevertheless, most of the time, we forget the degree to which we can anticipate disasters and minimize their impact.

In 1991, after Hurricane Bob, which hit Long Island, the Eastern Connecticut coast, and Cape Cod very hard, the homeowners association of which I was a board member could not initially secure a renewal of our property and casualty insurance policy from any carrier. National media carried stories about horrific beach erosion in the 4-mile stretch of beach, beginning half a mile west of us. The beach and the houses on it had been completely washed away by both the hurricane and a nor’easter that followed it a few weeks later. The media story was that nature was getting more ferocious over time, and people had to stop building homes on the beach.

While it may be good public policy to provide better beach access for all residents of a beachfront community and for visitors, and to reduce the building of private homes on the beach, the story was wrong. The beach erosion was not a result of nature’s fury, but of a misguided decision by the Suffolk County New York Supervisor some years before to refuse to pay the County’s share of a project to extend protective beach barriers for the last 4 miles of the barrier island. The 4-mile stretch bore all the force of the ocean tides, instead of having it spread over the entire island. Ferocious winds and tides destroyed the beach, but it was vulnerable to destruction, because of human error, a decision to leave the beach unprotected.

Similarly, power outages and flooding are usually a result of a number of human decisions. In many communities, utilities are not permitted by homeowners to trim branches from trees on an appropriate schedule, with the result that those branches break off during storm, hit overhead power lines, and cut the lines. Street flooding is usually a result of poor drainage from inadequately built or maintained roads. Basement flooding is often the result of building codes that do not require adequate soil fill under the foundation of a house or other kind of building. We discovered this when our basement flooded many times in the last decade, because our builder cut corners in having only four inches of soil fill, when best practice indicated that 12 inches of fill was the minimum desirable. Trees are often uprooted and destroy or damage whatever they fall on because poor soil drainage erodes the soil that holds roots in place.

In the storm’s aftermath, we are seeing the consequences of decades of under investment in our commuter rail systems. The commuter railroads were not able to resume service as rapidly as the New York subways because they have suffered far more preventable damage.

Wind damage results from structures that are not built to withstand winds above a certain level of intensity, and items inadequately secured to the ground or not stored properly in anticipation of a storm become projectiles that destroy everything in their path. In the spring of 1979, Chicago experienced a freak 70-mile per hour windstorm one afternoon, with the result that a thick wooden restaurant sign hanging by two chains to the restaurant’s patio came loose and killed a pedestrian.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake caused most of its fatalities because the fire department had not properly secured its water lines, so it was unable to get water out to extinguish some of the fires. Similarly, communities often fail to think through how they will get rescue vehicles to stranded residents, which created many issues in the Gulf Coast areas after Hurricane Katrina.

We are better at responding to disasters today because of the intense focus on what went wrong with Hurricane Katrina, but the problems with our infrastructure and the under investment in rebuilding, maintaining, and renovating roads, bridges, tunnels, and buildings will continue to make the impact of natural disasters far worse than they need to be.

We need better ways to hold elected officials accountable for decisions they make that put us at risk, not immediately, but over time. Since we do not know when “natural disasters” will hit, it is tempting to defer maintenance, repair, and renovation that will secure our facilities from damage, but insurance companies, bond rating agencies, and watchdogs acting on behalf of voters should do a better job warning us. As citizens, we need to send strong messages to elected officials that using their office to redistribute wealth and income from taxpaying citizens to favored constituents, instead of using taxes to maintain and strengthen the assets for which they are responsible is wrong.