Globally, the news is no less jaw-dropping: Floods stretching to the horizon in Australia and Pakistan. Two devastating earthquakes each for New Zealand and Haiti. And a trifecta of tragedy in Japan where an earthquake triggered a tsunami that drowned a nuclear plant.
Droughts—comparatively stealthy as disasters go—only grab headlines when people start keeling over from starvation by the tens of thousands (Somalia), or crop losses are so large, sticker shock sets in at the grocery store, while global food security—which means global security—becomes notably less secure (Russia, US).
The only bright spot in this litany of gloomy news is that communication during and about disasters has improved markedly. As Hurricane Irene buzz-sawed its way up the eastern seaboard, The Weather Channel went into overdrive, leading a media mob—both mainstream and “citizen”—reporting, tweeting, crowdmapping, photographing, making videos, texting donations, aggregating, blogging, facebooking, and sharing every last little nugget of awful news.
Yet for all the technical brilliance that made it possible to track a weather blip off the coast of Africa to its lethal landfall an ocean away, or to plan mass evacuations, share safety tips and keep track of loved ones, there was no stopping Irene. Financial losses may have been less than expected—mostly because property values are lower in Vermont than in New York City—but they are enormous and devastating. Homes have been torn apart, lives turned upside down.
The collateral damage has yet to be tallied from lost incomes, delayed school starts, exposure to toxic mold, toxic water, mosquito-borne illnesses and weakened infrastructure.
It becomes a vicious circle: Until businesses affected by the storm are up and running again, tax revenues will decline, making it that much more difficult to pay for repairs or proactive maintenance. In Japan and New Zealand, bonds and special taxes are now on the table to cope with recovery costs estimated in the tens of billions of dollars.
In fact, the high cost of these mega-disasters—often quoted a percentage of a country’s GDP—can itself become a cost. Insurance companies, faced with catastrophic losses, are hiking rates and cutting coverage. But the more businesses and home-owners are forced to spend on insurance and out-of-pocket expenses, the less money they have to expand businesses or make purchases.
There are also more people than ever in harm’s way. Much of the development in Queensland, Australia over the last 30 years, for example, was on a floodplain.
Although specific storms are difficult to link directly to climate change, our warmer world holds more moisture in its atmosphere than it did even just a few decades ago. That means there is more rain to to be rained, and more energy to interact and magnify well-known weather drivers such as El Nino / La Nina.
Whether or not this is the “new normal” remains to be seen. It certainly seems to be the “more frequent.”
“The Days, Years After,” a new link suite story on the TrackerNews aggregator, looks at a half dozen disasters from the last few years, focusing on recovery efforts. Each disaster is tragic in its own way, but patterns emerge.
- Good communications networks make a tangible difference (Joplin, New York)
- Donor burn-out threatens (anyone remember Jay-Z, Bono, the Edge and Rihanna crooning, “We’re not going to leave you stranded,” to Haiti’s quake victims?)
Many of the technologies are eco-smart, which turns out to be a good disaster defense strategy as well.
Imagine, for example, the difference it would have made if the electric grid in the Northeast had been based on a distributed power paradigm. Rather than large central power plants generating electricity transported over long distances on vulnerable wires, individual buildings and neighborhoods would generate their own, preferably green, power. Batteries capable of storing enough energy from solar panels and wind-turbines to power as many as 2,000 homes would be tied into local grid, which could, in turn, could be tied into a larger grid. A hurricane would still knock lights out, but not to millions of people.
Clean, green energy independence means energy insurance, too.
- A Conversation with Cameron Sinclair, CEO of Architecture for Humanity / The Atlantic, Daniel Fromson
- Ocean Springs Cottages at Oak Park are ready for business and feature green amenities / The Mississippi Press, Cherie Wood
- QuaDror: A New Structural System / Arch Daily, Kelly Minner
- When the Water Rises / New York magazine, Justin Davidson
- Irene Recovery Map: For Ordinary People Helping Ordinary People / Ushahidi blog, Patrick Meier
- Exploring Joplin, Missouri, Recovering from Disaster / Traveling the American Road, Paul Brady
- Virginia Quake Raises More Questions About US East Coast Infrastructure /Scientific American, Michael Moyer
- Blue Goo Sucks Up Toxic Waste / CNN Money, Eilene Zimmerman
- The Tech to Make Buildings Earthquake—and Tsunami—Resistant / Popular Mechanics, Andrew Moseman
- How the World Failed Haiti / Rolling Stone, Janet Reitman
- The Nuke Factor: How to Make Disasters Worse and the Implications for Humanitarian Aid / TrackerNews Editor’s Blog, J.A. Ginsburg