Warmer World, Savage Storms

By Brown, Lester R. | USA TODAY, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Warmer World, Savage Storms


Brown, Lester R., USA TODAY


ELEVATED GLOBAL TEMPERATURES bring a number of threats, including rising seas and more crop-withering heat waves. Higher surface water temperatures in the tropical oceans also provide more energy to drive tropical storm systems, leading to more-destructive hurricanes and typhoons. The combination of rising seas, more-powerful storms, and stronger storm surges can be devastating.

Just how devastating became evident in late August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast near New Orleans. In some towns, Katrina's powerful 28-foot-high storm surge did not leave a single structure standing. New Orleans survived the initial hit, but was flooded when the inland levees were breached and water covered everything but rooftops in many parts of the city. Even a year later, the most-damaged areas of the city remained without water, power, sewage disposal, garbage collection, or telecommunications.

With advance warning of the storm and official urging to evacuate coastal areas, 1,000,000,000 or so people fled northward into Louisiana or to the neighboring states of Texas and Arkansas. Of this total, more than 200,000 have yet to return home and likely never will. These storm evacuees are the world's first large wave of climate refugees.

Katrina--one of eight hurricanes that hit the southeastern U.S. in 2004-05--was the most-financially destructive hurricane (causing upwards of $100,000,000,000 in damages) ever to make landfall anywhere. As a result of the unprecedented damage, insurance premiums have doubled, tripled, and, in some especially vulnerable situations, gone up tenfold. This enormous jump in insurance costs is lowering coastal real estate values and driving people and businesses out of highly exposed coastal states.

The devastation caused by Katrina was not an isolated incident. In the fall of 1998, Hurricane Mitch--one of the most-powerful storms ever to come out of the Atlantic, with winds approaching 200 miles per hour--hit the east coast of Central America. As atmospheric conditions stalled the normal northward progression of the storm, some two meters of rain were dumped on parts of Honduras and Nicaragua within a few days.

The deluge collapsed homes, factories, and schools while destroying roads and bridges. Seventy percent of the crops and much of the topsoil in Honduras were washed away--topsoil that had accumulated over long stretches of geological time. Huge mudslides flattened villages, burying some local populations. The storm left 11,000 dead. Thousands more, buried or washed out to sea, never were found. The basic infrastructure--the roads and bridges in Honduras and Nicaragua--largely was rendered useless. Pres. Carlos Flores of Honduras summed it up this way: "Overall, what was destroyed over several days took us 50 years to build." The damage from this storm, exceeding the annual gross domestic product of the two countries, set economic development back 20 years. …

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