Natural Disasters

Natural disasters continue to strike the United States with increased frequency and destructiveness. Many attribute this to climate change and argue these events will happen even more often if we do not take steps to combat them.

Updated:
Jun 23, 2022
| Published:
Jun 23, 2022
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Natural disasters such as wildfires, flooding, and landslides have always been a natural byproduct of North American weather. However, wildfires on the West Coast, frequent tornadoes in the Midwest, and severe flooding in New England are becoming worryingly common occurrences. 

History 

Great Galveston Hurricane (1900)

The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, a Category 4, remains the deadliest natural disaster in American history. When the storm hit Southeast Texas, it killed a confirmed 6,000 people, with some believing the number was actually as high as 12,000. Despite the warning that the hurricane was approaching, many residents did not evacuate. Galveston’s low-lying terrain worsened the high storm surge and gusty winds, nearly destroying the city and resulting in the loss of many lives. Following the storm, the city built a 3-feet tall seawall that still stands today.

Hurricane Katrina (2005)

Hurricane Katrina was a Category 3 storm with flooding and high winds that significantly damaged the Gulf of Mexico region, particularly Louisiana. Before its landfall, experts predicted Hurricane Katrina would bring heavy rain and strong winds, prompting most residents to prepare for potential flooding. However, poorly maintained levees failed to hold the floodwater back, and since many cities sat below sea level, they quickly became submerged. It is estimated that the storm caused about $125 billion in damage, the most expensive in history, and displaced millions of people across Louisiana and Alabama. Americans criticized the government for its slow response to the disaster that left families homeless and without resources.

2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season: Harvey, Irma, Maria, Nate (2017)

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season brought four of the most destructive hurricanes in recorded history. Hurricane Harvey was the first to make landfall in late August as a Category 4 storm. The hurricane brought catastrophic wind to Corpus Christi, Texas, and massive flooding to the Houston region. It remained a hurricane-level storm for 117 hours, almost five days. It was one of the most expensive natural disasters, second only to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

Hurricane Irma developed into the highest-possible Category 5 storm and made landfall a record-breaking seven times. It maintained its Category 5 status in the Northern Caribbean islands but was downgraded to a Category 4 storm as it made landfall in the Florida Keys. It reached Category 3 classification when it hit Florida before tailing back off into the Atlantic. Two weeks later, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Dominica as a Category 5 storm and slammed Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm. The outskirts of the storm still brought heavy rain to the Northern Caribbean islands that had already faced the destruction of Hurricane Irma.

Lastly, Hurricane Nate made landfall in the northern Gulf Coast as a Category 1 hurricane after passing through Nicaragua and Honduras as a tropical storm. While the winds were the slowest of the four hurricanes, Hurricane Nate brought similar levels of rain to affected areas and resulted in more deaths than Hurricane Maria. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) retired all four storm names, believing it would be insensitive to use the names in the future given the destruction and loss of life caused by these storms.

Hurricane Ida (2021)

Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana in late August of 2021 as a Category 4 hurricane, 16 years to the day that Hurricane Katrina struck the state. The storm became a Category 4 storm almost overnight, upgrading from a Category 1 hurricane to Category 4 in less than 24 hours due to the warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana lost access to all its power lines and trusted the upgraded levees to hold the floodwaters from entering towns and cities. Many residents believed they and their cities were better prepared to react to the storm after learning a devastating lesson from Hurricane Katrina. 

(USA Today)

2020 Western American Wildfires: California, Oregon, Colorado

Wildfires scorched several states in the second half of 2020, mainly California, Oregon, and Colorado. California saw more than 9,000 reported incidents that burned over four million acres of land and resulted in 33 confirmed deaths. The flames released roughly 112 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and blanketed major cities like San Francisco in orange smog for days on end. The 2020 fires burned more than double the area of the previous record set the year prior. Five of the six most damaging fires in state history occurred during the 2020 wildfire season.

Oregon experienced severe wildfires around Labor Day in 2020 due to intense drought and high winds. In 2020, Oregon saw almost 1.07 million acres burned, costing $354 million to combat the fires. In 2019, Oregon saw just two homes destroyed by the fires. 

Colorado was faced with the most active fire season in the state’s history in 2020, seeing three of the largest recorded fires ever in the same year. Warmer than usual temperatures, droughts, and heavy recreational traffic combined to cause the fires. At one point, the wildfires continued for over 100 days, with two fires alone burning 400,000 acres.

Natural Disasters

While natural disasters take a visible toll on the environment, they also place a heavy financial burden on the government. Of the 42 billion dollars in global insured losses in the first half of 2021, 72% belonged to the United States. 

United States Natural Disasters Facts

  • After only eight months into 2021, data reported 40,945 wildfires that burned over 4.4 million acres. The yearly average before 2021 was 39,233 fires and 4.94 million burned acres. 
  • The early months of 2021 saw the national average temperature sitting 1.8°F higher than usual. At the same time, some states experienced the worst deep freezes in history and faced damages upwards of 10 billion dollars. 
  • In 2020, there were 30 named storms during the Atlantic hurricane season, 11 of which made landfall. Of the 30 storms, 14 were hurricanes, including seven hurricanes with wind speeds of 111 miles per hour. 2020 recorded the most storms in American history.

According to survey data, 40% of Americans say they are “very concerned” about climate change and the effects of recent natural disasters, a figure that has remained relatively constant in the past few years. In August of 2021, the Senate and the House approved a bipartisan infrastructure deal. The bill allocates billions of dollars to natural disaster responses, like improving flood drainage and wildfire prevention tactics. The bill also marks the first time both parties have agreed on significant climate change legislation.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you believe the high number of wildfires in 2021 compared to the previous yearly average is a cause for immediate concern?
  2. Explain how infrastructure is important to prepare for natural disasters.
  3. Do you think the percentage of Americans concerned about climate change should be higher or lower?

History

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Narratives

Left Narrative

Democrats supported the passing of the infrastructure bill to strengthen highways and buildings from natural disasters and extreme weather. To combat the increasing number of natural disasters, the government must invest in mitigation plans and improve funding for disasters. President Biden has asked Congress for an additional $24 billion relief for the victims of Hurricane Ida and recent disasters.  

Right Narrative

Republicans support modernizing and strengthening infrastructure to minimize the damage of natural disasters. However, they hope to do so with minimal financial costs to the government and taxpayers. All levels of government, from local to federal, should be on the same page and better coordinate disaster relief plans. The structural failures of previous responses helped us learn how to combat future natural disasters.

Bipartisan Narrative

Republicans support modernizing and strengthening infrastructure to minimize the damage of natural disasters. However, they hope to do so with minimal financial costs to the government and taxpayers. All levels of government, from local to federal, should be on the same page and better coordinate disaster relief plans. The structural failures of previous responses helped us learn how to combat future natural disasters.

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