NEWBURY, Mass. —
Our preparedness efforts are rooted in 1950s-era Civil Defense. Are we ready?
The question matters even more as the climate changes. Some data suggest the weather is getting worse. For example, wind speeds during storms have picked up over the last few decades, according to MIT scientist Kerry Emanuel. But weather records don’t go back far enough for scientists to say conclusively that storms are any worse or more frequent because of climate change.
Regardless, storms today do more damage. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 was the first storm in the United States to cause more than $1 billion in insurance claims. For all of the 1980s, there were $263 billion in insurance claims due to natural disasters. In 2005, Katrina alone caused $46 billion in insurance claims – out of an estimated $81 billion in damage. For the first five years of the 2000s, $420 billion in insurance claims were filed.
Hurricane Sandy was never more than a Category 3 hurricane, albeit the widest hurricane ever recorded. When it slammed into New Jersey and New York in October 2012, it was a mere tropical storm. Yet it’s estimated to have caused $50 billion in damage.
The storm that hit Plum Island in March and made Cheryl Jones-Comeau leave her house didn’t even do enough damage to qualify for state disaster relief.
Here’s why natural disasters are doing more damage: The United States has more than doubled in population since 1950, to 314 million. That growth centers on urban areas, especially along the coasts. Fifty-three percent of Americans now live in the 17 percent of counties sitting on a coast. Development is happening in vulnerable places.
People are more prepared for disasters in the wake of events like 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, say experts including Arnold M. Howitt, co-director of the program on crisis leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.