commentary

(Times-Picayune, New Orleans)

September 16, 2004

Storms Blow, But We Can Cut Losses

by Charles Meade

We’ve all seen the awful pictures -- homes flattened, streets flooded, power lines down, the injured in hospitals. In a hurricane, some of this devastation and suffering is inevitable -- but much of it is not. The problem, as identified in a recent RAND Corp. report that I authored, is that most of the federal effort is focused on predicting the disaster, rather than on taking steps to minimize the impact when hurricanes inevitably arrive.

Hurricanes inflict major economic losses on our society. For 2004, the figures will be four to six times larger than the recent average of $5 billion in losses per year. But while the 2004 season will always be remembered for its severity, it would be a mistake to blame Mother Nature alone.

Numerous studies show steadily increasing hurricane losses in recent decades, in close correlation with rapid growth in coastal communities throughout the southeastern United States. Viewed from the perspective of the federal taxpayer, the figures are alarming, and they call out for an answer. Federal relief payments for all natural disasters in the United States amounted to $7 billion in the 11-year period of 1978 to 1989, but they jumped to $39 billion in the three-year period of 1999 to 2002. Until a few months ago, disaster losses cost the U.S. economy an average of several hundred million dollars a week. After this hurricane season, the cost will go up.

The time is ripe to refocus U.S. hurricane strategy to limit future losses and hardship from these storms. We need to recognize that many hurricane losses can be avoided with sensible construction and planning.

Recent reports from Florida provide the strongest evidence. Buried in the torrent of disaster stories, the Insurance Institute for Building and Home Safety and the Florida Building Commission found that many structures built to meet newly strengthened building codes survived Charley’s hurricane-force winds with minimal damage. Still, problems remain.

First, mobile and other manufactured homes are exempt from the new building codes. These continue to be an important option for housing in Florida, especially among the poor. Recalling the scenes of devastated trailer parks in Punta Gorda that filled the news after Hurricane Charley, it is clear that these are hugely vulnerable during a hurricane. Recent RAND findings have recommended federal research and development of new technology to make mobile homes and manufactured housing better able to stand up to hurricane-strength winds.

Second, the Florida Building Commission is currently scheduled to weaken building codes for inland counties by shifting to new wind provisions. Based on the experience from Charley, the insurance industry and others have urged the state to reconsider.
Third, millions struggle to carry on without power, lights or refrigeration after fierce storms. We must address the vulnerability of urban power systems by burying more power lines and by making improvements in the electric power distribution system. Mid-Atlantic residents would echo this concern, based on their weeklong blackout after Hurricane Isabel last year.

And finally, of course, hurricanes cause large-scale flooding and storm surges, raising fundamental questions regarding the wisdom of building in coastal locations and flood plains.

The good news is that many of the building blocks for change have been put in place. What’s needed now is strong leadership by elected officials to follow through on a national strategy.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency strongly promotes pre-disaster mitigation through its programs. Today, as federal taxpayer relief funds are directed to areas devastated by this season’s devastating storms, tougher building codes and better technology are reducing the opportunity for damage in future storms.

Government leaders could send a lasting message about how to minimize hurricane losses by stressing the experience of those who emerged unharmed from Charley, Frances and Ivan. By focusing on the fact that large disaster losses can be avoided, we can concentrate citizens and local government on the challenge of making future hurricane seasons less devastating.

Charles Meade is a senior scientist with the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization.

This commentary originally appeared in Times-Picayune, New Orleans on September 16, 2004. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.