Two Weeks in 2017 – Fire, Flood, and Wind

In the last two weeks (Aug. 25 – Sept. 10), 19 U.S. states were affected by either hurricanes or fires. I’m no expert in climate change, but global increasing temperatures would seem a logical cause for two record-breaking hurricanes and wildfires.

Warming seas and sea-level increases are part of the formula for the current hurricanes’ strength, but not all. Bob Ward has written a good summary of climate change and Hurricane Harvey for The Guardian. The consensus is that as temperatures rise, hurricanes will be stronger and possibly more numerous.

In the western area of the U.S. and along the Canada border, massive fires are burning. Increasing and earlier spring temperatures means that snow melt is happening earlier, and summer temperatures are also increasing; normally dry areas just bake in these conditions. However, an increase in the  “wildland-urban interface”, where people want to live near wilderness areas, also increases the property damage during wildfires, as does preventing natural fires from burning to keep fuel down. The Union of Concerned Scientists has a good site on how to mitigate some of the fire damage at Is Global Warming Fueling Increased Wildfire Risks?, but they say regardless, the fires will increase.

These events show that we are not prepared to deal with natural disasters on this level. Houston has been blamed for lax zoning and deregulation, but Henry Grabar says not so fast in Don’t Blame Houston’s Lax Zoning for Harvey’s Destruction. This was a 1,000-year flood; there are no safety regs for that rare of an occurrence. It will take many, many years for these averages to change, while climate change is happening now.

What can we do to prevent this loss of life, livelihood, and property?

Cities and states need to plan for more rain and flooding into current development, which means trusting the science (and what has been happening worldwide for years). Buffer zones and increasing fire-safety rules can help avoid wildfires. There are already many solutions available on a city level.

Individuals can help, too. Home buyers need to look for homes on high ground and keep an eye out for up-hill development that could cause more floods below. Keep the leaf litter down, store flammables like gas properly, and pay attention to no-burning days. Consider joining a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT); I went to a CERT fair this weekend, and am glad to see more units are starting in local counties. These are invaluable to teach you how to plan for a disaster, and how to be a help in your community during one.

All of these preparations assume that we will have more hurricanes and wildfires going forward; a better plan is stopping man-made climate change and the increasing temperatures that are part of these disasters. Considering the costs of these disasters—Harvey is estimated to cost $75 billion, Montana spent $10 million fighting fires through July—I hope more mayors, state representatives, and eventually presidents will come to see the savings that climate mitigation will give us. Talk to your reps about the costs from local disasters and the big ones, and remind them they are responsible for our financial health. Help them reframe the discussion from a liberal tree-hugger view to a money-saving proposition that benefits everyone.

The numbers

Hurricane Harvey, continental U.S. landfall Aug. 25:

  • Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 Hurricane with winds of 130 mph near Rockport, Texas.
  • 450,000 disaster victims, per FEMA (Katrina had 400,000)
  • 13 million people from Texas and Louisiana affected by flood watches and warnings (LA Times).
  • 100,000 homes destroyed or too damaged to be lived in
  • All-time continental U.S. tropical cyclone rain records were broken (Weather Channel)
  • Affected states: Texas, Louisiana,  Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee

Hurricane Irma, continental U.S. landfall Sept. 10:

  • 6 million people under evacuation orders in Florida. “That, added to exoduses from the Florida Keys and surrounding towns, would make this the largest mass evacuation in American history” (Wired)
  • Predicted states that will be affected: Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee
  • According to the NY Times:
    • “No other hurricane has matched the strength of Irma’s winds so far east in the Atlantic”
    • “Irma was classified as a Category 5 hurricane for three consecutive days, longer than any other Atlantic hurricane.”
    • “No other hurricane has matched the strength of Irma’s winds so far east in the Atlantic.”

Fires

  • 2017 (1/1/17 – 9/9/17), Fires: 47,854, Acres: 8,081,639 (National Interagency Fire Center)
  • 57 fires burning currently (09 Sept); 1,652,408 acres
  • States with current fires: Alaska (1), California (11), Colorado (2), Idaho (4), Montana (21), Nevada (2), Oregon (16), Utah (1), Washington (8), Wyoming (1)

I couldn’t find statistics about recent tornadoes, but news reports turned up this information:

  • Hurricane Irma has tornadoes spawning ahead of it in Florida
  • Hurricane Harvey caused four tornadoes in Tennessee
  • North Dakota, Alabama, and Maryland also had tornadoes

For more information

Here is a quick roundup of articles discussing climate change and the current disasters:

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