Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Natural Disasters. Are They Increasing?

You don’t have to be a meteorologist, seismologist, or any other ologist to see that the frequency and intensity of natural disasters and extreme weather events seems to have significantly increased over the last few decades. Massive flooding from extreme precipitation; raging wildfires from prolonged droughts; monster hurricanes or super tsunamis or giant earthquakes all seem to have become much more common headlines over this time period.

As Chart A below shows, the number of declared disasters has skyrocketed in the U.S. since the 1950′s.1 FEMA’s web site states that there were a total of 1,866 total disaster declarations from 1953 to 2009, with an average of 33 per year.2 Dividing this 56 year period into two 28-year blocks with 1981 as the dividing year yields some interesting figures. The total number of federal declared disasters from 1953 – 1981 is 649 with an about 22 per year. But from 1981 – 2009, the total jumps to 1232, with a yearly average a little over 42.

Chart A. FEMA Declared Disasters by Year in the United States

As the FEMA’s Presidential Disaster Declarations map shows, the majority of declarations have been in population and agricultural centers. Most of the declarations have been due to floods and severe storms. From 1977 to 1993, U.S. federal agencies obligated $119.7 billion for disaster assistance, with the majority being for post-disaster assistance.3 In addition to underwriting the risk of natural disasters on agriculture, the U.S. continues to underwrite the cost of urban and suburban development. In 1998, U.S. government experts believed that the population in the most hurricane-prone counties would double by the year 2010 from the 36 million people they contained in 1995.4 The U.S. Census Bureau reports that as of July, 2009, there are almost 80 million people living in the most hurricane states. From 2000 – 2009, Florida saw a 16% population increase; Georgia, 20%, North Carolina, 17%; South Carolina, 14%; and Texas 19%.5 It should come as no surprise, then, that the FEMA disaster declaration map has an eerie correspondence with the population increases shown on U.S. Census Bureau’s map showing changes from 2000 to 2008.

As the chart above demonstrates there has been a significant rise in the numbers of annual declared in the U.S. In 1996, obligations from FEMA’s disaster relief fund were $3.6 billion and in 1997 were $4.3 billion.6 These amounts seem quaint by today’s standards. In 2001 Congress appropriated $40 billion in emergency appropriations to deal the damage caused by the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.7 Even this pales in comparison to the $110 billion appropriated to deal with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.8

Although there are political and bureaucratic reasons that partly explain the sharp rise in federal disaster declarations and outlays, the primary reason is, in the words of a government expert on this subject: “The close occurrence of such costly disasters in the United States is unprecedented.” This was provided during testimony to a House subcommittee in 1998.9 If this was true then, it is even more true today.

Yet natural disasters have not been confined to the U.S. In 2004, the world was appalled by the 150,000 people killed by the huge tsunami that ravaged towns and villages along the mangrove-stripped coasts of Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia. The biblical-sized wave was, of course, started by a powerful underground earthquake of which there seems to be no shortage these days. A year later, seismic tremors killed over 80,000 people were killed in India and Pakistan. Another 70,000 were buried under the rubble of what also proved to be shoddy construction last year in China.

Man’s hand was an obvious exacerbating factor in many of these super-sized catastrophes. Less obvious is the question of human interference in other extreme weather and natural disasters. Take, for instance, the 50,000 who expired due to the heat wave that descended on France, Italy and Spain, in 2003, not to mention many other parts of Europe. Or the hurricanes that blasted the Southern United States climaxing with the advent of Katrina and the disaster along the Gulf Coast. It’s become agonizingly clear, however, that the human factor did ultimately play an extremely large role in the flooding of New Orleans.

While powerful forces easily discernible with the human eye seem to be making vivid news, the unseen forces may be equally turbulent on the microbial level. Epidemiologists throughout the world have been extremely concerned with signs that we’re overdue for a major global pandemic. Over the last couple of decades, Aids, Ebola, and various types of meningitis have stamped themselves into the genetic blueprint of everyday speech. While West Nile Virus in 1997, SARS in 2003 and H1N1 in 2009 (aka, “Swine Flu”) are viewed by some scientists as supporting evidence of the increasing risk the world faces from a virulent global pandemic. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus as to why yet. Yet scientists agree that major disturbances in the natural world and ecological balance often precede outbreaks.

Questions and Stories Offered in Subsequent Posts in the Natural Disasters Category
Whether you’re inclined to believe that the sky is falling or one of those staid believers in the ontological soundness of the status quo, you must admit that the number and strength of natural disasters in recent years raise some interesting questions. Primary among those is:

1. Are severe natural disasters occurring more frequently today than in the past?

2. Is the world experiencing an increase in the intensity of natural disasters? In other words, is there an observable upward trend in the power of natural disasters occurring today?

3. To what extent has man’s actions caused an increase in the frequency and/or intensity of natural disasters?

The posts in the natural disasters category will offer more information about the various natural disasters affecting the world and attempt to answer the questions above. Subsequent posts will contain both global natural disaster statistics and stories about people whose lives have been affected by these circumstances.


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