Twenty-nine years ago this month, Hurricane Hugo barreled ashore just north of Charleston, S.C., a category 4 storm with maximum winds estimated at 140 miles an hour and the highest storm tide ever recorded on the East Coast. Hugo was the nation’s costliest hurricane ever at the time, with damages of about $7 billion.
Over the next three decades, an estimated 610,000 homes were added within 50 miles of the coastline, according to my research.
We often hear that climate change is influencing the frequency and strength of tropical storms, heat waves and wildfires, and this is certainly true, though it is too early to say what influence the warming temperatures may be having on Hurricane Florence.
But it is also true that rapid coastal development is amplifying the impact of weather and climate events like Hurricane Hugo. According to research by me and colleagues, the root cause of the country’s escalating number of weather- and climate-related disasters is not necessarily a rise in the frequency or intensity of these events but the increasing exposure and vulnerability of populations that lie in their path.
This process of population and development growth that influences disaster frequency and magnitude is known as “expanding the bull’s-eye effect.” It isn’t just the population increase that is important in raising the disaster potential but also how the population and built environment are distributed across a landscape. As the targets — people, homes and businesses — become more numerous and spread, so does the likelihood that it will be hit by a tornado or hurricane or wildfire.
Since 1940, development within 50 miles of the Carolina coastline has increased an estimated 2,180 percent, or by 1.3 million homes. And as I mentioned, nearly half of this development has taken place since Hurricane Hugo, and many of these homes were added in high-risk areas like floodplains.
There seems to be something of a “disaster amnesia” going on with respect to our land development practices after a calamity.
More than a decade ago, 10 leading climate experts felt compelled to issue a statement saying the debate then about whether global warming was intensifying hurricanes was a distraction from “the main hurricane problem facing the United States.”
The problem, they said, was the continued “lemming-like march to the sea” in the form of unabated coastal development in vulnerable places. “These demographic trends,” they said, “are setting us up for rapidly increasing human and economic losses from hurricane disasters.”
Nearly 30 percent of the American population lives along a coast, and an even larger percentage resides in flood-prone regions. The Census Bureau recently reported that the Atlantic and Gulf Coast regions have continued to grow despite costly and damaging hurricanes, with their combined populations rising to 59.6 million people in 2016 from 51.9 million in 2000.
When disaster knocks at the door, the bill is left to taxpayers who subsidize the National Flood Insurance Program. That money is often used to rebuild homes in the same high-risk locations. Unfortunately, given current insurance programs, rates that don’t reflect the true risk of insured entities in hazard-prone regions and the lack of incentives to persuade people not to live in these areas, the system we have is unsustainable.
We need to be smarter about where we are developing and how we’re doing it. People who choose to live in high-risk areas should bear the cost when disaster strikes. We should help people hit by storms like Hurricane Florence. But I’d rather see those dollars directed to hazard mitigation, and making existing and future development better able to withstand a disaster before one hits.
Just because we can live somewhere doesn’t mean we should.