"These last years have been the busiest on record for tropical hurricanes in the Atlantic," Dr. Chris Landsea, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Atlantic Oceanographic & Meteorological lab in Miami, told me on a trip to Florida's impact zone. Dr. Landsea and other meteorologists believe we've now entered a cycle of intensified storms.
One possible explanation is climate change from the burning of fossil fuels, which is linked with sea-level rising, storm surges, a 5 to 10 percent rise in wind speeds and a slight increase in hurricane frequency. But in addition, the East Coast historically experiences 25- to 40-year storm cycles, associated with a periodic 1-degree warming in the North Atlantic.
"We saw this in the 1940s to 1960s when we averaged three major storms per year. Between the 1970s and early 1990s the average dropped to 1.5 storms," Landsea reports. "We've got good sea surface temperature and storm records going back to the 1870s, and based on this 120 year record, it looks like things will be getting very active again over the next 25 years."
How are our public officials responding to this threat? Mostly, they're not.
Despite grim forecasts for increased storms and hurricanes in the coming decades, the U.S. Coast Guard responsible for search and rescue at sea during storm disasters is unprepared for the additional workload. Between 1999 and 2000 its budget declined from $4.4 billion to $4.2 billion dollars and has been generally flat-lined for years (except for congressional funds earmarked exclusively for drug interdiction). With rising fuel prices, an aging fleet of cutters and aircraft, and too few personnel, Service Commandant Admiral James Loy worries that "lack of readiness may already be costing us lives." (The Coast Guard's budget appears to be headed sharply upward in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, but much of the new funding will go to port security.)
In North Carolina the unregulated placement of massive corporate hog farms in historic flood plains turned what would have been major flooding from Floyd into a potential coastal disaster of unprecedented scale. Dozens of swine-waste lagoons burst or overflowed, sending animal waste and dead livestock into the 1,700-square-mile Pamlico Sound, the country's second-largest estuary after the Chesapeake Bay. Algae growth accelerated and decayed at 10 times the normal rate, sucking oxygen from the water and creating a massive (if temporary) dead zone like the Gulf of Mexico's annual 7,000-square-mile monster.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should be coordinating a response to the increased storm threat. It has instead proved incapable of mustering the political will to alter its own financial incentive program that places growing numbers of people in harm's way.
Today 17 of the 20 fastest-growing counties in America are coastal, thanks in large measure to federal flood insurance. Until this government program became available in 1968, banks refused to grant mortgages for beachfront home construction. Only after the feds assumed the risk that private insurers were unwilling to take the coastal real-estate market boomed.
FEMA's original thinking was that their insurance would reduce individual risk while shifting the burden of hurricane disaster relief onto policyholders. They would guarantee a large insurance pool by making the rates so inexpensive that lots of people would buy the policies. This idea worked for a while, about as long as the historic lull in Atlantic hurricane activity of the 1970s and '80s. As soon as Hurricanes Hugo, Andrew, Opal, George, Fran, Floyd and their ilk started marching ashore, the program turned into a huge money loser and the largest financial exposure the federal government now faces, with over $520 billion in taxpayer-insured flood policies. But when even moderate reforms of the insurance program have been proposed by FEMA's director or by others they've come under intense political attack by the National Homebuilders Association, wealthy coastal property owners and the politicians who represent them.
There are, however, more sensible models for living safely by the shore in the heavy weather to come. When Hurricane Opal hit the Florida panhandle in 1995, towns like Destin and Dune-Allen were devastated, but the town of Seaside 280 old-Florida-style frame homes set back behind the dunes came out unscathed.
Aside from siting its homes behind the beach's protective sand dunes, Seaside also used tough building standards designed to resist 150 mph winds, sank its foundation pilings deep into the ground and planted lots of native trees and grasses to secure the dunes and buffer the houses. Also rejected were cheap modern building materials like vinyl and strandboard siding. "If it didn't exist before 1940, we didn't feel it was proven," says Robert Davis, the founding developer of Seaside.
"It used to be everyone built well back from the beach," he adds. "That was before federal flood insurance made stupidity feasible. Good developments are done with long-term greed as their operating principle, but there's still more short-term greed at work."
Unfortunately, public policy makers along our coasts continue to respond to the demands (and campaign contributions) of that short-term greed, even as our scientists try to warn us of the many more perfect storms to come. S David Helvarg is the author of "Blue Frontier: Saving America's Living Seas." This essay is adapted from "Blue Frontier," which will appear in paperback (Henry Holt) in May. It appeared on the Tom Paine Web site.
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