Making Sense of Hurricanes

by Ted Steinberg on December 19, 2013

(originally published in Room for Debate, November 18, 2013)

When the wind whips up and the trees topple, as happened recently in the Philippines, and all that is left are the splintered possessions of those who once inhabited the land, there is a tendency to go looking for a culprit. But to characterize natural disasters as either acts of God or the work of Mother Nature — the secular equivalent — is a habit as destructive as the howling winds. Such interpretations operate to obscure the human history that explains why bad things happen.

Last year’s experience with Hurricane Sandy is a case in point. There were some at the margins who interpreted this disaster as a sign of divine wrath. But the more troubling statements came from public officials such as President Obama, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor Andrew Cuomo and others in positions of authority who pointed the finger at natural forces. As Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, put it, “The city can’t control Mother Nature.”

Such statements, however, divert attention from what city, state and federal authorities can control, and the steps they might have taken to lessen the death and destruction.

It is no secret that substantial development has been occurring in the floodplains of the New York metropolitan region for some 300 years. But it might surprise some to learn that despite all the wealth and property at risk around Upper New York Bay, there has never been a full-fledged U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood-protection study. Nor do many people realize that though New York has spent a fortune developing land at the expense of the sea, it has skimped on its approach to natural hazards. So much so that a 2008 study of 136 port cities around the world found that the city’s flood defenses lagged behind those of London, Tokyo, Amsterdam and even Shanghai. Despite its enormous wealth, greater New York has just one-tenth as much protection as these other urban areas, or less.

To interpret natural disasters as acts of God or nature may be comforting or make for a good sound bite. But the inconvenient truth is that such statements distract from the failure of policy that makes natural calamities an inevitable feature of life in the 21st century.

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