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Experts Say U.S. Playing Disaster Roulette

Unfavorable weather, changing demographics and denial are causing concern. How can the nation cope with a more dangerous future?

October 16, 2005|Joseph B. Verrengia | Associated Press Writer

Have we seen America's future through the eyes of Katrina and Rita?

Monster hurricanes drown cities and obliterate coastlines. Jobs vanish and prices rise as ports and pipelines close. Millions flee. Too many remain, risking and often losing their lives. Chaos reigns, paralyzing government and leaving the world's wealthiest nation humbled and frightened.

Some experts say the United States can expect to be pummeled by more of these mega-catastrophes over the next 20 or 30 years in a nasty conspiracy of unfavorable weather patterns, changing demographics and political denial.

Soon after Katrina and Rita, it's not clear how the nation will play the new hand that nature has apparently dealt.

"Are we prepared to lose a major city every year?" asks Baruch Fischhoff, a risk strategist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "It's cowardice not to ask the question, and cowardice on the public's part not to get engaged in the answer."

"We failed quite significantly," says sociologist Havidan Rodriguez, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del. "Will what we've seen over the last few weeks continue to be the case? It could, unless we prepare. People tend to forget lessons learned. Governments tend to forget."

Others cautiously see some hope in the waterlogged ruins of the Gulf Coast. They describe the latest hurricanes as a turning point that could lead to improved public safety and infrastructure.

"We often need events like this to change the mind-set," said Mary C. Comerio, an architect at UC Berkeley. "And it's very hard to stop private investors and entrepreneurs from seeking opportunity. It's an amazing part of the American spirit."

New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast might even become a living laboratory for sustainable development and commerce that could withstand future calamities. For example, New Orleans' ruined neighborhoods could be rebuilt on safer, firmer ground using more efficient 21st century technologies.

The city's historic core and the new parts of the city could be linked by a train, one expert suggested. Oh, and better make it elevated.

"The first rule of sustainability is to align with natural forces, or at least not try to defy them," said environmentalist Paul Hawken, a leading voice in the green design movement. "There is no reason to go backwards in redesigning the city."

America's eastern and Gulf coasts always have been in the path of powerful storms. The nation's weather history occasionally has been punctuated with other Category 4 and 5 hurricanes -- the strongest storms, which pack the punch of hundreds of nuclear weapons and have the most potential to devastate huge swaths of land.

Since 1995, hurricanes have become more frequent and more intense. Some scientists say the United States is on the bad side of a natural storm cycle. Other scientists go further, saying the trend may coincide with the recent increase in air and sea temperatures attributed to global warming.

Statistics show the planet to be increasingly unsafe. Globally, more than 2.5 billion people were affected by floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters between 1994 and 2003, a 60% increase over the previous two 10-year periods, U.N. officials report.

And those numbers don't include the millions displaced by December's tsunami, which killed about 180,000 people.

Natural disasters' damage to insured property around the world in 2004 totaled $49 billion, according to the insurance giant Swiss Re, which is based in Zurich. That figure doesn't include the tsunami either. Of the total, some calculations suggest that as much as $45 billion in losses came from a quartet of Florida hurricanes -- Charley, Ivan, Frances and Jeanne.

The overall insured loss for 2004 is more than twice the $23-billion annual average in property losses since 1987, confirming a "discernible upward trend," Swiss Re said.

So what makes natural events potentially more disastrous now? The climate might be changing. But the real difference is demographics.

How and where Americans are living make the nation especially vulnerable to these unstoppable events.

In the last several decades, the population has migrated toward the coasts. At the same time, the value of its possessions has increased substantially.

More than half of the country's 297 million people live in coastal areas. Florida's population has increased fivefold since 1950, and 80% live within 20 miles of saltwater. According to the Census Bureau, seven of the nation's top 10 fastest-growing states are coastal, including California, whose population has increased from 10 million in 1950 to more than 33 million.

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