Hurricanes may be getting bigger, but death toll is shrinking

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Hurricanes may be getting bigger, but death toll is shrinking

In Jennings, Fla., handyman and “man of God” Bubba Smith held onto his wife during hurricane Irma, who sang “whoo-ee” when the wind roared, their prayers joining as chorus.

“It reached out and touched us,” he says, as the 878 people in his little town, “where everybody knows each other, whether black or white,” looked out for one another.

Here in Perry, Fla., Billy Williamson, a former Lake County sheriff’s deputy, holed up in a 1920 bungalow with boards nailed helter-skelter across its windows, alongside 24 family members and some lanky hunting dogs.

Recommended: Think you know the Sunshine State? Take our Florida quiz!

“We’ve never been this prepared before as a state,” says Mr. Williamson. “You have to remember that it’s not one storm, but lots of storms that come out of it: tornadoes, hail, rain. The potential for destruction was high. So, we did good.”

At about 400 hundred miles wide, Irma became the second Category 4 hurricane to make landfall this year, coming in just two weeks behind hurricane Harvey, which swamped Houston. It began its havoc in Barbuda, killing several dozen people throughout the Caribbean, and finally roared onto the Florida peninsula on Sunday, inundating coastal communities from Marco Island in Florida to Tybee Island in Georgia and causing flooding as far north as Charleston, S.C.

Nearly 7 million people fled from the storm, even as millions of others sheltered in place behind boarded-up windows. On Tuesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated that about three-quarters of Florida was without power.

On one hand, the relatively low loss of life in both Texas and Florida when compared with past storms underscored advances in prediction technology, citizen preparedness, and even the power of social media to create potentially life-saving communities. More fundamentally, experts say, it was a testament to how seriously Americans along a projected storm track took the gravity of Irma’s force.

But against the backdrop of that massive life-saving response, the back-to-back monster landfalls present new challenges for an era of potentially stronger storms. Specifically, America is facing a reckoning with not just why it places so many people and so much wealth in vulnerable areas, but also how to seek ways to do it that can better absorb nature’s bruising shocks. One lingering question: Can the human response inform the political one?

“If you plot it on a graph, you’d see a downward slope in terms of life and injuries in the US,” says Ward Lyles, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. But “when it comes to property damage and economic disruption, it has escalated, and the graph continues to rise on an upward slope, especially in the face of climate change.”

He adds: “I think that this juxtaposition of the tremendous success we’ve had in reducing loss of life and injuries, while at the same time seeing dramatically increasing property damage, is a function of political will and commitment.”

Partly because Irma made landfall near Cudjoe Key, population 1,600, and spared major cities like Miami, Tampa, and Orlando from a head-on collision, damage estimates are lower than expected, but still stunning: FEMA estimates that 25 percent of the houses in the Florida Keys have been destroyed and two-thirds are damaged. Parts of Fort Myers are soaked to the studs, sailboats lay half-sunk along Miami Beach, and Jacksonville saw downtown flooded up to interstate exits. Initial damage estimates range from $20 billion to $50 billion.

While emergency responders are still searching the Keys and warn that the toll could go higher, as of Tuesday 12 people had been reported dead. Florida has has 20.6 million residents, many elderly.

By contrast, in 1928, an estimated 2,500 people were killed during Florida’s “forgotten hurricane” – immortalized by Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” In 1900, a Category 4 hurricane took the island of Galveston by surprise. Estimates say that between 6,000 and 10,000 Texans died. During hurricane Katrina, more than 1,800 people died in Mississippi and Louisiana during the Category 3 storm. 

But those advances – as well as an emphasis placed on saving life above all, epitomized by Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s repeated call for Floridians to put life and limb above property – need to translate into a greater “re-do and re-write” of national priorities, with a focus on the poor and vulnerable, says Mr. Smith, the Jennings handyman.

“They need to learn what we’ve always taught our kids here on the Suwanee River, that love for the stranger, the other, is the ultimate survival tool,” says Smith, a descendant of slaves brought up the Suwanee. “Always show love because you never know when you are going to need that love.”

Disaster readiness experts say one indubitable take-away is that America is only becoming more disaster-prone: Miami and Houston are both examples of coastal red-state megalopolises with nearly unfettered growth and little political will for mitigation planning and bolstering infrastructure. Yet the impacts of local and national decisions on how to develop areas along the hurricane-ferrying “Cape Verde pike” go far beyond Florida or Texas.

“What is different about these disasters is not that they are bigger and more destructive – we’ve had big disruptive disasters over human history – but the fact that what makes a disaster catastrophic is the contact with the built environment,” says Stephen Flynn, the founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University in Boston. “That built environment is now more sprawling and more interconnected than ever, because that is how we get efficiencies out of it. But … increasingly, we’re all experiencing some of the cost and disruption that goes with these events.”

To be sure, Florida bolstered its building codes after hurricane Andrew in 1992, likely contributing to the lower-than-expected loss of life from Irma. Mississippi did the same after hurricane Katrina, creating a new phenomenon of beachside stilt villages. Experts have urged Texas to take a hard look at the paths of future Houston development.

Amid gridlock over issues like sand dune mitigation and lax zoning restrictions, Congress is facing a deeper debate about how to fund a national flood policy program deeply in the red. Resentments linger after Texas and Florida congressional delegates voted against a Superstorm Sandy aid package, drawing the debate into America’s political polarization.

Given those dynamics, Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman says he is skeptical about leadership and problem-solving from Washington.

On one hand, “Yeah, I do believe that [citizens are directly responsible for] saving lives” in the last two storms, says Mr. Buelterman, by phone. “I think hurricane Katrina [in 2005] was the wake-up call for me and the whole cable news generation, that you can die from this.”

But Buelterman has nearly given up on Congress. After testifying on behalf of boosting dune mitigation funding to a subcommittee last year, he came away disheartened. Of the four committee members present, two were on their cellphones for the duration of his testimony, and only one question was asked.

That’s why, he says, “we’re going it on our own” – raising its own money for dune repairs, working with state agencies to armor local infrastructure, and creating tougher building ordinances to keep storm damage to a minimum.

Sissy Wood has a similar inspiration. Clearing her cottage in Perry of debris, the worm farmer describes herself as “a survivor … I can catch fish better than any man.”

The daughter of Aucilla River mullet fisher folk, Ms. Wood is prepping her 11-year-old daughter for a new era of big storms, teaching her how to identify safe places to shelter. She remembers her dad’s tornado drill: Get out of the trailer and in the truck and park it on the lee side of a concrete garage. “I think we are becoming more resilient,” says Ms. Wood.

In Jennings, Smith, the handyman, ties Florida’s vulnerabilities to its social and economic divides – the glitz of Miami Beach to ramshackle Jennings, by the Florida-Georgia line.

In contrast, the Irma response showed “our human design ... to look out for each other in distress," says Flynn. And now we know that “we’re not going to behave like Godzilla movie extras in distress.”

In turn, he says, the engineering community is increasingly using social scientists to understand the dynamics of “graceful failure” that allow systems to rebound more quickly after disasters.

That becomes even more paramount, he and others say, as the effects of climate change increase the power of hurricanes and population growth increases the number of people in their path.

“Don’t just expect everything to be like the past,” says Andrew Holland, senior fellow for Energy and Climate at the American Security Project, a nonpartisan security think tank in Washington.

“History is actually no longer good at predicting the future.”

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