Bracing for Sandy: Cutting the Cost of Disaster

The year 2012 has been my year of storms. When I moved from Ottawa to Washington, D.C., in April, I was prepared for a sweltering summer, and almost looking forward to seeing the U.S. capital grind to a halt in winter with a couple inches of snow.

But living in the U.S. has come with much more extreme weather than I had expected. June thunderstorms killed 22 and left a million D.C.-area residents in the dark. In August I travelled to New Orleans to conduct interviews on displacement caused by Hurricane Katrina, only to be met by Hurricane Isaac. Now back in D.C., I’m watching the wind whip the trees and rip off our neighbour’s gate as Hurricane Sandy comes ashore. States farther north are expected to bear the brunt of the storm, but this is plenty close for comfort.

My year of storms comes on the heels of a relatively quiet but incredibly expensive period for natural disasters. Overall, natural disasters are on the rise, due in large part to the effects of climate change. 2011 bucked this trend, offering up the lowest number of natural disasters since 2000. These disasters affected an estimated 206 million people — a remarkable number, yet 10 per cent lower than the average over the past decade.

At the same time as 2011 saw a comparatively low number of disasters, these events had record-high costs. Losses exceeded $380 billion U.S. in 2011, making last year the most expensive in history in terms of damages from disasters. 2011 topped the damages charts because so many of the disasters struck wealthy countries, with floods in Canada and Australia, an earthquake in New Zealand, and the triple-disaster of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan.

At $210 billion U.S., recovery and reconstruction efforts in Japan made up more than 55 per cent of disaster damages in 2011, but the U.S. was also heavily hit by disasters last year. Between hurricanes, blizzards, wildfires, droughts and tornadoes, the United States had 14 disasters costing more than a billion dollars each. The German insurance giant Munich Re estimates that the tally from Hurricane Irene alone exceeded $15 billion U.S.

Staggering as these figures are, they would be incalculably higher if the governments involved had not invested heavily in disaster preparedness and mitigation. In poorer countries that are less able to make such investments, the financial cost of disasters may be less, but the price in terms of lives lost is almost invariably higher.

But when catastrophes are averted, we in wealthy countries sometimes come to doubt the value of this investment in preparedness. For example, when Hurricane Irene bore down on New York just over a year ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of 370,000 residents from low-lying areas and shut down the city’s transit system for the first time ever for weather-related reasons. By the time Irene struck New York, it had slowed to a tropical storm, leading some pundits and residents to wonder if the preventive measures were excessive.

If Hurricane Sandy is by some miracle a tamer storm than expected, the same questions may well be asked again. But we need only look to countries such as Haiti and Pakistan to see the cost of cutting corners on prevention.

Or, we can even look closer to home, to the city of New Orleans. More than 1,800 people died in Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing floods, the vast majority of them in New Orleans. Seven years after Katrina, the city’s population has shrunk from 485,000 to 360,000. Twenty-one per cent of residential properties in the city are blighted or abandoned, 27 per cent of New Orleanians live in poverty compared to a national average of 15 per cent, and thousands continue to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Investing in disaster mitigation infrastructure, preventively evacuating vulnerable neighbourhoods, closing schools, suspending trade and halting transit is expensive and inconvenient, but this cannot compare to the potential costs — economic and human — of inaction.

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the east coast in election season, it was clear that while some may question the timing of evacuations and closures, Katrina has made important changes not only to the economic but also to the political calculus of disaster preparedness and response. President Barack Obama cancelled campaign events in Florida to return to the White House to direct final storm preparations, and be seen at the helm of the eventual response and recovery work.

Mitt Romney has also suspended his campaign schedule, encouraged donations to the Red Cross, and even reminded supporters to make sure that their preparations include bringing their “Romney-Ryan 2012” yard signs inside, cautioning that “In high winds they can be dangerous and cause damage to homes and property.”

Runaway lawn signs may be the least of the worries facing those in the path of Hurricane Sandy. Yet when we come to look back on this year of storms, investments in preparedness, from the household to governmental levels, will undoubtedly have paid off. We need to sustain these preparedness efforts, and do more to support them in countries that lack the money, but still cannot afford to be unprepared.