The destruction and loss of life seen in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Rita will almost certainly happen again, says a Texas A&M University researcher — perhaps even this week, as Hurricane Isaac bears down on the Gulf Coast.
Walter Gillis Peacock, director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center (HRRC) at Texas A&M, says the risk of disaster is high all along the Gulf Coast, especially in Texas, due to the destruction of natural resources and poor community planning efforts, and may get worse with potential climate change and variability.
This week, Gulf Coast residents are bracing as Tropical Storm Isaac is predicted by the National Hurricane Center to become a hurricane and hit along a stretch of the Gulf Coast starting just west of New Orleans and running east to the edge of the Florida Panhandle.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has declared a state of emergency and encouraged residents in low-lying parts of coastal parishes to evacuate before the storm hits late Tuesday, or on Wednesday which is the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in the nation’s history.
Louisiana, Florida and Texas ranked as the top three, respectively, on a list of the top 10 states most at risk of disaster. The 2011 study was conducted by Kiplinger.com and the Property Claims Services unit of Verisk Analytics.
“It’s surprising Texas is only at No. 3 and not at No. 1,” Peacock says. “Worldwide, disasters are increasing as a consequence of climate change, and Texas is extraordinarily vulnerable. If you look at flooding, for example, we rank near the top, if not at the top, from the late ‘70s to the early 2000’s, in losses and casualties.”
Samuel Brody, director of Texas A&M’s new Institute for Sustainable Coastal Communities, agrees saying, “Texas is one of the most flood-ravaged places in the country. From 1960-2008, we recorded about 8,000 casualties from flooding, which is 2.5 times the next state on the list. Houston has had the largest number of flood fatalities in the United States for the last 50 years and one of the highest per-capita property damage from floods in the U.S.”
Peacock says Texas has been hit hard not only by hurricanes and flooding, but also by tornadoes, drought and wildfires that may well become worse due to worldwide climate change.
According to the Kiplinger study, from 2002-2011, Texas experienced one wildland fire, one tropical storm, four hurricanes, seven winter storms and 53 severe weather incidents, totaling $24.9 billion in estimated insured property loss.
In response, Texas homeowners’ insurance rates have risen 21 percent since 2009, according to the Texas Department of Insurance July 2012 Report to the Senate Business and Commerce Committee on Homeowners’ Premiums and Rates in Texas. The report reveals that Texas has the second highest average insurance premiums in the nation, surpassed only by Louisiana.
Cities near the southern coast of Texas, such as Galveston and Houston, are extremely vulnerable, especially to hurricanes that build up over the Gulf of Mexico, such as Hurricane Ike in 2008.
Peacock believes that natural disasters are not simply “natural” events, but rather are an outcome of the interaction between the environment, human action (or inaction) and building practices. “Risk of disaster increases due to poor mitigation strategies in developing and building,” he says. “Higher concentrations of people in high-hazard areas lead to high vulnerability.”
In other words, the problem with disaster mitigation exists before the disastrous event ever occurs.
“We’re increasing our hazard exposure and all too often destroying or compromising natural resources and the potential services they’re providing,” Peacock explains. “A prime example is the destruction of our nation’s wetlands.”
Wetland consists of marshes or swamps and, according to Peacock, destruction and disruption of wetlands along the 18 counties of the Texas coast increase exposure to coastal hazards such as flooding. Peacock says that Brody and others at the HRRC and Texas A&M University at Galveston’s Center for Texas Beaches and Shores have shown direct relationships between wetland alteration and hazard losses to property.
“My colleague, assistant professor Wes Highfield, and I have done extensive research over the last 10 years on wetland alteration and flood losses,” says Brody. “We determined that along the Gulf Coast, an acre loss of naturally occurring wetlands from 2001 to 2005 increased property damage caused by flooding by approximately $1.5 million per year across the study area.”
Brody says in coastal Texas, they examined the impact of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permits to alter a naturally occurring wetland and found over $38,000 in associated flood property damage. “However, our evidence pertains primarily to precipitation-based [freshwater] flooding associated with Palustrine wetlands,” he says. “Little evidence suggests that wetlands reduce the impact of storm surge [saltwater flooding].”
Peacock says much of the problem lies in where and how buildings are being constructed. “Not only are we developing in areas that are inappropriate for building,” he says, “we’re not using high building code standards and proper land-use planning criteria which keep us away from high-hazard areas.”
He says the state of Texas has developed proper building codes and that local municipalities are supposed to adopt them. “But there are no teeth to these laws,” he contends. “There is a disconnect between the state and local level, and very limited, to no regulations at the county level. In Texas, we believe in land-use rights above all else.”
Social vulnerability also plays a role in disaster mitigation, according to Peacock. He says that factors such as race and ethnicity, gender, education, poverty and age affect a person’s or group’s ability to cope with a natural disaster. “Low-income developments are often located in high-hazard areas,” he explains. “You’ve got a population that is less likely to be able to prepare, evacuate, recover and rebuild.”
So what can be done to minimize the damage and loss of life that occur as a result of natural disasters?
“We have to push further in educating the public and developing our communities,” Peacock says.
He recommends implementing education programs and sound community-based planning related to hazard mitigation as part of comprehensive plans, as well as incentives to enhance ecosystem restoration and preservation. He says that FEMA and state hazard mitigation guidelines should be modified, and state and federal funding should be used, to restore and preserve the ecosystem. And, he says, social vulnerability must be taken into consideration when planning hazard reduction strategies.
“Short-term fixes like dams, levees and emergency management are not enough,” Peacock concludes. “This is a chronic problem of a social and developmental nature.”