Saturday, September 24, 2005

Ralph Lauer photo / I-45 near the Woodlands


New York Times / September 25, 2005

Imagine 20 Years of This
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.

There was a time when the cloud as an icon of destruction was shaped like a mushroom.

And a time when the cloud as a portent of fleeing populations gave off the buzz of locusts.

And a time when the cloud that symbolized unexpected death was the ashen plume shooting out of twin towers pancaking down.

Now the cloud we track across our television screens as a harbinger of all those things is touched with the ancient and divine: a vast, swirling eye. An unblinking thing that could have floated off an Egyptian cartouche, a Huichol ornament or the back of a dollar bill.

In a sense, we are back to a more innocent age. The dark eyes whirling ever closer are "natural" disasters, though they pack the force of thousands of Hiroshimas.

And if science is correct, we will be repeatedly reminded what "a force of nature" implies. Meteorologists argue that we have begun a new era of Atlantic storms pumped up by hot gulf waters, a cycle that oscillates in decades. The devastating hurricanes of the 1960's like Betsy and Camille were followed by a lull from 1970 to 1995 as cooler waters stifled the wrath of adolescent tropical storms. Now the streams of warm water that encourage rapid evaporation and spiraling winds are back.

If these are just the first dark puffs of a new kind of summer weather that will prevail for the next 20 years, can we possibly be ready for what is to follow?

Last year, four horsemen galloped over Florida in quick succession: Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. Already this season, the Gulf of Mexico has seen one major hurricane, Rita, sweep in on the veil of another, Katrina.

As a consequence, parts of New Orleans and stretches of the Mississippi coast are nearly uninhabited, and likely to stay that way for months. In Texas, Houston, Galveston and Port Arthur have emptied, at least temporarily. The populations of coastal cities have been scattered in a great arc, some trapped on highways a few miles inland, some in shelters as far away as Massachusetts and California.

The absurdity is that a dangerous squall can now be tracked almost from its birth off the coast of Africa, but its victims still cannot get out of its way. Despite our amazing ability to foretell the meteorological future, greed and sloth may have overpowered most sane efforts to plan for it.

Highways have clotted as families flee, and some of those without cars end up with nowhere to go but their rooftops. Evacuation plans for hospitals and nursing homes have been washed away by worst-case scenarios that no one envisioned - buildings marooned by deep water and beset by gunfire.

Encouraged by federal flood insurance, islands whose very existence is ephemeral have been lined with vacation homes. Low-lying urban neighborhoods with their asphalt toes resting in swamps have been built below levees too fragile to hold. Hurricane-resistant houses have been designed, but their squat forms have proven unpopular with customers craving ocean vistas.

Marshes that once absorbed storms have been allowed to die off and sink, leaving stretches of open water that can be flung shoreward by storm surges. Pipelines designed to flex have snapped - Katrina's damage may include 10 major spills.

Even the economy, unable to flee, has become a victim. The nation's refineries have been concentrated in the threatened hurricane belt. Gas-guzzlers and rising prices are beating into the heads of drivers the nature of the laws of supply and demand. Insurance companies have been rocked, struggling airlines have gasped at their jet fuel bills. The damage so far already could reach $200 billion.

Here is a look at six crucial questions we face:

THE COAST

As coastal communities confront a newly intense storm cycle, they turn to remedies they have used for years to combat beach loss they have already been experiencing because of rising sea levels. Unfortunately, each has serious drawbacks.

They can armor their beaches with seawalls, breakwaters or other hard structures. Usually, though, drawing a rock or concrete line on a dynamic sandy coast results in loss of the very resource the work is meant to protect, the beach.

Communities can replace sand lost to erosion or storm waves. But it can be hard to find good sources of replacement sand; the projects are unsightly, mining and applying the sand brings other environmental problems, and the projects often do not last long, which means the process can be extremely expensive.

As a result, some communities have reconciled themselves to the idea that houses and other buildings will occasionally be lost to the surf. Others are limiting development by establishing setback lines, usually based on natural features like dune lines or the high water mark. But it can be difficult for local officials to stick to these rules, in the face of property owners who plead to protect their homes or who threaten to sue if development limits thwart their plans to live on the coast. —CORNELIA DEAN

ECONOMY

The effect that any single hurricane has on the broad United States economy is minor. Even Katrina, which sent gas prices soaring, has done little to alter the national economy's course. Outside the Gulf Coast, business and households have continued spending money at roughly the same rate as they were before.

But if major storms hit the Atlantic and gulf coasts with some frequency, the economic equation changes. Suddenly, an infrastructure that was built with one reality in mind is facing a different one. Uncertainty will increase; efficiency will suffer. "We're going to have to make some difficult choices," said Ross C. DeVol, director of regional economics at the Milken Institute. "You can't build everything to withstand a category-five hurricane."

Katrina alone caused estimated damages of $200 billion, and some conservative House Republicans have suggested reducing government spending by $500 billion over 10 years to pay for that one storm's overall costs. A series of large storms would increase the budget deficit and start a new debate over whether to raise taxes, cut programs, or both.

Whatever the outcome of that debate, the result would almost certainly steal resources that might be invested in infrastructure improvements around the country, or in exploring new technologies. That could cut productivity growth and slow the rise of living standards. —DAVID LEONHARDT

OIL

Consider: America's energy industry - both its oil supplies and refineries - is concentrated along the Gulf of Mexico. And it takes about 10 years to construct a refinery.

That means gas prices will almost always spike each time a hurricane heads for the gulf coast.

Already the gulf accounts for a third of America's oil and gas supplies, and that share is expected to grow. Few states have been willing to approve more oil drilling. Coastal states like Florida and California fear the oil industry would scare away tourism. And environmental opposition has so far stymied efforts to drill in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Rocky Mountains.

The concentration in refining capacity is even more marked. There are 50 refineries in coastal states, and the refining capacity of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi is almost equal to that of the rest of the country. No new refineries have been built for nearly 30 years. Only one is being built, in Arizona, and it won't come on line for a decade. To meet demand, refiners have instead expanded their existing plants, particularly along the gulf coast.

Curbing consumption and importing more oil would help. But for Lawrence J. Goldstein, president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation, the recent hurricanes make the industry's case for expanding beyond the gulf. "Our facilities have been forced into a natural disaster corridor," he said. —JAD MOUAWAD
Addendum: a NYTimes story on the equivocal state of Gulf region refineries is to be found here: Gulf refineries assess damage.

FEMA

Bill Brown, a chief of one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's search and rescue teams, had just come home to Indianapolis following Hurricanes Katrina and Ophelia, when the call came: Hurricane Rita was bearing down on Texas. "Not again," he recalls thinking.

There has never been a summer like this for him or FEMA. And this could be just the beginning of decades of hurricane frenzy. That cannot be comforting to FEMA, whose much criticized response to Katrina has been attributed not only to poor leadership and insufficient planning, but also the agency's limited capacity to field a relief effort across the 90,000-square-mile region damaged by the storm.

FEMA's critics say it must develop the expertise to deliver assistance to state and local governments in an emergency, before they have been able to assess their own needs. The agency will have to focus on working closely with National Guard troops trained and equipped to deal with the chaotic aftermath of hurricanes. Critically, the agency needs people at the top experienced in disaster management, not political appointees.

Finally, FEMA will need a lot more money, said Butch Kinerney, an agency spokesman, if it is to have the muscle and personnel to respond effectively to one major hurricane after another. "There is no question these storms are taxing the system," he said. —ERIC LIPTON

EVACUATION

Images of thousands of poor people stranded at the Superdome in New Orleans, and of miles of traffic jams on the highways out of Houston, have highlighted the challenge of evacuating densely populated areas on short notice.

Existing models underestimate the difficulty of evacuations, said Jerome M. Hauer, New York City's director of emergency management from 1996 to 2000. "I would suggest to any mayor or governor now," he said, "that we need to leave more time in particular for evacuating hospitals and nursing homes. At the other end, we have to look at how to deal with the massive sheltering demands."

One problem is that no one has planned for huge evacuations, said Mary C. Comerio, an architecture professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "There really are not plans in place to empty a region of half a million people, much less several million people," she said.

Then there is the problem of persuading people to leave, said Dennis S. Mileti, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The poor and minorities often distrust government officials, he said, but may listen to local representatives of the American Red Cross. And evacuation warnings need to be everywhere - on local and national media outlets. "You need to repeat the information many, many, many, many times," he said. —SEWELL CHAN

HOUSING

It is possible to build a hurricane-proof house. But perhaps the best of the lot - a dome-shaped creation made with tons of poured concrete and anchored with steel pilings - looks like something from a bad sci-fi movie.

They are a hard sell, said David B. South, an engineer who designed the Dome Home 30 years ago and now teaches people to build them from his Monolithic Dome Institute in Italy, Tex.

But experts say homes don't have to look odd to survive a hurricane. "Any house can be fortified," said Wendy Rose, of the Institute for Business and Home Safety, an organization sponsored by the insurance industry, based in Tampa, Fla.

Engineers say the $23 billion in losses from four hurricanes in Florida last year would have been greater had the state not adopted some of the strictest building codes in the country, ones far more stringent than those in the other Gulf Coast states. But most of Florida's homes were built under lower standards and have yet to be updated.

Insurers offer discounts to those who modify their homes. "We ask people to take one step at a time," said Harvey G. Ryland, chief executive of the home safety institute. "Frequently, one of the single most important things you can do is buy a reinforced garage door. A blown-in garage door allows in a large volume of wind that can take a roof off." —JOSEPH B. TREASTER

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