Crystal Ball: What Natural Disasters Loom…and How Can We Mitigate Them?

Winter 2009

A few weeks before election day, coastal engineering expert Robert A. Dalrymple, the Willard and Lillian Hackerman Professor of Civil Engineering, was named to Wired magazine’s “2008 Smart List: 15 People the Next President Should Listen To.” Dalrymple, Wired advised, could educate the president on what our country can do to prepare for extreme weather in the coming years.

“There are disasters coming. Sea levels are rising, shorelines are eroding, and we keep moving to the coast. Half of our population now lives within 50 miles of the coast and this trend is growing worldwide.

“Our perception of risk has been woefully inadequate. New Orleans’ hurricane protection system was designed for a 100-year flood, yet six of the 10 most destructive storms to hit the U.S. since 1900 have taken place in the past four years. As the Gulf of Mexico gets hotter, the potential for hurricanes increases. There’s a 26 percent likelihood that another 100-year storm will hit New Orleans in the next 30 years.

“If we’re going to avert disaster, we need better warning systems, ways to escape, and people need to understand the risks we’re facing. My research in wave modeling is relevant to the development of tsunami warning systems. These systems are being implemented around the world, but they’ll need to be maintained.

“In the case of hurricanes, we’re pretty good at forecasting storms, but we’re not as good at knowing precisely where and how big they’ll be when they make landfall. If we can’t do that, we’ll repeat what happened during Hurricane Ike [in September 2008]. During Ike, people in Galveston didn’t pay attention to the evacuation order because they’d evacuated for Hurricane Rita [in 2007] and that turned out to be a false alarm. So people didn’t listen and that accounts for many of the fatalities.

“When a disaster does hit, people need a way to escape, which means we need to improve evacuation planning. During Hurricane Rita, a car ride that usually takes 90 minutes took 40 hours. People ran out of gas, their cars broke down, and it was a terribly frustrating experience. Now, most major cities are taking this seriously and I think evacuation planning is improving.

“There are trillions of dollars invested in insured and uninsured infrastructure along our coastline and all of it is at risk. Tightening building standards there, making structures more resilient, is a fix that could be done relatively quickly and could have a big impact. After Hurricane Andrew, Florida building codes were changed and in subsequent storms, a much greater number of buildings—those constructed under the new codes—survived.

“Bigger changes will require state and federal government support. States could stop insuring properties that are no longer covered by private insurers; FEMA could enact stricter coastal zoning. The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for most of the coastal engineering in the United States. I think they understand the risks we face, but the way Congress funds them prohibits them from doing what’s needed. Theyreceive funding in installments, which means that from year to year, they don’t know what they’ll receive and can’t initiate systems that require ongoing support.

“We haven’t done very well at learning from our mistakes. Until we’re able to look at, and act on, what we learned during recent disasters, things aren’t going to change.”