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Sunday, June 16, 2024

America’s Fingers-Crossed Strategy for Hurricane Season

According to forecasts from a range of sources, the hurricane season that begins today could be the direst in recorded history. Abnormally warm waters in the Atlantic Ocean, coupled with the persistently strong winds formed by an emerging La Niña weather front, create dangerous conditions that could lead to as many as 25 named storms in the North Atlantic, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Amid the continuing threat of climate change, Americans can easily become inured to alarming projections year after year. Both the potential size of this year’s hurricanes and their expected frequency threaten to overwhelm society’s ability to help those in danger and make whole anyone who suffers losses.

America’s disaster-preparedness system doesn’t consist only of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state and local first-response agencies; it also involves logistics supply chains, private and public insurers, and the regulators who shape the built environment. But none of these entities has the muscle or the resources to prepare for disasters that keep on coming—one after another after another.

People are not particularly attentive to risks that get a little bit worse every year, even when they add up, over the course of decades or generations, to a massive problem. And even when insurers jack up rates or drop coverage for people at elevated risk from climate-related disasters, public officials—including those, as I have previously noted, who claim to acknowledge the danger of a warming planet—do their best to dampen the signals that the market is trying to send.

All of which means that, especially if you live in a vulnerable area, the question isn’t whether society is ready for what this year’s weather may hold. It’s whether you are.

[Anya Groner: When the place you live becomes unlivable ]

In an unusually active season, the capacity for governments to respond to every crisis in a timely fashion is likely to be overstretched. In 2017, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria hit in a period of about three weeks and set grim milestones: Harvey was the first Category-3-or-higher storm in a dozen years to make landfall in the United States; Irma mustered some of the strongest winds on record in the Atlantic; Maria devastated Puerto Rico and caused a death toll there that is still uncertain but likely exceeds 2,000. According to a subsequent U.S. government report, the magnitude and frequency of the season’s storms—coupled with wildfires ravaging California around the same time—produced significant staffing shortages and supply-chain problems that delayed recovery efforts.

When faced with problems that require tough choices and concerted action, we sometimes look to technology to save us instead. Technological improvements—both in monitoring the natural world and in communicating real-time information to the public through early alerts—should at least buy people time to prepare for or, better yet, get out of the way of hurricanes and other disasters.

Yet even this minimalist strategy doesn’t work. People don’t listen, and they distrust their government. And the data on Americans’ level of preparedness are not inspiring; only 51 percent of Americans believe that they are ready for a disaster, while the latest government data suggest that fewer people signed up for alerts last year than the year before. One of the major factors that is most likely to compel citizens to get ready is whether they or a family member has been harmed by a weather-related disaster. Still, even a close brush with nature can also breed complacency; people who got lucky and managed to muddle through one storm might not ready themselves enough for the next.

Yet our ability to muddle along as a society may be shrinking as the costs of climate-related disasters mount—and as our awareness grows of the sheer variety of weird and destructive weather that Americans face. In late May, a series of what are known as severe-convective storms led to hail and tornadoes and caused billions of dollars in damage in the Gulf Coast states. In the insurance industry, such events have a clever name—“kitty cats,” because they fall short of natural catastrophes, or “nat cats”—that downplays their significance. Many of them come as a surprise, intensify rapidly, and give the public little time to respond.  

All weather forecasts are educated guesses, of course, including those involving the 2024 hurricane system. Still, this season’s predictions are eerily consistent for those monitoring in government, weather companies, and academic institutions, and the least we can do is use the best information we have. The nature of this weather is likely to deprive communities of time to prepare; higher temperatures mean storms get stronger faster. “Big ones are fast,” Ken Graham, the director of the National Weather Service, said on a press call. He added that storms “don’t care about our timelines. Preparedness is absolutely everything.”

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