Societal Impacts

When they strike the U.S. coast, hurricanes cost lives and dollars and disrupt communities. Category 3, 4, and 5 storms—intense hurricanes—are responsible for more than 80% of hurricane-related damages. Loss of life, however, occurs from storms of various intensities. Due largely to better warning systems, hurricane-related loss of life has decreased dramatically in the twentieth century (NRC 1989). Yet, in spite of reduced hurricane-related casualties "-a large death toll in a U.S. hurricane is still possible. The decreased death totals in recent years may be as much a result of lack of major hurricanes striking the most vulnerable areas as they are of any fail-proof forecasting, warning, and observing systems" (Hebert et al., 1993, p. 14).

While loss of life has decreased, the economic and social costs of hurricanes are large and rising. A rough calculation shows that annual losses to hurricanes have been in the billions of dollars. In the United States alone, after adjusting for inflation, tropical cyclones were responsible for an annual average of $1.6 billion for the period 1950 to 1989, $2.2 billion over 1950 to 1995, and $6.2 billion over 1989 to 1995 (Hebert et al., 1996). For a comparison, China suffered an average $1.3 billion (unadjusted) in damages related to typhoons over the period 1986 to 1994 (World Meteorological Organization, various years). Significant tropical cyclone damages are also experienced by other countries including those in East Asia (including Japan, China, and Korea) and Southeast Asia, those along the Indian Ocean (including Australia, Madagascar, and the southeast African coast), islands of the Caribbean, and in Central America (including Mexico). While a full accounting of global damages has yet to be documented and made accessible, it is surely in the tens of billions of dollars annually. Other estimates range to $15 billion annually (e.g., Southern, 1992).

Experts have estimated that tropical cyclones result in approximately 12,000 to 23,000 deaths worldwide (Southern, 1992; Smith, 1992; Bryant, 1991). Tropical cyclones have been responsible for a number of the largest losses of life due to a natural disaster. For instance, in April 1991, a cyclone made landfall in Bangladesh resulting in the loss of more than 140,000 lives and disrupting more than 10 million people (and leading to $2 billion in damages; Southern, 1992). A similar storm resulted in the loss of more than 250,000 lives November 1970. China, India, Thailand, and the Philippines have also seen loss of life in the thousands in recent years.

While the hurricane threat to the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts has been widely recognized, it has only been in recent years, following hurricane Andrew, that many

Figure 3 Inflation adjusted hurricane damages of the 20th century. (Pielke and Landsea, 1997).

Annual Hurricane Damage: 1925-1995

Normalized to 1995 values millions 1995$

millions 1995$

Figure 4 Hurricane damages adjusted for inflation, wealth, and population 1925 to 1995 (Pielke and Landsea, 1997).


Figure 4 Hurricane damages adjusted for inflation, wealth, and population 1925 to 1995 (Pielke and Landsea, 1997).

recent decades does not eliminate the possibility of large impacts, as shown by hurricane Andrew, which occurred during the quietest 4-year period of hurricane activity since 1950. The $30 billion hurricane Andrew was the costliest tropical cyclone ever (Landsea et al., 1996; Pielke and Pielke, 1997).

Tropical cyclones occur every year around the world. In this most basic sense, they are "normal" climatological events on planet Earth. But from a human perspective, even a weak tropical cyclone can be an "extreme" occurrence. The challenge of effectively reducing societal vulnerability to hurricanes is made more difficult by the relative infrequency with which storms affect particular communities. Consider that the last major hurricane to strike Dade County, Florida, prior to Andrew was in 1950! Thus, one important step any decision maker should take is to understand the risks and potential consequences of choices made in tropical cyclone-prone regions. Damaging losses associated with tropical cyclones can never be eliminated, but with close attention to those factors that increase our vulnerability—where we live, how we live, etc.—we can hope to live in greater harmony with one of nature's most powerful forces.

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