We as a country simply do not prepare well enough in advance for natural catastrophes. Fundamental to the current system is the vain belief that 'it won't happen here'. This denial, which is pervasive from homeowners to officeholders, has provided us all with the false comfort that, while we would like to prepare for the possibility of catastrophe, the likelihood of an event actually happening 'here' is so remote that we should spend our time and resources on other more immediate and pressing problems.
This denial undermines efforts to prepare in advance of catastrophe, which, naturally, leads to the other sweeping shortcoming, which is that the current system is a patchwork of after-the-fact responses with all of the inefficiencies that are inherent in a system dominated by crisis and confusion.
The simple fact is that natural catastrophes can and do occur virtually everywhere in this country. The urgent threat posed by natural catastrophe in America cannot be denied:
• The majority — in fact 57 per cent — of the American public lives in areas prone to catastrophes like major hurricanes, earthquakes or other natural disasters, and more and more families move into those areas every day.
• Seven of the ten most costly hurricanes in US history occurred in the last five years.
• Some of the most valuable real estate in this country is squarely in the path of a natural catastrophe — on the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts and on top of the New Madrid fault in the greater Mississippi Valley.
Natural catastrophe preparedness, prevention and recovery are not a challenge limited only to Florida and the Gulf Coast, nor to the earthquake zone of northern California:
• In the past 100 years, 11 hurricanes have made direct hits on New England; 6 have made direct hits on Long Island. The most famous of those hurricanes hit in 1938 and is known as the Long Island Express. It hit Long Island and ripped up into New England. Seven hundred people were killed; 63,000 were left homeless. Had it made landfall a mere 20 miles west, New York City would have been inundated.
• Although the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 is the best-known earthquake in the US, in fact, the New Madrid series of earthquakes in the early 1800s covered a far greater area with a force every bit as strong as San Francisco's earthquake. The New Madrid earthquakes emanated from New Madrid, Missouri and struck over a three-month period in 1811 and 1812. They changed the course of the Mississippi River, shook the ground from Mississippi to Michigan and from Pennsylvania to Nebraska. Structures were damaged throughout the Mississippi Valley, landslides occurred from Memphis to St Louis. These earthquakes are largely unknown today because they struck at a time when the earthquake zone was largely wilderness. What was essentially the bulk of the Louisiana Purchase now encompasses major population centers across the Midwest and Midsouth.
Climatologists are united in their observation that surface water temperatures are up. There is some evidence that we are in a weather cycle that is likely to last for many years, possibly several decades, and will include hurricanes with greater force and frequency than even those we have experienced in recent years. An emerging view, however, is that the shifts toward more powerful and destructive hurricanes are a result of climate change, and will continue on and further intensify in the future. Whichever is the case, the US very likely faces an extended period of very severe hurricanes.
Seismologists are similarly united in their observation that we are overdue for a major earthquake along many of the fault lines that run along our Pacific Coast or, as in the case of the New Madrid Fault, transect the very heartland of this nation.
There should be no comfort in the notion that the great earthquakes and hurricanes that previously ravaged our country seem to have occurred in such a vastly different age and time that they are not likely to repeat. Is our modern society so sophisticated and our cutting-edge technology so advanced that Mother Nature will choose to strike in some remote and distant land? To wager our families' futures on that sort of conceit is a fool's bet.
Simply put, catastrophe can happen here, it has happened here and there is no doubt that it will happen again. It is a question not of 'if' a mega-catastrophe will strike, but 'when' it will strike and 'how hard' it will strike. The costs of any of the best-known natural catastrophes repeating themselves would be enormous:
• Disaster experts project that a replay of the San Francisco earthquake — same force at the same location - could result in more than US$400 billion in replacement and rebuilding costs.
• Were we to experience a replay of the 1938 Long Island Express hurricane, the damages could exceed US$100 billion. If that hurricane made landfall smack in the middle of Manhattan, the damages would be even more staggering.
The effect of such tremendous losses would be felt through our entire national economy.
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