Hurricane Maria aftermath Hector Retamal/Getty Images

Hurricanes’ Unnatural Toll

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria were extraordinarily powerful storms, but the number of lives lost and the amount of damage caused were the result of human decisions. Two elements of human psychology sustain our irrational neglect of preventive measures, even as climate scientists warn that the risk of such storms will only continue to grow.

PRINCETON – The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, which officially began on June 1 and will end on November 30, is likely to be the most expensive on record. Hurricanes have killed close to 300 people in the region this season, and damage estimates so far stand at $224 billion. On a scale that measures the accumulated cyclonic energy of hurricanes, this season is the first to have recorded three storms each rated above 40. Fortunately, one of those three, Hurricane Jose, remained mostly at sea, where it did little harm; but Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused widespread destruction in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico. Irma had an accumulated cyclonic energy of 66.6, the third-highest ever recorded.

Hurricane Harvey had less energy but brought record-breaking rain and flooding to Houston and other parts of Texas and Louisiana. Harvey may be the most expensive storm in US history, even exceeding the cost of rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Employment figures show that the United States lost 33,000 jobs in September, which analysts attribute to the hurricanes. Then, just as the season seemed to be winding down, Hurricane Nate caused at least 24 deaths in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras, before heading for the US.

Harvey, Irma, and Maria were extraordinarily powerful storms. But the number of lives lost and the amount of damage caused reflect human decisions. Houston’s notorious laissez-faire approach to zoning allowed houses to be built on flood plains. Between 1996 and 2010, the Houston Chronicle has reported the region lost 54,000 acres of wetlands, where some of the rainfall could have been absorbed. Storm water drainage capacity failed to keep pace with the expanding paved areas. In a city with more far-sighted planning controls, there would have been fewer lives lost and less damage.

Planning ahead can save vast sums. According to an independent study for the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, a dollar spent on disaster mitigation saves taxpayers $3.65, on average, and saves society an additional $4.

The cost-benefit ratio is even higher in developing countries. In Bangladesh, where millions of people live on fertile but flood-prone river deltas, the non-profit organization Islamic Relief found that by raising the land on which people lived, it could provide long-term protection from floods at a cost of £400 ($525) per family. Otherwise, the family was likely to lose everything in a major flood, and would then need £440 in emergency aid in a single month. Bangladesh has also saved many lives by building storm shelters and providing advance warnings of coming storms.

Despite the clear and mounting evidence of the cost-effectiveness of timely action to mitigate the damage storms cause, the world spends far more on post-disaster aid and reconstruction than it does on mitigation, and this is especially true in poor countries. That’s understandable, because even in good times, poor countries have little to spare.

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But it should be easier to change the balance of spending from humanitarian aid organizations. United Nations and World Bank reports indicate that from 2000 to 2008, rich-country governments devoted 20% of all aid spending to disaster relief work, but less than 1% to disaster prevention.

Two elements of human psychology contribute to our irrational neglect of preventive measures. We are not good at giving the appropriate weight to low-risk events, however catastrophic they may be, and we are more concerned about saving identifiable people than about saving lives when we don’t know whose will be saved.

The first failing is demonstrated by the need for legislation to ensure that people in cars buckle their seatbelts, even though any rational cost-benefit calculation would indicate that doing so is the sensible choice. The second is reflected in our willingness to spend almost unlimited sums to rescue trapped miners, and our reluctance to pay for higher safety standards that would save more lives at lower cost. We empathize with the trapped miners, but we cannot identify with the people whose lives will be saved by stricter safety measures. Yet every “statistical life” saved will turn out to be the life of an identifiable person.

Finally, what of the storms themselves? We think of hurricanes as natural and irresistible events, so all we can do is reduce the loss of life and the damage they cause. Yet climate scientists have been warning us for decades now that the continued emission of greenhouse gases is causing our planet to become warmer. Although it is impossible to attribute any particular storm to climate change, we know that when tropical storms form over warmer water, they strengthen and become more intense. Climate scientists have therefore predicted more frequent and more damaging hurricanes.

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season adds to the mounting evidence in support of that prediction. The cost of repairing the damage must be taken into account in the cost-benefit discussion of switching to clean sources of energy and reducing methane emissions from the meat industry. The question is not whether we can afford to switch to clean energy and more environmentally friendly foods, but whether we can afford to continue living with a warming planet and all its consequences.