Fires, Floods, and Disaster: Who’s to Blame?

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A man makes an effort to move forward against heavy wind conditions as Hurricane Irma brings wind and rain to downtown Miami, Florida.

Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A man makes an effort to move forward against heavy wind conditions as Hurricane Irma brings wind and rain to downtown Miami, Florida.

It seems like the End of Times.

The super-charged, landscape-leveling hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the ferocious fire season currently scorching tens of thousands of acres in the North American West, makes it feel as if the apocalypse is near.

It’s not. Nor are these varied disasters “natural,” as they have been much and loudly billed. Yes, the earth jolted, cyclonic energy exploded, and infernos blew up, but their aftershocks and aftermaths reveal these to have been human disasters. The direct consequences of how we have built cities that ignore the natural systems they overlay has imperiled communities’ continued existence.

Consider recent events in Miami, Houston, and Los Angeles – the three massive, sprawled metropolises that anchor the southern tier of the United States. Miami, the self-described Magic City due to its rapid population growth, did not seem so magical after Irma smashed into it. Houston, the Bayou City, returned to its marshy roots when Harvey dumped upward of 50 inches of rain on the nation’s fourth largest city. In drought-wracked Los Angeles, the La Tuna fire in the Verdugo Mountains blackened the skies over the City of Angels, the largest in-town blaze since 1961.

Neither flood nor fire cares whether we are in its destructive path. We should. Yet we pay scant attention to the environmental ramifications of building in leveed floodplains, bulldozed dunes, or drained wetlands. We ignore the implications of constructing subdivisions stacked deep into the Southern California fire zones, the many canyons, foothill, and ridges that are LA’s visual backdrop.

The rationales are many. We want to live where we want to live. Housing developers happily comply, throwing up housing to meet our putative needs, however unsustainable those paired decisions might be. Politicians, city and county planning offices, and zoning commissions are eager to incentivize any such development because for them growth for growth sake is the default – and very political – calculation.

What we leave out of these intersecting equations are the escalating costs – environmental, human, and fiscal – that hurricanes and firestorms exact. The two most expensive hurricanes to crash into the mainland U.S. – Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012 – did more than $65 billion worth of physical damage. Harvey and Irma are estimated to rival their staggering impact.

Staggering, too, is the assumption that taxpayers have – and will – shoulder most of the ballooning costs associated with the difficult tasks of clean up, recovery, and reconstruction. The same has been true for those infernos that have burned through California’s pine, oak, and chaparral. None of these blazes, such as the Station Fire in 2009 and the Blue Cut in 2016, has been as expensive as those monstrous hurricanes. The damages from the recent La Tuna Fire, however intense locally, will not amount to more than several million dollars. But even that relatively small tab will hurt taxpayers.

In none of these cases, moreover, have these generous souls been asked if it makes sense to rebuild in perilous places so prone to disaster. Why restore what’s been swept away, flooded, or incinerated when the odds of another hurricane or conflagration is so high?

That query is also crucial, given the degree to which these human disasters are fueled by anthropogenic climate change. Harvey fed off the bathwater-hot Gulf of Mexico and Irma churned across a steamy south Atlantic, each sucking up increased energy resulting from a warming planet that they then unleashed with such devastating results.

Planetary overheating is also driving the current infernos roaring through Montana, British Columbia, Oregon, and Southern California. Add to this unsettling situation the fact that the fire season is lengthening – so much so, that it is now essentially 12 months long in the Southland. Worse, fires appear to be intensifying, as the landscape dries out, a process that is expected to accelerate over the 21st century. It is no surprise that like the land itself, local, state, and federal firefighting budgets are getting incinerated.

When will we account for these dire ramifications in our public deliberations and community decision-making? If the answer is never, or not now – which is the same thing as never. If the response of public officials, developers, and homebuyers is to delay, deflect, or deny. If the goal, stated or otherwise, is to get things back to “normal” as quickly as possible – as the mayors of Miami, Los Angeles, and Houston have urged their residents to do – then we will be recreating the conditions that generated these disasters.

We have no excuse. The full responsibility is ours. For nothing about these flooded or fiery outcomes is natural.

5 thoughts on “Fires, Floods, and Disaster: Who’s to Blame?

  1. Granted Houston is built on a flat coastal plain, as are most of the other large cities built near large seas or oceans. It’s a little late to think about not rebuilding what was damaged. The AGW argument does not hold water as there has been only one major storm in the last ten or twelve years. The AGW argument holds that things would get worse every year; therefore there should be more terrible hurricanes every year. Also, Houston’s major damage was not from the hurricane but from an amount of rainfall never seen before in the continental US.
    In some cases rebuilding should absolutely be prohibited. The area of New Orleans, I think it was the 9th ward, which is so far below sea level should have been turned into a nature preserve, but our politicians don’t have the strength to do something like that.

  2. Fires, Floods and Disasters, who are to ne blamed? Unregulated human.intervention of.nature and natural phenomenon are to.be blamed. It has disrupted, damaged balance.and.jeopardized ecosystem functions.and delivery of services.

  3. Interesting article, Char! I don’t know who is to blame. But to rebuild in the same areas that were devastated, is, I think, what will happen next. The 9th Ward in New Orleans is not entirely habitable now. It seems we humans do not learn from our mistakes. Or if we do, our insurance will cover a rebuild but not a remove and rebuild in another area. So many people, governments, and agencies are involved in this process. it is up to each one of us to do what is right and live where it makes sense.

  4. Thank you for the succinct and lucid summary on the causes of tbese horrendous disasters, Char.

    There is one point I would like to amend. People expressing desire to buy property in harm’s way are not entirely at fault. Greedy developers that can purchase the land for cheap, build homes and sell the city lights view or ocean front homes for huge profits are as much, perhaps more so, at fault.

    In addition lax building codes do not demand the construction of homes that are resilient to these disasters. Developers and real estate professionals oppose stricter standards, which are technically possible, because it is all about profits.

    Indeed, it is highly unlikely the learning process will accelerate after our western fires and eastern hurricanes. Everyone can only see the incredible opportunity to make lots of money. After all, short term profit is more important than long term gain.

    Insurance companies are in a good position to push for change by using fire and flood insurance policies as leverage. They might in fact act because their current liabilities are not sustainable.

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