Most catastrophic events are just that—one more cat in a long line of cats, each with a dollar tag, a few dramatic photos, a couple of human interest stories in the media, and a trail of exhausted field adjusters. A select few leave a larger, perhaps indelible mark behind them. Hurricane Katrina is a good example. To this day, the city of New Orleans still shows scars from August 25, 2005, and the days that followed. New Orleans has never recovered all of the population lost to the evacuations both before and after Katrina hit. Before Katrina the city had a population of 485K. Today it is only 369K*.
What will the risk community be saying about Ian in another seventeen years? Will it fade in our memories as one more big blow in a long line or will it stand out as a turning point, the time when the reality of climate change-driven catastrophes made us rethink a long list of assumptions and ideas about weather-related risk?
In a recent issue of ITL, the always on point Paul Carroll said of Ian: “it should finally mark a turning point in how we prepare for such mammoth storms.” In fact, there is a fascinating counterpoint right now to the many views of destruction we have all seen in recent weeks. A few folks may have already passed that turning point.
Babcock Ranch is a relatively new planned community north of Ft. Myers. It sits square in the path of Ian as it came ashore, but damage there was minimal. An article from NPR tells us why:
… [Babcock Ranch] homes are built to withstand the worst that Mother Nature can throw at them without being flooded out or losing electricity, water or the internet…. The community is located 30 miles inland to avoid costal storm surges. Power lines to homes are all run underground, where they are shielded from high winds. Giant retaining ponds surround the development to protect houses from flooding. As a backup, streets are designed to absorb floodwaters and spare the houses.
This is a residential community, but all of the ideas we see here are equally applicable to commercial and industrial districts as well.
No exotic high tech is involved at Babcock Ranch, just as the new pumping systems and improved levees that have protected New Orleans successfully against recent hurricanes involve no new principles of design unknown before Katrina. The question, as Paul makes clear in ITL, is how seriously do we take the obviously growing risks presented by a whole array of heightened natural disasters?
Previous articles in this august journal have looked at the expanding risks involved with wildfires, tornado swarms, derecho winds, river flooding as well as hurricanes. When we were a pup in this business, catastrophes involved a lot of “M’s” (millions). Now we are using lots of “B’s”. The most recent estimates we have seen for the total costs, insured and uninsured, of Ian (Florida and the Carolinas) hover around $100B.
Additionally, Ian is another cat which points to the natural weather changes all around us. Ian intensified with a speed and ferocity seldom seen before because the extraordinarily warm bathwater in the Gulf supercharged it, much like the drought in the west has upped the ante for every wildfire in the western states. These weather-driven cats have been with us since we started making mud bricks and stacking them into walls around Sumer 6000 years ago**, but the cats are now a bigger and more ferocious breed***. Increasing risks require new thinking. Why should any of us settle for less than the kind of engineering we see at Babcock going forward?
Let’s give Paul the last words, since his sentiments are hard to improve on: “Maybe many people, both in Florida and around the world, will have a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ moment and think about how they can fortify their homes before they face a disaster related to climate change.”
*Trick trivia question with a twist: what presidential library was badly damaged by Katrina? Answer: the Jefferson Davis Library in Biloxi, Mississippi. Yes, that’s kind of cheating, but all’s fair in a trivia contest, right?
**Marco Island is just south of Naples, FL. The island has bluffs of 80 or so feet on the south end but slopes down to sea level to the north. Back around 500 CE the aboriginal Colusa people built a good sized settlement on the island. They built on top of the bluffs, as far above the Gulf waters as they could get.
***For example, Sydney just set an all-time record for rainfall in one year. A few years back, they were suffering through the “millennium drought,” one of the most severe in a country renowned for recurring dry spells. Weather today is setting highs and lows not seen since the last Inter-Glacial period some 116,000 years ago.
SIDEBAR: Weather hardening property, residential or commercial, is within your reach. For example, since buying our “new” headquarters, The Old Bradley Farm (built 1860) in Dark Hollow Run (90’ above flood stage on the Delaware River) 27 years ago, we have:
- Installed lightening rods
- Added French drains and retaining walls to divert flooding
- Put all utilities underground
- Installed a full house automatic generator
- Installed a new sump and pumping capability with backup
- Added a new, updated roof and skylight
- Put in new electric panels and wiring
- Installed outdoor safety lighting on automatic circuits
- Installed steel framed, insulated storm doors
Kind of obvious a risk guy lives here now. We practice what we preach.