Meteorologist and disaster risk expert Stephen Strader explains how overdevelopment can be dangerous in times of natural disasters.
Florida survived Hurricane Irma without the expected damage. But what about the next big disaster?
Strader calls it “hubris”—our propensity to build hotels, high rises, homes, and other buildings in places vulnerable the worst effects of storms and hurricanes. And he's probably right. Cities across the US—and around the world—are prone to destruction during disasters because of unchecked expansion. People didn't just pave paradise and put up a parking lot—we also paved over wetlands, prairies, barrier islands, and other places that can help us mitigate the worst disasters nature has in store. In short, we're in places that we're not supposed to be in.
While Florida was spared the worst of Hurricane Irma, we know that the devastation could have been much worse. Unfortunately, Strader tells Scientific American, it might take a huge disaster to make people look at unhindered development differently. However, there are also some things we can do to make do with the situation we've put ourselves in.
How will Miami's urban sprawl affect the city's disaster potential?
Strader warns that while Florida was able to dodge a Category 5 bullet, it is still vulnerable to storms and hurricanes. Due to overdevelopment and a growing population, natural disasters pose even more of a risk to cities like Miami, Houston, and Oklahoma City.
So what puts these cities at greater risk? Strader and his colleague Walker Ashley call it the “bull's-eye effect”. According to the bull's-eye effect, expanding cities mean more people, and this means that more people will be prone to the effects of a natural disaster. Florida, for example, has seen a lot of unfettered urban growth over the past decades. “We’ve seen high-rises built on barrier islands, which are the first to be affected by hurricanes,” Strader says. “We’ve seen developers take out marsh and swamp land and fill it in, and create areas of dry land to build homes and other structures. Strader reiterates that these structures shouldn't be in these locations, and their presence in those places increases disaster potential.
This also tells us that disasters aren't all about the strength or magnitude of a storm, hurricane, wildfire, or the like. What we do as a society to the environment and to our own urban sprawl also plays a role.
The damage Hurricane Andrew left behind in Dade County, Florida [Photo by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)]
According to Strader, there has also been an increase in coastal populations. “You can imagine if the worst hurricane on record went through, say, Miami Beach in 1900, it wouldn’t affect as many people,” Strader says. “Now there are 20 times more people in Miami Beach, and that’s going to make the impact much worse.”
Thus, what separates these coastal communities and an unmitigated disaster may just be a matter of time. And it seems that we're not really learning from the disasters we've survived. Strader says that after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, people just went right back and resumed building in areas prone to disasters.
So what can we do? Strader recommends protective measures—building disaster-resistant buildings, enacting better land use and zoning policies, and following building codes to the letter. Basically, we need to get a better handle on overdevelopment before it's too late.
Get weekly science updates in your inbox!