Sunday, February 17, 2019

From Storm Surge to Fire Storm

The other day, I was looking at an aerial photo of an entire neighborhood razed to the ground. My wife looked over my shoulder and asked if the picture was from the fires in California and I told her no, this was Mexico Beach, Florida, where Hurricane Michael came ashore last October.
It seems the disasters are occurring so frequently that it’s hard to tell the aftermath of one from another at first glance.
Part of allure of living on the coastline or in forested areas such as the foothills and mountains outside of major cities is the feeling that you are closer to nature and the wilderness. Being closer to nature can have a price though, especially when nature can exact that price quickly and without mercy.
Just ask the people of Mexico Beach, Florida or Paradise, California.
Hurricanes and forest fires have always been a fact of life on the Gulf of Mexico or the canyons and hills along the California coast. However, it is not your imagination if you think that the frequency and ferocity of these events are increasing. They are.
The number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes occurring in the North Atlantic has gone from 2 per decade in the 1900s to over 20 per decade in the 2000s. Climate scientists say that the evidence indicates that warming oceans are contributing to stronger hurricanes.
2005’s Hurricane Katrina rapidly grew to a Category 5 once it entered the Gulf of Mexico and this year’s Michael was almost a Cat 5 before it came ashore in the Florida Panhandle.
What will happen to Mexico Beach, Florida is anyone’s guess at this point. It was not a rich community to start with.
Last year’s Cat 4 Hurricane Harvey destroyed a major portion of Port Aransas, Texas and 18 months later, they are still figuring out how to rebuild.  The local government admits it may never be the same. Recovery won’t be easy.
Moving from storm surge to fire storms, the frequency and duration of western US wildfires has increased substantially since in the 1980s. 
Average annual temperatures in southern California have gone up by about 2.4 degrees F over the last 60 years alone. Like the rest of the southwest, the state is getting drier. Winter rains that end the fire season in early autumn are now not coming at all or coming so late that the fire “season” is pretty much year round. Currently, 75% of California is routinely in severe to extreme drought.
Combine this with people moving further into fire-prone regions and horrific disasters are now inevitable. This year’s fires spared no one, neither the very rich in the canyons above LA nor the middle class and retirees in towns like Paradise.
Can they rebuild?
The experience of Fort McMurray, Alberta is telling. 98% of it was destroyed by a wildfire that rapidly swept through the town in 2016, forcing the evacuation of 88,000 residents. As of last spring, only 20% of destroyed homes had been rebuilt.
Recovery won’t be easy.
California estimates that the frequency of extreme wildfires could increase 50% by the end of the century if temperatures continue to increase. The area burned will increase by 77%.
To be more resilient to such disasters means building to standards which would make homes and businesses more sound in the face of fire or flood, which means greater expense. Getting homeowners insurance for reconstruction will probably depend on how resilient new structures will be.
One of the only homes right on the water in Mexico Beach to survive Hurricane Michael was constructed by wealthy people would could afford such sturdy home. Similarly, I speculate that building a home that can survive a wind-driven wildfire will only be affordable by the wealthy.
California firefighters are right now battling to save homes at a cost of almost $700 million so far this year. You can’t even fight a hurricane, let alone one with sustained winds that rival an F-3 tornado.
Given the trends and recent experience, perhaps the better question is whether Mexico Beach or Paradise should be rebuilt at all. 
Maybe it’s time to rethink the allure of living close to nature’s wildlands and waters.

Published in the Westborough News, December, 2018

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