So, Fewer Hurricane Strikes are Bad, Too?

October 8th, 2014 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.

Twenty-two years ago Hurricane Andrew devastated extreme south Florida, even leading to the relocation of the National Hurricane Center away from the coast.

Twenty-two years ago Hurricane Andrew devastated extreme south Florida, even leading to the relocation of the National Hurricane Center away from the coast.

The Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow has written that the record long hurricane drought is leading to a sense of complacency in a growing south Florida population. New building in hurricane-prone areas is at greater risk as unsuspecting residents are lulled into a false sense of security.

But I would argue that, unless 9 year olds are now building on the beach and insurers have decided that hurricanes are no longer a threat, Floridians haven’t forgotten. How can anyone forget 2004 and 2005, with 7 hurricanes hitting Florida, unless they are only 9 years old?

And are 1 million new residents moving to Florida since then really that clueless about hurricanes? Have people moving to Kansas not heard of tornadoes?

It is rare that any given midwestern town is hit by a tornado. But everyone understands that the threat is there. Eventually, another one will hit. So, when there’s a tornado watch, people pay attention.

And when it’s hurricane season, people pay attention. Especially if they have never experienced one before.

When the next hurricane threatens Florida, people will be so inundated with media-hyped warning of just how bad it might get that, if anything, Floridians will be too responsive.

The bigger threat in my mind is over-warning when weak hurricanes hit. This is what happens with tornado warnings, and it also happens with hurricanes. Over-warning leads people to skip evacuations, or to not head to an interior room or a basement.

So, unlike Mr. Samenow, I’ll take the old-fashioned view that fewer hurricane strikes are a good thing…and that people aren’t stupid.

28 Responses to “So, Fewer Hurricane Strikes are Bad, Too?”

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  1. Lewis Guignard says:

    Dr. Spencer, I’ll have to disagree with you about “…people aren’t stupid.” I believe they have very short memories and do many stupid things. For instance, they build houses in flood plains, and on beaches and on barrier islands and downstream from earthen dams and the list goes on. And it is not just the average person, the media is complicit.

    When Katrina devastated New Orleans, Dick Cheney recommended not building it back – a reasonable response to the destruction with consideration towards the future. But the same people who cry about CAGW were the ones who said he was a mean/bad person for even thinking that.

    The list goes on, but I do appreciate your optimism.

    • Francisco says:

      I will have to side with Lewis, but would not generalize too much though. I do believe there are a lot of people that are smart, just misinformed… (bassman, are you around?).

      What I truly believe is that given our standards of living, the “it won’t happen to me” has become more prevalent and with reason. The safety standards are way over the top everywhere, so we tend to get more complacent and it is only natural. Plus we are bombarded with a hell lot of misinformation. It takes a little of unnatural drive to dig through the bull crap and use common sense.

      While building on a flood plain might not be the best idea, if there has not been one for 100 years, well, chances are there will not be one soon… unless you are unlucky, but it will not happen to me… the government must have made plans to avoid this.. etc.

      There is also the factor of population expansion in places where the poor are displaced to less desirable areas and well, if hit bay any natural disaster, poverty just compounds and increases the bad stuff.

      I, honestly, would like to take safety standards a few notches down and have people start thinking again (and if I say I support natural selection I would become a greenie!! cull population!! But I will not say that)

    • Jim Curtis says:

      Sounds like you’re saying there is a willfully stupid just as there are a willfully blind. I guess I have to partly agree, especially when you can have a cheap house on the sunny beach and have someone else rebuild if it goes. Am I too much a cynic?

      • Francisco says:

        Not a cynic, I’d say a realist. Nowadays people can actually afford to be stup… willfully stupid and get away with it most of the time. When not, cry and get bail outs, sue a company, sue the government, etc…

    • Fonzarelli says:

      The problems with Katrina were in large part due to faults in the levy system. The worst of which was the placement of pumps at the back end of the out flow canals. If the pumps are placed away from the lake (ponchartrain) then a breech in the canal walls will let the entire lake into the city (as was the case). Now the pumps are placed at the lake front where they should have always been. Should there be a breech (which shouldn’t happen due to lack of pressure from storm surge) only the water in the canal empties out. Locals down here are often quick to point out that Katrina was not a natural disaster rather it was a man made one… It is very true that more frequent storms make people better prepared for when the big one hits. It even helps with the planning by government agencies. One of the untold successes of the planning for Katrina was the contra flow evacuation plan. Back in 1998 when hurricane georges made a near miss of the city the evacuation went poorly. (my understanding of it was that it was the first mass evacuation in the city’s history) So they developed a plan to use ALL lanes of the interstate to evacuate. The first test of the contra flow plan came in september of 2004 with hurricane ivan. The plan failed. People who were stuck in traffic eventually gave up and went back home. So they tweaked the plan letting different sections of the city evacuate at differing times. The first test of the revised contra flow plan came with, you guess it, Katrina… And it passed the test with flying colors!!! Were it not for Ivan, the tragedy of Katrina would have been exponentially more so.

  2. I get your more general point about *some* people being stupid.

    But many of them you characterize as stupid are just taking a calculated risk.

    For example, homeowners insurance here in Huntsville won’t even cover sinkhole damage, because the region is riddled with caves. So, are we all “stupid” to be building here?

    There is no risk-free place to live that I know of. And if there is, there’s not enough room for all of us to live there.

    • Francisco says:

      May I respectfully disagree with part of your reply: “And if there is, there’s not enough room for all of us to live there.”.

      I think there is enough room where to live, it is just that people do not want to live there due to convenience (and sometimes pay the price one way or another).

      As far as calculated risks… I bet any money most people living in flood prone areas, etc… have not even researched the associated risks or done a calculated evaluation of those. (or assumed because development was allowed ‘something’ must have been done to avert disasters).

      I live in Calgary, we recently had floods, people were ‘astounded’ in spite of having purchased homes where the furnace and other appliances were actually hung from the basement’s ceiling by the builder. Taxpayers footed a hefty bill to bail them out, government blamed. And needless to say when they found out their homes were sacrificial to prevent damages in other areas.

      • PeterK says:

        That’s the problem with solid structures.

        One hundred, three hundred or even five hundred years ago, there probably were similar or even worse floods in Calgary but back then there was no Calgary. The Indians living in those there valleys we now call Calgary, when they saw the water rising, like what happened just recently, they picked their tents up and moved to higher ground. Once the floods subsided and the ground dried out, they picked up their tents and moved back into the valleys.

        Any by the way, no insurance claims had to be filed and government didn’t have to pick up the tab. Things were so much simpler back then!

      • numberer says:

        “…because development was allowed…”

        That is an important point. People are more and more deferential to authority because their freedom has been curtailed. They figure, illogically but understandably, that because half their money goes to the government at least the government is buying the best expertise.

    • Fonzarelli says:

      Dr. S., we’re too busy drinking rum (and coke…) to “pay attention” !

  3. Aaron S says:

    Hmm death by tornado, huricane, or sinkhole… im going sinkhole bc it is so random. When I was in Knoxville during my masters sinkholes would open up and eat houses from time to time. They liked the faulted Knox Group dolostone bc it was prone to mechanical and chemical erosion. They take a long time to form but the surface overburden is not carbonate and resists erosion until it thins and collapses. You could get a gpr or even gravity survey and ID where they are. I should start my own insurance co. and run a survey to hedge my bets!

  4. Tracy M. Bovee says:

    Dr. Spencer … you raise reasonable points in your rebuttal to the Samenow article, and I certainly agree with your title. Fewer hurricane strikes is DEFINITELY a good thing!

    However, as a lifelong resident of Florida and observer of how things happen here, I have to admit that there is something to the point raised that extended lulls between storms do tend to dull reaction down here. This does not mean we don’t watch the tropics with interest every season; far from it! However, the longer you go where that interest doesn’t manifest, the higher the likelihood that it will catch some by … well, for lack of a better term, surprise. It shouldn’t, not to smart and aware people, ones who’ve been here any length of time especially, but even so it still happens.

    Post-Andrew, I don’t think there’s ANY relaxation in building codes. If anything, Wilma put added emphasis on such things after all the damage it did to the very many homes built to post-Andrew codes. I see it in building that takes place down here today. This is a good thing, because it does show an *official* awareness of the issue that I watch swing into action in the preamble to every tropical season and every time a storm starts approaching our coasts.

    Those of us who have lived our lives down here know we’re due … in fact, overdue, given the general odds attending any given season. The ones who I think are most to be concerned about are the transplants since the wild seasons of ’04-’05. To them, it’s a curiosity they’ve seen on the tube but never experienced personally; and insofar as Samenow has a point, I think it’s valid concerning those people. Your run-of-the-mill native and/or very long-term Floridian knows better, even if he or she may get a bit lackadaisical …

    Good topic!

  5. JohnKl says:

    Hi Roy,

    WHY DON’T FLORIDIANS AND THOSE WHO LIVE IN HURRICANE COUNTRY USE STEEL CONSTRUCTION IN THEIR HOMES!!! It seems more than inevitable that every major hurricane cycle follows with news video of landscapes littered with the match-stick remains of previous suburban communities. When the residents rebuild their homes like robotic lemmings they always seem to rebuild with WOODEN FRAMES!!! I had an acquaintance from college who grew up in Guam and intelligent people lived in quonset houses or other types of homes with STEEL beams. Such homes would take a beating. The windows might break, extensive damage would still occur but the home survived! Steel homes have the added advantage of being inedible to termites.

    Personally, I’m curious as to how and why many residents of Florida and other hurricane prone communities continue to seek wood framed shelters?

    Have a great day!

    • Francisco says:

      Because they are cheaper… a LOT cheaper (and, arguably, nicer)

      • JohnKl says:

        Hi Francisco,

        How cheap is hurricane insurance in these communities? Or does everyone like taking large losses every few years with the added risk to life and limb? Just curious!

        Thanks for the reply and have a great day!

        • Francisco says:

          I don’t live there (thankfully) but from here and there, given the initial investment, I seriously doubt anybody would go for a house that is a LOT more expensive than the alternative.

          • JohnKl says:

            Hi Francisco,

            The word “LOT” means different things to different people. From what I’ve heard steal construction has come down in price a great deal.

            Thanks, and have a great day!

    • How about building a home like a naval warship? With some modifications to make it resemble a home, of course.

      I don’t even intend as tough as a battleship; aircraft carriers have gone through Category 5 storms and I doubt a tropical cyclone ever sank an aircraft carrier, even during WWII.

      Exterior walls, and floors/ceilings/roof of a house may consist of 1/2″ or 3/4″ plate steel double wall (about 4.5-8″ apart), with 1/4″ ribs every 24-32 inches apart, crisscrossed. The steel may be one designed for lower heat conductivity, perhaps by allowing with silicon for lower conductivity of heat and electricity (which largely go together in metals).

      The enclosed voids can be filled with fiberglass for thermal insulation, by slowing convection of the air in the voids. Or a less thermally conductive gas, such as CO2, propane, R-12, sulfur hexafluoride, krypton, xenon, or a vacuum. (Please let’s not allow mandates for only vacuum or one or two gases. Nor for reduced pressure of a gas in the voids, because that mostly does not reduce heat conductivity of a gas until vacuum conditions are approached.)

      Obviously, interior floors/ceilings have much less need for thermal insulation, except for when usually only part of the house is to be targeted for climate control. I think fiberglass is sufficient to stuff voids between floors and ceilings.

      I expect such a house to have no higher, and probably lower, climate control energy expenditure than a modern house made of wood. If not, then room walls facing the outside of the house (which can be made of 1/2″ plywood or 5/8″ “sheetrock/drywall”) can be spaced about 2-3″ inside of the outer wall of the house, and the space in-between can be filled with mainly fiberglass, and for a distant 2nd-place with studs (“2-by-4” pieces of lumber, or similar sheet metal items used to support sheetrock/drywall.)

      So, such a house can have its “framing and planking” having at most minor damage from the winds of any storm, and the worst landfalling waves of any storm landfalling USA so far.

      Anchoring of such a house needs some more engineering. Also, there needs to be consideration for water getting high if that happened in the past 1,000 years where such a house gets built. A more-flood-resistant house may need its main systems items (house heater, water heater, central AC evaporator and condenser units, all relevant fans and motors, the main and any other electrical breaker boxes, all utility meters and interfaces, etc.) located in an attic rather than a basement.

      I see cost of building such a house and prettying-up such a house as only a little more than making such a house structurally from wood.

  6. Russian Oligarchs are building and buying in droves on the southeastern coast of Florida and they’re clueless about hurricanes. That’s a good thing. I hope a Cat 5 comes along and smashes their cheesy palaces, with them in it, to smithereens. I sure as hell hope the heavily federally subsidized national flood insurance program doesn’t apply to these greedy bastards. Wouldn’t that be ironic — our taxpayer dollars going to subsidize the gaudy lavish lifestyles of these Russian crooks?

  7. MikeN says:

    Insurance gets subsidized by the federal government, so people are not really carrying the extra risk of living there.

  8. dave says:

    House insurance is not subsidised in England. People very definitely consider the risk of flood when buying a house – now.

    The trouble in England is that many new houses have been built on flood plains and the development itself has increased the risk of a flood.

    The locus of the building is down to government policy. You can’t blame the house-buyers of twenty years ago for not being trained hydraulic engineers.

  9. Nabil Swedan says:

    Hello Roy,

    I heard that hurricanes are depressed in a typical El Nino year. Is this correct? If so do we know the reason? Thanks.

    • Fonzarelli says:

      Nabil, the weather channel explains it as wind shear making it difficult for hurricanes to form. Also, in an El Niño year hurricanes are more likely to be blown out to sea instead of hitting the (U.S.) mainland…

      • dave says:

        “…an El Nino year…”

        Shaped to be one; pushed those UAH numbers up a bit. But it is fizzling out. Australian Bureau of Meteorology on October 7 announced it was still a case of “Enso NEUTRAL” and estimated the chances of the criteria being met over the next few months at 50%. In any case, it is expected to be a weak one.

  10. “fewer hurricane strikes are a good thing…and people aren’t stupid.”
    We like Florida in spite of the hurricanes.

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