Examining Natural Disasters

Aaron Dames writes for Divided Core:

The death toll from Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines on November 7th, currently stands at 5,500 people.  Haiyan was the fourth strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded and is the deadliest in Philippine history (the second-deadliest was Tropical Storm Thelma, which killed around 5,080 people in 1991).  To compare, here are some mortality figures from other large-scale natural disasters that have taken place in recent history.

Typhoon Bopha, Philippines, December 2012 – 1,146 dead
Hurricane Sandy, U.S Eastern Seaboard, October 2012 – 286 dead
Earthquake and Tsunami in East Japan, March 2011 – 15,800 dead
Earthquake in Haiti, January 2010 – 159,000 dead
Hurricane Katrina, Gulf Coast, August 2008 – 1,833 dead
Earthquake in Kashmir, Pakistan and India, October 2005 – 100,000 dead
Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami, December 2004 – 250,000 dead

In addition to the number of victims, there are certainly many other factors to consider when assessing the impact that natural disasters have on humanity.  The magnitude of a disaster can be measured in absolute terms, such as the aforementioned mortality rate, as well as the physical extent of the area affected, the volume of infrastructure destroyed, and the financial cost of reconstruction.

The magnitude of a natural disaster can also be measured in terms of causalities – the secondary problems that tend to arise as a result of a disaster.  Causality events and phenomena can vary in intensity, and occasionally these secondary, spinoff problems can be more destructive than the absolute damage inflicted by the primary disaster. An example of disaster causality is displaced persons. (When environmental migrants are unable to return home or resettle elsewhere, they’re considered displaced; if they move to another country, they’re considered refugees.  According to the International Rescue Committee, on Earth there are 42 million refugees and internally displaced people, primarily uprooted by war.)  Over four million people are internally displaced in the Philippines as a result of Typhoon Haiyan.  Displacement can be a lingering issue, as demonstrated by the 27,000 households currently displaced in the United States as a result of last year’s Superstorm Sandy.

The spread of disease is another causality that can become a crisis in the aftermath of a natural disaster.  Rick Gladstone explains how the outbreak of disease is a serious health threat to those in typhoon-ravaged areas of the Philippines:

Illnesses including cholera, hepatitis, malaria, dengue fever, typhoid fever, bacterial dysentery and others that thrive in tropical, fetid environments, where sewage and water supplies intermingle, could form what doctors fear is the disaster’s second wave. They predicted that leptospirosis, a parasitic disease endemic to the Philippines, could surge. And some said they would not be surprised to see a return of polio. The Philippines is part of an area of the western Pacific declared polio-free by the World Health Organization nearly 14 years ago.

Diseases that are inadvertently carried and spread by emergency workers responding to a disaster demonstrate that multiple degrees of separation can exist between the primary disaster and the problems which follow on the heels of it.  In October, 2010, the worst epidemic of cholera in recent history struck Haiti and led to the deaths of an estimated 8,300 people.  The cholera bacterium is not indigenous to Haiti, and in this case the origins of the epidemic were traced back to a United Nations base housing Nepalese peacekeepers who were there to aid the victims of the earthquake which took place nine months prior.

An industrial disaster that occurs as a result of a natural disaster or an extreme weather event can exacerbate the impact of the initial event.   This is especially true when it comes to the impact intense meteorological or seismic activity can have on nuclear power plants.  Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, electrical generator and cooling systems failed at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  The failure of the power systems led to a meltdown of the nuclear fuel rods contained within three reactors.  Engineers are attempting to stabilize the crippled reactors as part of Fukushima’s decommissioning process, which will involve 12,000 workers (apparently including members of the Yakuza gang, or, as RT puts it, the Atomic Mafia) and is expected to last through 2015.  A delicate step is presently being undertaken: using cranes and robotic arms to transfer 1,331 spent nuclear fuel rods from unstable reactor pools to new, ground-level tanks that will be less vulnerable to seismic and oceanic events than the damaged tanks.  Dr. Paul Gunter, director of Beyond Nuclear’s Reactor Oversight Project describes this unprecedented endeavor as “a risky round of highly radioactive pickup sticks.”   According to the CBC, “the amount of radioactive cesium-137 in the pool holding the fuel rod assemblies is said to be the equivalent of roughly 14,000 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.”  If a mishap were to occur during or after the fuel rod transfer process, then a secondary disaster of unleashed radiation may potentially result in a higher loss of life than those killed in the precursory earthquake and tsunami.  Although triggered by natural events, the Fukushima meltdown would more accurately be classified as a manmade disaster because humans built the nuclear power plant and put it on the beach.

There is no way to assure the stability of any nuclear power plant, especially in relation to extreme weather and seismic events. Though a meltdown did not occur, the threat of one loomed in Nebraska in June, 2011, when the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant flooded in heavy rains which shut down the plant’s transformers, forcing operators and engineers to run backup generators until floodwaters subsided and primary electricity was restored.  In a different scenario, an earthquake which measured 5.8 on the Richter scale occurred on the east coast of the United States in August, 2011.  Originating in Virginia, the earthquake rattled Washington D.C and New York City, along with other cosmopolitan hubs and rural areas in between.  This rare event raised questions about the structural integrity of the Long Island-based Indian Point nuclear power plant, which is located thirty-five miles away from Manhattan.  Indian Point was built to withstand a 6.0 magnitude earthquake, and if the plant were to experience a full-scale meltdown, millions of residents would be at risk of intense radiation exposure.  In March, 2011, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission identified nuclear reactor three at Indian Point as the highest risk nuclear reactor to catastrophically fail in the event of a regional earthquake.  The Fukushima, Fort Calhoun, and Indian Point cases demonstrate the susceptibility of nuclear power plants destabilizing as a result of earthquakes, floods, and tsunamis.

Extreme weather events like intense tornadoes, droughts, and floods are increasingly attributed to manmade climate change and other forms of human-induced environmental stress.  In his excellent September, 2012 National Geographic piece on extreme weather, Peter Miller writes:

Extreme events like the Nashville flood – described by officials as a once-in-a-millennium occurrence — are happening more frequently than they used to…  What’s going on?  Are these extreme events signals of a dangerous, human-made shift in Earth’s climate? Or are we just going through a natural stretch of bad luck?  The short answer is: probably both.  The primary forces driving recent disasters have been natural climate cycles… [Miller goes on to explain how El Nino, La Nina, and global warming contribute to extreme weather].  “You’re getting more rain from a given storm now than you would have 30 or 40 years ago,” says Gerald Meehl, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.  Global warming, he says, has changed the odds for extreme weather.  “Picture a baseball player on steroids,” Meehl goes on.  “This baseball player steps up to the plate and hits a home run.  It’s impossible to say if he hit that home run because of steroids, or whether he would have hit it anyway.  The drugs just made it more likely.

Yes, the drugs certainly do make it more likely.  Writing for Live Scientist, Ker Than does a great job of summing up some other important figures and factors to consider when assessing the impact disasters have had on humanity over time:

According to the EM-DAT, the total natural disasters reported each year has been steadily increasing in recent decades, from 78 in 1970 to 348 in 2004.  Guha-Sapir said that a portion of that increase is artificial, due in part to better media reports and advances in communications. Another reason is that beginning in the 1980s, agencies like CRED and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) began actively looking for natural disasters.  “Like in medicine, if you go out into a village and look for cases you find much more than if you just sit back and let people come to you when they’re sick,” Guha-Sapir said. However, about two-thirds of the increase is real and the result of rises in so-called hydro-meteorological disasters, Guha-Sapir said. These disasters include droughts, tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons and floods and have been increasing over the past 25 years. In 1980, there were only about 100 such disasters reported per year but that number has risen to over 300 a year since 2000.  In contrast, natural geologic disasters, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, landslides and avalanches have remained steady in recent decades.


People are also tempting nature with rapid and unplanned urbanization in flood-prone regions, increasing the likelihood that their towns and villages will be affected by flash floods and coastal floods…. People aren’t just putting themselves at risk for floods, but for natural disasters of all types, including earthquakes and storms like hurricanes and typhoons. “As you put more and more people in harms way, you make a disaster out of something that before was just a natural event,” said Klaus Jacob, a senior research scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

A recent Public Radio International broadcast reported on a study carried-out by atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel, examining the role climate change played in influencing the dynamics and outcome of typhoon Haiyan, and also comparing the destructive capacity of Haiyan to Hurricane Katrina.  According to the PRI report, Emanuel his colleagues at MIT drew three main conclusions in their research:

1) Climate change “played a role in one obvious respect, in that sea levels are elevated, and so the storm surge, which is a big killer…was higher than it would’ve been.  Beyond that, it’s difficult, and perhaps impossible, to attribute one particular event to any kind of climate signal, whether it’s global warming or el Nino or some other phenomenon.”

2) As a result of higher surface temperatures, climate change has increased the wind speeds of contemporary storms compared to those of thirty years ago, and higher wind speeds translates into greater damage.  PRI states:

Emanuel and his colleagues took a computer model they use to forecast the wind speeds in a storm like Haiyan and ran it with the thermodynamic conditions that were present 30 years ago, in the 1980s, before the warming of the last few decades. They compared it to the model using current conditions. “And when we do that,” Emanuel tells The World, “we find that the wind speeds are about ten percent larger now.”  That’s because warmer surface temperatures essentially provide more fuel for tropical storms.  Emanuel says the destructive potential of a windstorm goes up quickly with wind speed, “so that really corresponds to something like 30 to 40% more damage than the same exact event might’ve done had it occurred in the thermal environment of the 1980s.”

3) Lastly, Emanuel states that if Haiyan had hypothetically hit the United States instead of the Philippines, “it would’ve been a perhaps a much worse disaster.”  This is because people of the Philippines are more accustom and better prepared for storms than the people of the United States.  In order to evaluate the likely impact of Haiyan had it hit the United States, Emanuel and his colleagues superimposed a satellite image of Haiyan over one of Katrina in the Gulf Coast, and Haiyan clearly appears to be the bigger storm.

There are many variables to consider when comparing the impact of one natural disaster to a disaster that has taken place in a different time period or in a different location.  Kerry Emanuel is right to contrast levels of disaster-preparedness between the U.S and Philippines, but different environments and populations can exhibit entirely different sets of problems.  For example, the Philippine Health Department and the World Health Organization are preparing to vaccinate one million children adversely impacted by typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.  The purpose of the mass-vaccination effort is to prevent the spread of measles and polio (Incidentally, there is an even greater polio vaccination effort underway in the Syria region, which aims to inoculate 20 million children).  Though the vaccinations are important to those susceptible of contracting polio and other viruses in the Philippines, such a post-disaster vaccination endeavor would not be necessary in the United States because most residents have already been immunized.

Another consideration is the size of the population in the affected area, as well as the proportion of the affected population in relation to the greater population in time. (For example, in 2008, roughly 2,000 people died in Hurricane Katrina in the United States, a country with a population of 300,000,000.  By contrast, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was responsible for deaths of 160,000 people – that’s roughly 6% of the entire population in a country comprised of 10,000,000 people.  The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD obliterated the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum and killed over 16,000 people, and I’m not even going to bother to determine what percentage of the Gulf of Naples’ population in the first century this death toll figure works out to be.)  For instance, though higher wind speeds would have translated to more storm damage thirty years ago, thirty years ago there would not have been as many people around to endure such a storm, and there would likely have existed less infrastructure to be destroyed.  To take this conjecture further, if such a storm were to have taken place one hundred years ago many people may have lived-out their lives without hearing about it.  (Yet speculating on a how a hypothetical event may have played-out in the past seems like a fruitless endeavor because myriad variables – often indirect and unforeseen – affect the schematics of any situation.  It’s like saying that a cancer survivor who underwent chemotherapy to be cured would not have survived fifty years ago because the technology was unavailable; while this may be true, the conditions surrounding that person contracting cancer would have be totally different, and that figurative person doesn’t exist anyway.)

Why do most humans seem to care about those suffering from the effects of a natural disaster?  The pain endured by disaster victims is transmitted to a broader audience via the television and internet, thus photographs and video footage of struggling victims evoke sympathy in the hearts of many viewers.  This news provides viewers removed from the disaster zone with an opportunity to relate (especially if they have lived through a disaster themselves) and vicariously experience to pain of others.  Yet the effect that most disaster news has on viewers can sometimes be perverse and counterintuitive.  Mainstream news often crosses into the realm of entertainment, and the suffering of humans is portrayed in a manner that resembles a reality television show, with the effect on viewers being that they feel grateful for the relative stability of their own lives while pitying the victims on T.V – an effect achieved to some degree by viewers who tune-in to a tabloid talk show. Conversely, there may be a desensitizing effect on those viewers whom are relentlessly subjected to broadcasts of the plight of disaster victims.  A slight immunity to suffering may build-up in the viewer after being exposed to so much of it, while other viewers may develop an addiction to monitoring the misery of others in what could be qualified as disaster porn.  That said, there clearly are people who are galvanized to aid disaster victims and become genuinely concerned for them as a result of being exposed to information transmitted via modern telecommunication systems.  Be that as it may, the contextual and comparative basis for their concern deserves evaluation.  In short: where was the outcry before?

In part, the paucity of sympathy correlates to the absence of media attention and a general ignorance of those myriad people whom are suffering in the world.  Surely millions of people in the Philippines, the twelfth most populated country in the world – a country so poor that a Manila garbage dump collapse in 2000 killed 300 people who had hewed-out their homes in the landfill – needed aid before typhoon Haiyan struck.  The same can be said for the flood-stricken people of Somalia, where a cyclone killed 300 people and up to a million head of livestock three days after Haiyan struck the Philippines.  The same can also be said for Pakistan, Indonesia, and Haiti before and after they were hit by major disasters.   (In a glaring case of out of sight, out of mind, a week after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, cruise ships continued to dock sixty miles away from Port-au-Prince, where hundreds of thousands had just died and hundreds of thousands more were suffering.  Separately, Haiti is currently in the throes of a disaster capitalism experiment as the future impact of newly-constructed luxury hotels – funded in part by the private foundations of former U.S presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — has yet to be determine.)  Yet I suppose the same could be said for anyone living in conditions of severe poverty anywhere in the world.  (It is noteworthy that the American mainstream media largely ignores the brutal and violent ramifications of the nature of war, and the lives of the innocent killed are intentionally concealed.  This has something to do with the connection between the military-industrial-complex and the corporate media which both benefit from killing people, and is the topic of different article.)

Before I continue with my final points, I acknowledge that all this is very easy for me to say from my highly-privileged position of having a healthy life in stable place to thrive, and the amenities with which to enjoy my free time.  I write as though I know what I’m talking about, but having never lived through a disaster or stepped foot in the shoes of a severely impoverished person whose daily struggle for life is in itself tantamount to the trials faced by a victim of a major disaster, I know not what I’m talking about.

Nonetheless, I wonder about this:  I wonder that if human activities are indeed contributing to the occurrence of extreme weather events like typhoon Haiyan, then how will the magnitude of resources and energy being exhausted in disaster relief efforts —  from fossil fuels burned by vehicles scrambling across the globe to load packaged supplies onto cargo planes, to dispatching aircraft carriers and naval cruisers to the rescue of a former colony, to the pollution generated by the intensive barrage of media attention given to the Philippines – are factored into the equation as contributing factors for future extreme weather events.   Are we inadvertently causing more disasters in the process of attempting to aid the victims of one that has already occurred?  I wonder how much it matters, and know that for those people who are mired in post-disaster hellholes, such considerations are irrelevant and the imperative is surviving the present.  I wonder if natural disasters would still be disasters if no one was around to see them.  To end, I leave you with this photograph of the Indian Ocean tsunami approaching the shore.  The caption reads:  The doomed beachgoers wading in the suddenly shallow waters off the beach at Krabi in southern Thailand have just realized the magnitude of the first two waves rushing toward the coast; most have begun to rush shoreward, but none would survive.