Navigant Research Blog

Philippine Typhoon Highlights New Disaster Risks

Richard Martin — November 15, 2013

An odd combination of distance and familiarity allows people living comfortably in the West to shrug and turn away from the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in the central Philippines.  An island country on the other side of the world is, once again, struck by a massive natural disaster, apparently the act of a wrathful God.  What’s new?  Like earthquakes in Central Asia, the incomprehensible scale of the destruction provokes a brief outpouring of compassionate aid, and not much else.  The modern world goes back to getting and spending.

Two things are changing, though, that make that “What can you do?” response less tenable.  For one thing, there’s a growing realization that such disasters are not just “natural.”  Second, they are coming soon to a coastline near you.

In the Red Zone

Drawing on a 2003 book titled At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability, and Disasters, by Ben Wisner and three co-authors, Tim Kovach writes, “Let me be blunt: there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster.”  A disaster requires at least three variables: a powerful natural event, a vulnerable population living in a hazardous area, and socioeconomic factors that increase the risk of exposure and limit the ability of the affected communities to recover.  If a typhoon levels an uninhabited island in the South China Sea, it’s not a disaster; it’s a noteworthy meterological event.  When it affects more than 11 million people, most of them living in flimsy wooden houses with no protection from powerful weather (and little help from their central government, housed in a modern city on a distant island), it’s a disaster.

The Philippines, with its 7,000 islands, volcanoes, mountainous jungle, exposure to the South Pacific, and endless, tropical coastline, is basically one big hazard zone.  On the other hand, as The Huffington Post, pointed out in a lengthy report one year ago, the United States has by choice funded rampant development in coastal “red zones” that are vulnerable to increasingly violent storms, as the $65 billion in damage from Tropical Cyclone Sandy amply demonstrated.  The inevitable pointless debate over whether Typhoon Haiyan or other extraordinary natural events are “caused” by global climate change misses the point; the fact is, storms are generally getting more powerful even as we continue to build our homes and office parks in harm’s way.

So Long Miami

This was brought home forcefully to the inhabitants of the Front Range, in Colorado, where I live, last month when a “100-year flood” hit Boulder and the surrounding towns, inundating Jamestown and Lyons and destroying many of the roads into the canyons below the Continental Divide.  Years of hot summers, moderate winters, and drought conditions have parched the forests of the Front Range, resulting in massive fires like the 2010 Four Mile Fire; and the burnt-over hillsides are unable to soak up or slow down torrential rains, which overwhelmed the area’s watersheds.

“In the past two decades, a quarter million people have moved into Colorado’s red zones – the parts of the state at risk for the most dangerous wildfires,” observed I-News, in an report titled Red Zone: Colorado’s Growing Wildfire Danger.  “Today, one of every four Colorado homes is in a red zone….”

The biggest red zone is South Florida, where hundreds of miles of low-lying coastal areas could be inundated by the end of the century by rising seas.  “At two to three feet,” of risen tides, “we start to lose everything,” Harold R. Wanless, the chairman of the geological sciences department at the University of Miami, told The New York Times in an alarming story on Miami’s future.

Sandy, Haiyan, the Australian brushfires, the Colorado flooding: all just foretastes.  We all live in the red zone now.

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