Huge areal extent. High winds at the core (at times, category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale). Slow-moving, featuring long dwell time over endangered areas. Strong, prolonged storm surge.
Observations, numerical weather prediction and subsequent dissemination equipped the world to see trouble coming. Throughout the duration of the event, clear, actionable messages reached most communities and individuals in harm’s way. Moreover, the public responded appropriately, given the limited options available. But public officials, emergency managers, corporate leaders, and the general public could alleviate those impacts only at the margins – especially when it came to protecting island populations sheltering in poorly-constructed buildings and depending on fragile infrastructure in low-lying coastal areas. Loss of life, injury, human suffering and community disruption continue to mount – and grow more visible with each passing hour.
Tragic – in every sense.
As always we can honor the victims and survivors best by thinking-through and committing to reducing future loss.
That’s because Dorian won’t be the last hurricane to inflect catastrophic loss on the Caribbean and Southeastern United States. The Caribbean is a target-rich shooting gallery for hurricanes, and each year the equatorial Atlantic reloads (think Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Barbuda – all still recovering from 2017).
It’s not just that as individuals and as a society we’re slow to learn from experience. The region offers so much natural beauty and economic potential that we cannot simply abandon it. Fact is, the recent large losses from hurricanes reflect sustained triumph as much as failure – the result of humanity’s extraordinary growth in numbers, geographic spread, and material success over the past century.
But economic growth accompanied by growing dependence on fragile critical infrastructure has hardwired a lot of vulnerability into the region’s future for at least the next half-century. And that’s before we factor in the impact of current climate change – sea-level rise and the rest.
So the question is: how to build the resilience of the region and minimize repetitive losses over time? What innovation, or suite of innovations, could make a lasting difference?
Ultimately, the answers lie in more appropriate land use (aimed at co-existing with nature versus attempts to make that nature irrelevant). This means retreat to the extent practical from the shoreline itself, and anticipating the encroachment that will accompany sea level rise. Such policies, if carried out with vision, could actually increase the beauty, ecosystem function, and recreational (and economic ) value of coastal lands.
However, to realize this potential requires concomitant strengthening of building codes and hardening of critical infrastructure. For island populations and nations it means increased investment in shelter-in-place: beginning with home-by-home measures, but taking the extra step of elevating and hardening the public facilities in local communities that will occasionally be used to ride out storms.
Poverty is the enemy here. It plays in from several directions. In the aggregate, it reflects a lack of means. Insurance and other protective measures against uncertain future risks is a luxury available only to individuals and societies that are well-off. But distribution of that wealth is also an issue. Those who can are often eager to provide for their individual protection, but reluctant to pay for the safety and well-being of others. And the wealth is unevenly distributed across ethnic groups, the aged and infirm, gender, and other demographics. Current political discourse in our country and abroad suggests we’re not yet ready for the kind of social engineering that would be required to moderate such barriers.
Bill, tell us something we don’t already know.
Okay! Not sure this qualifies as new, but the key challenge is not just about where we want to end up but also how we manage and drive a transition to the desired state.
Here’s a suggestion. Bring information technology, and in particular the rudiments of artificial intelligence, to the task.
We are told that the AI embodied at the Watson-level might be available in individual smartphones as soon as 2023. To see how this might be applied to the hurricane context, imagine a capability looking something like TurboTax. TurboTax breaks down the stupefying task of identifying and reporting individual income into a highly-structured series of decision trees. It asks tax preparers step-by-step questions couched in simple language. In the same way, it’s feasible today to offer tools to guide individual risk management in the face of hazards such as hurricanes. If today’s IT can provide generalized weather warnings, it can also provide particulars as they pertain to any individual’s circumstance. Five days out, what is the list of the things we have to start thinking about, the decisions we have to start making, the preparations we might make, the actions that will be needed? Mass communication through daily or even twice-daily press conferences by emergency managers and other officials is a blunt instrument for managing the response of a massive, distributed, and diverse population to hurricane threats. AI could help individuals map out nuanced responses, particularized to their access to transportation, their job situation, household location and construction, health and fitness levels, family situations, income, and much more – and update all this frequently in response to everything from changes in hurricane track, strength, timing and duration to changes in traffic along evacuation routes, shelter options, and much more as the endangered-region’s population mobilizes.
And that’s just for the immediate time frame of a single storm. In fact, however, such technology could easily be extended to provide background information on the likely hurricane risks over longer time frames, such as the contemplated lifetime of a house purchase or home rental. Its risk assessments could extend to other natural hazards. It could incorporate these risks in a fuller set of health and economic risks.
To innovate, and innovate rapidly, it’s probably best to leave these developments in the hands of the private sector. Liability protection would undoubtedly be an issue for firms. But just as TurboTax and similar products and services offer protections against certain types of errors, a similar risk management tool could stay within the bounds of identifying options and likely consequences versus venturing into specific recommendations. In the manner of tax preparation software, risk management tools could link users directly with services offering higher levels of assessment and professional advice.
Over time, through development and application of such tools for managing the transition years, we should achieve that desired ultimate outcome. At the same time as publics saw the results of using such tools, they’d also see the limitations and constraints imposed by preexisting vulnerability. They would find new determination to improve land use, strengthen building codes, and perhaps even reduce poverty – and in so doing, build resilience and reduce future hazard loss.