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Goodnight, Irene, Goodnight

As Hurricane Irene literally tore up the nation’s East Coast, leaving 42 people dead in 12 states in its wake, the question naturally arises about global warming’s role in the disaster.  In a year when spring tornadoes wreaked havoc on towns like Tuscaloosa, AL and Joplin, MO, and with the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s (FEMA) budget stretched to its limit, the clean-up after Irene is almost impossible to imagine.

Estimates of the financial damage vary widely, but Peter Morici, an economist at the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, says that the direct costs are likely to be $20 billion, primarily in the Northeast.  Lost economic activity caused by closed restaurants and shops could add an additional $20 billion to the losses, he said. 

 Irene’s effects were particularly savage in parts of New England, as flooding and widespread power failures continued to impact thousands of people.  “I think this is going to end up being a bigger event than people think it is,” according to Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy.  “All of this is massive in scope. What the final dollar amount is, I don’t know.”  

 In southern Vermont, which was especially hard hit, the National Guard airlifted food, water and other supplies to people stranded in 13 communities cut off by floods.  “I think it’s probably a very scary thing to not know when you can get out of town and to have a water system that’s not working and a general store that has run out of bottled water,” Mark Bosma, a spokesman for the Vermont Office of Emergency Management, said.  “People are extremely nervous about being isolated.”  

Although Irene’s floodwaters were gradually receding in parts of Vermont, the governor warned that further flooding and loss of life are likely ahead for the small, rural state.  “It’s just devastating,” Governor Peter Shumlin said.  “Whole communities under water, businesses, homes, obviously roads and bridges, rail transportation infrastructure.  We’ve lost farmers’ crops,” he said.  “We’re tough folks up here but Irene…really hit us hard.” 

 Irene could prove to be one of the 10 costliest calamities in United States’ history; analysts believe that a significant amount of the damage might not be covered by insurance because it was caused by flooding and not by winds, which typically is excluded from many standard policies.  

 While insurers have typically covered roughly 50 percent of the total losses in past storms, they might end up covering less than 40 percent of the costs associated with Hurricane Irene, according to an analysis by the Kinetic Analysis Corporation.  That is in part because of the sheer amount of damage caused by flooding, and it is not known how many owners of damaged homes have flood insurance.  Another reason is the fact that deductibles have risen precipitously in coastal areas recently, requiring some homeowners to cover $4,000 worth of damages or more before insurers pick up the loss.  

 “This could make it harder for many stricken homeowners to rebuild, and could dampen any short-term boost to the construction industry that typically accompanies major storms, Jan Vermeiren, the chief executive of Kinetic Analysis, said.  Especially now that the economy is tight, and people don’t have money sitting around, local governments are broke, and maybe people can’t even get loans from the banks.”  

 Writing for Democracy Now, environmental activist Bill McKibben of 350.org,  says that “Hurricane Irene received a massive amount media coverage, but television reports made little or no reference to the role global warming played in the storm.  We’ve had not only this extraordinary flooding, but on the same day that Hurricane Irene was coming down, Houston set its all-time temperature record, 109 degrees.  We’re in a new situation.” 

In an opinion piece for the Daily Illini, Jason Febrey, writes that “Of course, climate change did not ‘cause’ Hurricane Irene in the strictest sense.  Hurricanes have been ravaging coastal areas since the dawn of time, mostly due to moist tropical air, the spin of the Earth and differential pressure fronts.  But there is no denying that climate change was a contributing factor to Irene’s severity.  Hurricanes normally lose their strength long before they approach Virginia, where ocean temperatures are not warm enough to sustain hurricane-force winds.  This year, however, has been one of the warmest on record with ocean surface temperatures of 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit above historical averages — enough to sustain a hurricane all the way up to the New England states.  Record temperatures, coupled with rising sea levels and growing amounts of moisture and energy trapped in our atmosphere, are all adding fuel to the destructive potential of natural disasters like Hurricane Irene.  Now that the worst of Irene has passed, we all ought to be grateful that damage wasn’t as terrible as some models predicted.  But we can’t rely on luck or the whims of nature forever.  How long will it be before the hurricanes of tomorrow, strengthened by warmer waters, begin to batter their way even further up the East Coast?  How long before New York turns into New Venice?  Contemplating these possibilities is a sobering exercise.”

A recent editorial written before Irene hit the East Coast in the Newark Star-Ledger  raises some interesting points about climate change.  “We can now add Hurricane Irene among the symptoms that scientists warned we’d experience as global warming occurs.  Wind of up to 100 mph, predicted to lash the East Coast.  Ocean waves as high as 12 feet.  That’s in line with what scientists have said, that hurricanes would become more severe as ocean temperatures rise.  Yet there’s another growing trend on climate change, and that’s denial.  Polls show that while most Americans believe climate change is occurring, most Republicans do not.  Climate complacency is at an all-time high, thanks to those political winds.  How big a disaster will it take to push our leaders back to scientific fact?”

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