October 05, 2017

Devastating hurricanes such as Katrina, Sandy and now Harvey and Irma are forces of nature that can’t be stopped by us mere mortals. But we can at least stop intensifying their impact through a lack of foresight.

Our hearts go out to the citizens of Houston and Florida as they dig out from the ravages of Harvey and Irma. But as the Economist reminds us, The US is by no means the only place to fall victim recently to catastrophic flooding. In India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, at least 1,200 people died and millions lost their homes after flooding caused by this year’s monsoon. Last month torrential rains caused a mudslide in Sierra Leone that killed at least 1,000 people. According to reinsurer Munich Re, storms and floods are becoming more common; there were about 200 in 1980 compared to more than 600 in 2016.

Floods also are becoming more impactful – largely because of increasing urban populations coupled with short-sighted planning practices.

In the case of Houston, unbridled building activity has destroyed much of the coastal prairie that is a natural buffer against flooding. Asphalt roads and parking lots limited the ability of the ground to absorb accumulating water. Lax regulations are partially to blame; lack of restrictions on building on ocean-facing lots, suburban sprawl leading to jungles of asphalt, and the conversion of vast tracts of land into suburban housing to accommodate the growing populations moving into urban areas. The Economist reports that Houston has had to accommodate an additional 1.8 million inhabitants since 2000. Florida’s population grew by 25 percent between 2000 and 2015 (adding 4.2 million people).

But it isn’t just the number of people moving into the Gulf states that has amplified the effects of storm-induced flooding; where individuals choose to live is another key factor. People flock to coastal zones, which tend to be landing sites for dangerous storm systems.

Again, this is by no means a Houston or Florida phenomenon. Cities worldwide – many located in prime target areas for natural disasters – are attracting more inhabitants. The United Nations estimates that in 2016, 54.5% of the world’s population lived in urban settlements. By 2030, urban areas are projected to house 60% of people globally, according to the UN. Moreover, one in every three people will live in cities with at least half a million inhabitants by that year.

How can we fortify these communities against monster storms?

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