TSC IntelBrief: Natural Disasters and National Security
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Harvey continues to worsen in Houston, Texas, the fourth-largest city in the U.S.
• Low-lying coastal cities with aging infrastructure, which are among the most populous in the U.S., are at high risk for disastrous flooding.
• Natural disasters affect far more people than terrorism in the U.S., but the latter receives far more focus and funding.
• How a country mitigates and responds to natural disasters is an indicator of true national security and should be prioritized as such.
Hurricane Harvey has produced catastrophic flooding in Houston, Texas, the fourth-largest city in the U.S. The National Weather Service office in Houston measured 24.10 inches of rain in the first 24 hours of the storm, and the flooding, which is predicted to last for several days, is set to intensify throughout the week as the storm slowly moves to the northeast. Meteorologists predict that some locations in Texas will receive up to 50 inches of rain—more than a year’s worth— over the span of only a few days. The flooding has killed five people, paralyzed the city, and shut down two ports upon which the U.S. depends for gasoline shipments and other crucial commodities. The damage could reach billions of dollars and will likely take years to repair.
Even a well-prepared city would struggle against the historic rains now falling on Houston. City officials did not order a mandatory evacuation because previous such orders, such as during Hurricane Rita in 2005, resulted in a dangerous paralysis on the roads, likely adding to the overall damage and disruption of the storm. Moving 2.5 million people in an orderly fashion within a two-day time frame is an unrealistic goal, regardless of the level of preparation. The scenes of flooding in Houston are reminiscent of the devastating damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which flooded New Orleans and killed over 1,800 people. That storm was also the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, with more than $108 billion in damages.
Flooding presents a unique challenge, both in terms of mitigation and response. Low-lying cities such as Houston and New Orleans are extremely vulnerable to flooding throughout the year. These cities are not the only ones at risk; some of the most populous cities in the U.S. are along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The geography that makes these cities so attractive and valuable in terms of trade and ports also makes them prone to devastating flooding, which is expected to increase as the effects of climate change unfold and sea levels rise. Investments in upgrading pumping stations, levees, and elevated roads are needed across the U.S., but are unlikely to be funded. The flooding in Houston is a textbook example of major roads and highways quickly becoming impassable and shutting down most movement within hours of a storm. Once flooding occurs, emergency response crews are forced to respond by boat and air, with the U.S. Coast Guard assuming the bulk of search and rescue duties.
As a whole, the U.S. resilience to such disasters is steadily diminishing as infrastructure crumbles and disaster mitigation and response efforts do not receive the priority they merit. Obtaining adequate funding for the U.S. Coast Guard is an annual battle, which the service usually loses as other issues, such as terrorism or tax cuts, take precedent. The U.S. spends hundreds of billions of dollars on military expenditures related to terrorism, yet far more people are directly affected every year by natural disasters in the U.S., than by terrorism. The imbalance in funding and focus has resulted in a country unacceptably vulnerable to the predictable risks from storms such as Hurricane Harvey. Increased investment in emergency response, hospitals, roads, and robust power supplies would be a more significant step towards improving true national security than any endeavor in Syria or Iraq (though those are, of course, critical as well). The repeated damages and deaths from natural disasters require a more intensive, proactive, and focused national response.
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