EDITORIAL: Hurricanes keep coming, and our heads are stuck in the sand

SHARE EDITORIAL: Hurricanes keep coming, and our heads are stuck in the sand

In this image released by the National Oceanic and Hurricane Irma rips across the Caribbean, headed toward South Florida. | NOAA via AP

Twelve years ago, Hurricane Katrina killed 1,833 people in Louisiana and caused $160 billion in property damage. The federal government spent $120 billion to put survivors back on their feet.

Five years ago, Hurricane Sandy killed 159 people along the East Coast and caused $71 billion in damage. The feds spent $56 billion.

Last month, Hurricane Harvey killed at least 66 people in Texas and Louisiana. The feds are expected to spend a minimum of $120 billion to help survivors.


Now, there is Hurricane Irma, ripping through the Caribbean and heading for South Florida. More people will die and additional billions of dollars will be spent.

With every new natural disaster it becomes harder to understand how sensible people can deny the deadly reality and enormous cost of man-made climate change. It becomes more difficult, as well, to reconcile our nation’s spending priorities with changing needs and common sense. We burn through hundreds of billions of dollars for military weapons, for example, even as we bicker about how much to spend to help flood victims.

Hurricanes have always been with us. What’s new, scientists say, is that hurricanes are becoming more powerful, drawing their destructive energy from the elevated warmth of the oceans. Climate change may not be the cause of hurricanes, but it is making them more dangerous — and more expensive. Since the mid-1970s, the number of hurricanes such as Irma that reach Category 4 and 5 in strength — the max — has roughly doubled.

We deny that truth at our peril.

Roughly a third of all Americans live in coastal communities, increasingly concentrated in cities. They are more vulnerable than ever to powerful storms, and the proof is in the soaring financial toll. Storms are growing in strength, and more people are in the way.

The toll of climate change is not limited, though, to stronger hurricanes and swamped coastlines. Extreme weather of all kinds is becoming more common as a result of climate change, from record droughts in California to record rainfalls in Colorado to record daily temperatures — both highs and lows — in Chicago. It affects us all and begs for a comprehensive response.

Among the biggest mistakes of the Trump administration was the decision in June to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, a landmark agreement by nearly 200 countries to limit greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. We continue to compound that mistake by doing too little too late to prepare and defend against the inevitability of more extreme weather.

Engineers warn that our nation’s basic infrastructure — such as roads and bridges, power grids, water plants, sewage systems and levees — are vulnerable to the ravages of climate change, yet there has been no systematic assessment of the threat, let alone greater federal funding appropriated. New Orleans learned in the worst possible way, when levees and flood walls failed during Hurricane Katrina, what price we pay for our failure to be prepared.

It is a matter of rethinking priorities. Before Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, the Trump administration had proposed to increase spending on nuclear weapons by $1 trillion over 30 years while slashing federal disaster relief funds by $876 billion for the coming year.

Now, of course, that cut in funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency won’t happen; spending on disaster relief is momentarily fashionable again. But the larger trade-offs in spending remain too little questioned. The general public is barely aware, for one, of the Trump administration’s proposal to spend that $1 trillion to modernize nuclear weapons, though that could drastically reduce the government’s ability to pay for other programs — such as disaster relief aid.

As Hurricane Irma rolls across the Caribbean, we are told that South Florida is ready. Windows are boarded up. Cruise ships are safely docked. Bottled water is stacked. Thousands of residents have evacuated. Schools are closing. Shelters are opening. Everybody is in emergency mode.

But as a nation, we’ve got our heads stuck in that beautiful Florida sand.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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