Media Briefings

Hurricanes: Climate connections & community impacts

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Evidence continues to mount that human-caused climate change is causing hurricanes to grow stronger and more destructive. SciLine’s latest media briefing covered the state of hurricane “attribution” science, that is, the ability to link aspects of specific hurricanes to climate change; how city planners can assess and address the vulnerability of community infrastructure such as roads and power grids to hurricane damage; and how these weather events can cause or exacerbate social inequalities. Three scientific experts briefed reporters and then took questions on the record.

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RICK WEISS: Thank you, Josh. And hello, everyone, and welcome to SciLine’s media briefing on hurricanes. For those not familiar with SciLine, we are a philanthropically funded, editorially independent free service for journalists and scientists based at the non-profit American Association for the Advancement of Science. Our mission is pretty simple. It’s just to help reporters like you get more scientifically validated evidence into your news stories. And that means not just stories about science, but any story that can be strengthened with some science, which in our view is almost any story you can think of. We know that many of you are not specialty science reporters and even those who are have less time than ever to do your reporting, and we are here to lessen that load. Among other things, we offer a free matching service that helps connect you one on one to a scientist who’s both deeply knowledgeable in their field and an excellent communicator on deadline or when you need it. Just go to the website, click on I Need An Expert and check out our other helpful reporting resources while you’re there.

Today’s briefing is going to feature three experts who are going to help us understand some scientific aspects of hurricanes that you might not normally think about as you cover these extreme weather events. Of course, there’s the science of what hurricanes are and how they form. We’ll touch on that. But we’re also going to talk about attribution science, the science of being able to determine the role of climate change in hurricanes’ frequency, intensity and so on. We’ll talk about the science of networked systems, which can give us a better understand of the full range of impacts on our community’s infrastructure and economy when one of these storms hits. And then there’s the big social science story to tell about who these storms are affecting most and why. Today’s panel will address all these topics in evidence-based ways. And I’m not going to take the time now to give full introductions of them. Their bios are all on the website. I’ll just tell you that we’re going to hear first from Dr. Allison Wing from the University of Florida, who will provide a quick overview of hurricane formation. And then we’ll describe what the science says about the relationship between hurricanes and climate change.

We know that for some reporters, covering hurricanes and hurricane trends as a local event, you may not be certain what aspects have been shown to be climate related or not, so here’s your chance to get the facts so you can confidently include that kind of context in your stories. Next, we’ll hear from Dr. Sabarethinam Kameshwar from the Louisiana State University, who’s going to talk about the interlinked kinds of infrastructure that are affected by hurricanes and other weather extremes and how individual failures in that built environment can impact and exacerbate one another and what all that means when it comes to designing resilience against future storms in communities like yours. And third, we’ll hear from Dr. Jim Elliott from Rice University, who will focus on ways in which hurricanes and related stressors impact certain communities and populations differently than others and in doing so, exacerbate preexisting social and economic inequities. So with that introduction, let’s get down to the content. Allison, it’s over to you.


Hurricanes and climate change


ALLISON WING: Thank you very much, Jim – Rick, for the introduction. So I’m actually at Florida State University, not University of Florida. They are arch rivals, especially in football (laughter), so I had to correct the record there. But thank you so much for inviting me to take part of this panel. I’m going to talk today about some of the basic science of hurricanes and climate change. And so we’ll start off with the basics for how hurricanes form and intensify. So the image you’re seeing here is a schematic of a hurricane, kind of like taking an X-ray through the storm. And basically, we have air at the surface that is spiraling inward and flowing towards the center of the hurricane. These are the winds we feel. And then it rises towards the center in the eye wall, where our deep, tall thunderstorm clouds are, before spiraling outwards at the top of the storm. Now, hurricanes need certain favorable environments to form. And so I’m going to go through the different ingredients. Hurricanes draw their energy from warm ocean water. And so as sea water evaporates into the air, this transfers energy to the air, fueling the hurricane. And so hurricanes need those warm ocean waters in order to form and intensify. As hurricanes are systems of clouds and thunderstorms, they also require that the air is very humid with a lot of moisture in it. But it also depends on what the wind patterns are doing. Hurricanes like it when something called vertical wind shear is low.

This basically means that the winds high in the atmosphere are weak and are pretty similar throughout the whole column of the atmosphere. If instead the winds are very strong at the atmosphere, this can tilt the hurricane and bring dry air and make it very difficult for it to organize and intensify. And then finally, since hurricanes are rotating systems, we need there to be some high background spin in the atmosphere. And this just basically means that we don’t see hurricanes forming exactly on the equator. They form a couple degrees latitude either north or south of the equator. Once a hurricane forms, the conditions that control how quickly it intensifies are some of these same factors – the warm ocean water, the structure of the winds and the humidity. Now, given these ingredients for hurricane formation and intensification, how are they changing in a warming climate? So I’m going to touch on a couple different aspects of how hurricanes are changing, and I’ll order them from the things that we’re most confident in to those that we have less confidence in. And the thing that we’re most confident in is actually not really about hurricanes themselves, but about sea level rise. And so we expect and are observing that coastal flooding from storm surge is worsening because of sea level rise due to human-caused warming.

Storm surge is when the winds of a hurricane blow over the ocean and push the ocean water towards the coastline, piling it up over land that’s normally dry. And since we observed that sea levels are rising, that means that that storm surge is going to be occurring over a higher baseline, making it easier to cause flooding. And that’s shown in this figure here from the most recent IPCC report released just a couple of weeks ago. The black line is showing the global mean sea level that’s already increased about 0.2 meters, 8 inches or so. Of course, it could be higher or lower in a given location. And we’re very confident that this will continue into the future. Getting into characteristics of the hurricanes themselves, we’re finding that hurricanes are getting wetter and that the rain – their rainfall is very likely to increase going into the future. And one example of this from recent years was Hurricane Harvey in 2017. And so here on the plot on the right, this shows how Hurricane Harvey produced enormous amounts of rainfall over the Texas area. So the white line is Harvey’s track. It kind of meandered on the Texas coastline for a few days. And the color shading shows the amount of rain that fell. The scale goes from several inches to, in the greens and yellows, several feet – 3 to 4 feet of rain – in some places, even up to 5. And attribution studies have shown that human warming contributed to causing this extreme amount of rainfall. The amount of rainfall increases in a warming climate because a warmer atmosphere has more moisture in it, and so more can fall out of rain.

And so, in fact, we’re finding that extreme precipitation of all types increases in a warming climate. Hurricanes are no exception. We also are finding both from observations as well as expectations from physical theory and model projections that hurricanes are getting stronger. Their winds are increasing, and this intensity increase is very likely to occur in the future. And as I said, we have multiple lines of evidence here – both the physical theory that predicts that this will occur, as well as agreement from our models. And so that makes it one of our more confident projections. We also have observations that show that hurricanes are reaching their peak wind intensity further poleward, so further north in the northern hemisphere. And this is important because it means that regions that are maybe not used to having as much hurricane activity are becoming more vulnerable in the future and – as they’re not necessarily prepared in terms of their infrastructure or how to handle the storms. And then finally, the last piece, the frequency – how many hurricanes we have worldwide in a given year. That is something that we actually are not really sure what’s going to happen. It’s a difficult problem. And right now it’s unknown in terms of how the number of hurricanes will change. So given these changes and, you know, our increasing risks from hurricanes, it’s important to be able to forecast them accurately and communicate those forecasts and know what to prepare for. And so I want to really emphasize that we need to prepare for multiple hazards and point out this product here from the National Weather Service called their hurricane threats and impacts product, which is a great way of depicting these threats. It shows in the blue-colored shading here the forecast track of the storm.

The shading is the cone of uncertainty, so showing where the center will be. And then we have both the threats from winds, storm surge, flooding, rain and tornadoes – all different things that can affect us during a hurricane. And they make these maps based on both the forecast and the forecast uncertainty. And one thing that I think is really important to point out is that in addition to being multiple hazards at play, many of them can occur quite far away from the center of the storm. So this is an example from Hurricane Henri, which affected the Northeast this past weekend. And we can see that we had flooding rain as a threat. And indeed, it did occur, you know, as far away as New Jersey and Pennsylvania, even though the storm made landfall in Rhode Island. So these are great graphics that you can find on the National Weather Service homepage when a storm is active and, you know, really emphasize that there’s a couple different things we have to be concerned with. So just to wrap up, when these – as these slides we provided to you, there’s a couple of additional resources here that you can turn to. And I look forward to taking your questions later on. Thank you.


RICK WEISS: Thank you, Allison. Great introduction. And a reminder to reporters that all these slides will be available after the briefing, so you can click on those links and check out those resources. Kameshwar, over to you about infrastructure.

Impacts of hurricanes on infrastructure


SABARETHINAM KAMESHWAR: Thank you, Rick. And thank you, Allison, for the introduction on hurricanes. In the next five to six minutes, I will be talking about the impacts of hurricanes and some considerations that we need to think about when we are mitigating these impacts. So I’ll start with transportation infrastructure. I mean, we have seen horrendous images of damaged bridges, damaged roads during hurricanes. Here, I’m showing pictures from Hurricane Laura that impacted Louisiana last year. So all the pictures that you’re going to see will be from Hurricane Laura. And I’m just showing damaged bridges, airports. We had roads that were damaged. We had ports that were damaged. This is another common sight after hurricanes. You know, power infrastructure faces significant damage. And when power infrastructure gets damaged, other infrastructure, like water systems and wastewater systems, are also affected because they need power to function. So this is a little bit of interdependence, which we’ll come back again, later, to, at the end of my presentation. And also, when roads are damaged like this, I mean, when the power poles are damaged like this, we cannot use the roads, either. So that affects our transportation system indirectly as well. In addition to transportation and power, you know, we also have damage to communication systems and the weather systems.

For example, on the left here, I am showing a broken radio tower. In the middle of the slide here, I am showing damaged cell towers. And on the right, I have damaged Doppler radar, which are all essential for communication and weather prediction in the aftermath of a hurricane. In addition to the infrastructure that we commonly think about, we also have to think about industrial infrastructure. These are, again, some pictures from Louisiana. So this is, on the left, a bunch of storage tanks that got destroyed during Hurricane Laura. And on the right, it’s showing, you know, before the hurricane in the middle and after the hurricane on the right – of the damage that Hurricane Laura cost to the industrial infrastructure in Louisiana. This is essential because these create a lot of damage not only to the infrastructure but also to the local economy and the job market and the community, eventually. In addition to the infrastructure, I just want to highlight that infrastructure is not the end of the story. We need to also think about critical facilities that we may not always think about as infrastructure. So that includes fire stations, for example. This is a fire station that was damaged in Creole, La., last year. If a fire station is damaged, then our capability for emergency response or any other emergencies is very limited. So these are important. Similarly, schools got damaged. On the left here, I’m showing a picture from Cameron in Louisiana, where this school got damaged severely. And on the right, I have a picture of a high school from Hackberry.

Again, schools got damaged. These are important because people gather there after hurricanes. You know, a lot of relief operations are centered from schools, so we need the schools to be functional immediately afterwards – afterwards hurricanes. And another key aspect that sometimes is overlooked, you know, is places where people gather together, are places of worship. These are important from the perspective of a social fabric of a community. If these are damaged and people are not able to gather together, the social fabric of the community gets destroyed. So these are some of the impacts of hurricanes. And to mitigate these impacts, resilience concepts have been used in the last two decades by all the administrations. So how do we define resilience? Specifically for infrastructure, we have this definition, which is – the ability to anticipate, absorb, adapt to and rapidly recover from a potentially disruptive event. So this is the definition given by the National Infrastructure Advisory Council. What that means we can see in this cartoon figure from here. So in this figure, on the X axis, on the bottom, I have time. And on the Y axis, I have functionality.

So we can imagine any infrastructure – for example, transportation. And initially, before a hurricane happens, the performance is constant, which is the blue line. A hurricane or any other disruptive event happens. The performance drops down, and it takes time to get back to normal. In this situation, this red area is the resilience. The larger the area, the better the resilience, meaning less of a drop. And faster recovery means more resilience. So to achieve this, we can think about mitigation strategies like hardening our infrastructure. Or we can think about rapid responses. Or we can think about an optimized recovery for our infrastructure systems. So as we think about these strategies to improve our resilience, we need to think about multiple considerations. One is multiple hazards. For example, Allison mentioned there are several hazards within a hurricane itself. But beyond hurricanes, you know, many places in the United States have multiple hazards. For example, if you look at South Carolina, they have earthquakes and hurricanes. So when we have multiple hazards like this, one thing that we need to ask is, does mitigating the consequences for one hazard affect adversely the performance for another hazard? That is something that has to be talked about and at the local scale. Another thing is the interdependence between different infrastructure systems. So as I briefly mentioned before, the power system is linked to many other systems.

So therefore, for example, water system depends on power. Telecommunication systems depend on power. But power systems themselves depend on transportation because to fix anything, we need to have equipment. And people use roads and get to the damaged piece of equipment. And – but on the other hand, you know, if you have power poles and power lines down on the roads, those roads become inaccessible in the first place. So there is a lot of this interdependence between infrastructure systems that we need to think of. At the moment, you know, different utilities and companies are working in their own silos. They talk to each other when there is an emergency, but they need to talk to each other before the emergency happens in a planning case as well. Another thing is, you know, when we are trying to mitigate hazards or the effects of hazards, we have limited resources. So the questions are, where is the maximum return for our investments, or do we invest in mitigations or hardening our infrastructure? Do we invest in response or recovery?

Or another question is, which infrastructure do we spend money on? Do we spend money on the power system, the transportation, water and so on? So those are the big questions we have. And also, we have to think at the end of the day that infrastructure is for the people. So we need to see who is getting affected, who’s getting left behind. And all of these questions are, you know, important to think about. And there is no unique answer to any of these questions. All of these questions have to be thought about on a case-by-case basis. For each and every community, the answers might be different. And we need to think about that as we go forward. With this, I’ll pass it back to Rick. And we’ll move on with our (inaudible).


RICK WEISS: Thank you, Kameshwar. Super complicated set of issues there to sort through when one of these storms blows through. We’ll talk more about that in the Q&A, I think. But first, over to you, Jim.

The social inequities of hurricanes: reporting beyond immediate impacts


JAMES ELLIOTT: Thanks, Rick. Let me see if I can get this here. Rick, can you hear me?




JAMES ELLIOTT: OK, great. Hi, everyone. I’m going to be briefing you on the social inequities of hurricanes. And this is a topic of growing interest, I think, not only to you all as reporters, but to folks like me as social scientists, and also to federal agencies, state agencies and local agencies, including FEMA. So I thought we’d start with a little quick policy, context and background. Early this year, there was a Federal National Advisory Council report to the director of FEMA. And in that report, it made three bold claims. First, it said that in this age of sort of rising disaster impacts and hurricane impacts, FEMA really needs to focus on equity, not just response. And the second point was that in doing that, it needs to recognize not only those inequities, but the possibility that its policies and programs might be exacerbating those inequities. And in the process of addressing that potential responsibility, FEMA really needs to focus not just on those in need, but also the outcomes that get generated and maybe come out unintentionally from its different programs. So with that in mind…


RICK WEISS: Just to point out, Jim, if you think you’re screen sharing, I don’t see a slide yet.


JAMES ELLIOTT: Oh, you do not. Oh.


RICK WEISS: No. So that was a clear introduction, but with no visual.


JAMES ELLIOTT: My apologies. I thought that it worked.


RICK WEISS: That’s looking better. If you go into presentation mode now, you’re good.


JAMES ELLIOTT: Thank you. So this was the policy report. And so when FEMA enters the picture into your community after a hurricane and this infrastructural damage, it often does that through three main programs. First, it typically enters into your area through the direct individual assistance programs to help individuals and households with immediate needs typically tied to a damaged shelter. And then it follows up with recovery response and funding to repair and restore and recover community infrastructure. So there’s actually a lot more money that goes into this and rebuilding bridges and roads and public facilities such as schools. And then you get into what’s an increasingly important share, I think, of FEMA spending, which is the mitigation program. That is identifying areas to reduce future risk and future loss. So what I thought I’d do is share some recent research and evidence on how social inequities from disasters in general, but in particular, hurricanes seep into each one of those phases and projects and programs.

So in each one of these slides, there’s a bit going on. But at the top, what I try to do is indicate which program I’m talking about, so here the FEMA individual assistance program, followed by the general takeaway point. Then, underneath that, I try to point to the type of evidence that’s being reviewed. And then there’s a schematic of the key findings followed at the bottom with the hyperlinked to the source, if you’d like to follow up. In this case, we’re talking about an analysis of more than 5 million individual assistance applications that occurred nationwide over about a decade and a half. And these were secured through a freedom of information request act, much like you reporters sometimes use to get information. So what happens in this program is that we see inequities at the beginning. We know that folks in lower income and communities of color tend to be more exposed to hurricanes, particularly the flooding aspects of those.

They also tend to be more in need of help because oftentimes their housing is less structurally sound and they have fewer financial resources to invest in insurance. So what that means is that folks from these communities end up being more likely to apply for assistance through the government, who’s there to provide that assistance. But for that assistance to go forward and actually actualize itself, there has to be an inspection. So the applications get reviewed. And what the evidence shows is that when those applications come from less privileged communities, oftentimes they get denied, so they end up not being inspected. Or if they are eligible for inspection, the inspector goes out to the property and the property is not appraised an appropriate level to receive any kind of assistance, oftentimes due to a lack of proof, whether it be a documentation of ownership of the house, etc. And so what that means is that there is a decreasing ability to sort of get access to these funds. But even if people from these communities are able to work their way through that system and actually receive assistance, the evidence shows that, typically, that assistance is less an amount.

And it’s also typically targeted disproportionately towards paying rent to landlords and not necessarily to restoring or repairing houses and assets for the future so that we see a compounding, cascading effect of inequality, a double inequity, if you will, of more exposure and less assistance. Now I’ll turn to the public assistance program. And here, the analysis is drawing on about 3,400 randomly selected U.S. households. They were followed over the course of about 14 or 15 years. And as background, what I want to do is share with you what generally happens to wealth inequalities in particular as disaster damages from hurricanes and other sources increase in a county. So this is the background slide. But from our results, what we did is we simulated two different types of individuals. We have a college-educated homeowner who’s white, such as I was in New Orleans when Katrina hit. And we can compare that person to a Black high school graduate renter, like my neighbor across the street in New Orleans at that time. So what this graph shows is our predicted wealth at the end of a 14-year period, holding a lot of other background factors constant, including our starting wealth. So here’s the wealth gap on the far left that we’d expect between myself and my neighbor across the street. If we just let racial and education and homeownership privilege play itself out. I would have about $60,000 more in wealth at the end of this 14 years than my neighbor Krip (ph) across the street.

But here’s what happens, our results show, as you live in a county with increasing disaster damages. And oftentimes, the hurricane damages are more in this area. So as the local disaster damages increase, that wealth inequality also increases. So that’s going on in and of itself. Then what happens when FEMA public assistance enters to sort of rebuild and recover the entire community? So here we use related results to simulate two hypothetical situations. But in those situations, basically, we have a county – two counties, actually. Both have been hit by a billion-dollar hurricane. One of those counties gets about $900 million in public assistance. The other county gets no assistance. And so when we run our models, what we find is white residents in the county with the assistance end up with $55,000 more at the end of that 14-year period than they otherwise would if they got no public assistance from that storm. By contrast, the results show the exact opposite results for people of color. So Black folks in the county that was hit by the billion-dollar storm and got the aid will actually accumulate $82,000 less than in the county hit by the billion-dollar storm that got no aid. So unintentionally, something seems to be happening that makes it the case that FEMA public assistance is exacerbating, not correcting for the social inequities that I showed you in the prior slide. So finally, we have FEMA housing mitigation. I’m going to focus here on the so-called buyout policy or the policy of managed retreat, where the federal government comes in and offers homeowners in the riskiest areas, typically after hurricane, if they would just sell their home and leave and have that home be demolished, and they can live elsewhere. So what we did here is we managed to track down over 1,500 residents who participated in this program in Houston over a decade and a half.

And I might mention here that there are more than 500 cities and towns across the U.S. that have participated in this federal program, and that’s growing by the day. So it’s very likely that this buyout program has already been underway in your community if you’re a reporter. So in this research, what we are interested in is measuring two different types of distance related to community attachment. So we had one aspect here on the Y – sorry, the X axis, which is the distance that someone moved from their flood-prone home that they sold to their eventual relocated destination. So that’s indicating the relative attachment to place. On the Y axis, we have how far they ended up in their eventual address from other neighbors from their same neighborhood making the same move. That is how much they stay collected. So both of these aspects – attachment to people and attachment to place – are elements of the social value of home. So what the results show is that across these 1,500 or so participants, those that are undergoing this policy in more racially and economically privileged communities end up moving, but they do so closer to where they left and closer to one another.

So that allows them to maintain the social value of their home as they retreat. The opposite pattern we find in less racially and economically privileged categories or communities. So we find them being dispersed. So in that situation, folks are facing a difficult choice, right? You either mitigate your risk and remove yourself from risk, or you maintain the social value of your community. But you can’t do both, at least not to the same extent as people are able to do it in these more privileged communities. So to conclude, the main point here is that the real disaster, at least socially, comes after the disaster through these compounding, cascading programs and policies that basically, through initial response, through recovery, then through mitigation, keep compounding social inequities in ways we often don’t see after the storm passes. Thank you.


What are some science-backed tips and pitfalls-to-avoid for reporters covering hurricanes?


RICK WEISS: So interesting. Thank you, Jim. And it’s – I love it when I see, you know, scientific method being applied to these seemingly squishy, difficult to assess social issues and really get some – start to see what’s working and what’s not working. You got to love the methodology being brought to bear there. So we’re going to start with the Q&A session here. And I generally start these briefings with one question from myself just to get things started. And that question is meant to help reporters in a very direct way. And it is, can you each say something about something you’ve observed in the coverage of hurricanes and all the impacts of hurricanes that you either appreciate that reporters are doing right in some places or that you wish were done differently or better, just to provide some professional advice, kudos or help to our reporters covering this beat? And I will go back to you, Allison, to give your first response there.


ALLISON WING: Sure. Thanks, Rick. I think that, on the whole, reporters get the science accurate and correct. You know, most of the stories are accurate that I read. And when it comes to attribution of hurricanes and climate change, it used to be that a lot – that I would get the question, you know, was storm such and such caused by climate change? And that’s the wrong question to ask. And I think, you know, I don’t get that question as often anymore. And so I appreciate that the media has started to shift towards the more appropriate questions that we can actually answer, which are things like, you know, how is the likelihood of this event affected by climate change? How is the severity of this event affected by climate change? And so keeping up that shift and moving even more in that direction is great progress to see.


RICK WEISS: Great. I’ll move to Kameshwar here while I remind reporters, in the meanwhile, if you do have questions, you can meanwhile put those over the Q&A icon on your screen. Kameshwar.


SABARETHINAM KAMESHWAR: Thank you, Rick. So one of the things which I like in the reporting that I have seen all around is after disasters or after hurricanes, there are – there’s really good reporting on the impacts, on the failures, you know, on how the infrastructure has got damaged. And it is really useful for us researchers to see what happened because not all of us are able to go out. And any academic report takes a little bit of time to get out. But, you know, the press does a really good job of getting things out immediately so that people can see the impacts. The other thing which I want to – you know, it’s more food for thought or just a thought that I have in mind – is, how can we think about – like, is there appetite for this kind of – you know, this kind of topics, for example, on infrastructure. How can we make them stronger and all of these for communities? Is there appetite for that? And if there is, then, you know, we need to see how we can improve, how we can give information. If not, then how can we increase that appetite so that people can think about their own mitigation and, you know, ask the right questions? So we need to give them information so that they can ask the right questions for their own situation. And that is something, I think, we need to see if we have enough information out for people to do that.


RICK WEISS: Great. Thank you. And Jim.


JAMES ELLIOTT: Right. Thanks. Kameshwar makes some great points. I’ll just echo that I really appreciate what reporters have been able to do with the human element of these things. They show up and, I think, are very good at this time, day and time, of sort of pointing out that there’s typically not one disaster when the hurricane hits, but a lot of different disasters that are playing out. I guess my main recommendation is to keep going. I know it’s hard. But, you know, if we can move beyond the shocking images of the immediate impact and then the immediate response with various personnel, and even beyond the hashtag #strong, you know? These stories are unfolding. And they’re the real story of our age – right? – and how rising social inequality is interfacing with these climate changes that Allison pointed out and the impacts that Kameshwar pointed out. And so this is going to be a long-term issue that has long-term implications for what it means to be an American. So it’s not a coastal problem, a community problem. Everything you’re doing is going to add up to better reporting across, I think, the country and the globe.

Why do hurricanes seem to be lasting longer over land, as well as shifting poleward? Does climate change play a role?


RICK WEISS: Fantastic. Thank you. Thank you for those tips to get us started. And we’ll start with some questions here. I’ve got one to get us going from Rachel Ramirez from CNN. Actually, this is a two-part question for you, Allison. And others could chime in if you desire. But she says, hurricanes tend to weaken after they move over land. But in recent years, they seem to have been lasting longer. Why is that? And what implications are there for this? Also, second, you mentioned hurricanes are reaching peak intensity shifting poleward. Was that the case with Hurricane Henri? It shifted poleward and also slowed down before making landfall. How does climate change play a role in both those instances?


ALLISON WING: Thank you for the questions, Rachel. I’ll answer the second one first. So regarding the evidence we have about this poleward shift and the peak intensity, that is not really looking in a storm-by-storm basis and in relation to their movement. It’s more about taking a look at all of the storms that have occurred and saying, OK, during each storm’s life cycle, where was it in space when it was at its strongest? And that average position is at a higher latitude than it used to be. With Hurricane Henri, it formed around Bermuda and moved poleward and moved to the north, which is a typical track for hurricanes. Hurricanes, in general, move towards the west. Then they turn towards the north before turning and heading east across the ocean if they haven’t dissipated by then. In terms of what the – why that poleward shift and just, on average, where hurricanes are reaching their max intensity, why that’s occurring, we don’t 100% know yet. We think it’s related to the fact that the tropics, overall, is expanding with climate change.

But the exact mechanisms are still an active area of research. And then the first question about hurricanes weakening over land, they weaken over land because they’ve been removed from their energy source. They no longer have access to that transfer of heat and energy from the ocean. But you are right that it seems like they seem to be weakening a little bit more slowly over land. And this is also a very active area of research. There was a study that came out either earlier this year or last year that did suggest that warming would allow hurricanes to maintain their intensity better as they move over land. But, you know, we are really just at the beginning of trying to understand that question. And so it was a really thought-provoking study. But it’s only one study. So I wouldn’t – I think our answer is, we’re not quite sure yet. But it would – you know, that certainly has implications for impacts, especially, you know, if it’s able to maintain its strong winds further inland. Places further inland that, you know, maybe aren’t used to experiencing those strong winds might have to contend with them. So certainly, on a storm-by-storm basis, it could have very serious impacts.


SABARETHINAM KAMESHWAR: Just to chime in on that – so, you know, as we have seen in Hurricane Laura, we had Category 4-strength winds in Lake Charles, which is 40 miles, 50 miles inland. And we had farther communities up north which had that wind. And that meant that people had – which were not susceptible to those wind hazards now are in harm’s way. And that is something from the infrastructure side, which is – which we need to think about is, people who may not have been susceptible earlier now can be because of this, if this trend is going to go on.

Which current FEMA regulations cause or exacerbate social inequities, and what needs change to address these problems?


RICK WEISS: OK. We have a couple of questions here that are related. I’m going to ask them both. They’re both, I think, for you, Jim, having to do with the FEMA information you shared. Mark Schleifstein at the Times-Picayune New Orleans Advocate asks, can you talk in more detail about what FEMA regulations in place now – are in place now that are causing the disparities, which ones need to be changed? And similarly, Martha Quillin from the Raleigh News & Observer is asking, how can FEMA ameliorate the social inequities built into the individual assistance programs that end up splintering communities? So I guess a little more detail on what’s really behind this unfortunate influence of FEMA policies and what could – what needs to be changed.


JAMES ELLIOTT: Right. Great questions. And in short, there are no simple answers. I think the answers are going to be multifold. But what I’ll start with is, maybe what the obvious point is, which first, to fix things, FEMA needs to recognize that there’s a problem. And so this report that I mentioned, it was pretty bold. It’s the first time the National Advisory Council came out and said, this is an issue. You need to deal with it. So that was revolutionary. We’ve got a blueprint. Now, how to actualize that blueprint into action is going to involve a number of different steps. Just in side conversations with folks as part of that panel and sort of talking with them off record, you know, part of it is, where do you start? There are just so many different dimensions of the programs that you’ve probably experienced in New Orleans and around the triangle area that work their way out. So I think what they’re trying to do is divide these up into different types of inequities and different programs that can be addressed in that. So first, the contextual inequities, the housing quality and structures and exposures to different systems that might be mitigated in some way or addressed more proactively to start. Then there are the procedural issues. How do you get people more quickly through the assistance program? And how do you make the assistance they ultimately receive, if successful, go towards long-term solutions instead of just to, you know, one rental situation after another?

And then there the larger contextual issues. So I think the big challenge is, how do you begin to eat that elephant? And it’s going to be a few bites here and there at a time and really starting on local matters. But at least FEMA is now listening and so having those conversations. I know in my conversations with local folks here and around Houston, the information I provide is nothing new. They’ve seen it. So what they’re needing is reporting and the science to make that link and to create the dialogue back and forth, because FEMA is not one thing. It’s a lot of different programs. And many of them filter through the state level, down to local and back up. So it’s going to be a system-wide response. And it’s going to be one that’s going to take a lot of time. But the important part is, we need to do it, right? This is a long-term issue that we all need to tackle.


RICK WEISS: If I can just throw my own follow-on on that – can you briefly just say whether FEMA, any aspect of FEMA, gave an official response to that report? Or should the reporters on the line here be asking for that response?


JAMES ELLIOTT: I think the reporters should be asking. They released their report. It came out and was shared with their director last November. But then it was publicly released on January 6. So it got buried in the news cycle because of all the events and the insurrection that happened on the 6th. So bringing that story back up to the fore and bringing that policy aspect up there and then interfacing that with the new FEMA director and the new directives to really focus on mitigation – because increasingly, the recovery from the last hurricane – or Henri, the current hurricane – is setting the mitigation tone for the next one. So we need to start combining mitigation with recovery, with equity issues, to really build up the social fabric and the social resilience that’s sort of the partner that Kameshwar mentioned to the infrastructural and the hard infrastructural resilience.

When is it time to stop building back and simply move away?


RICK WEISS: OK. We’ve got a question here from James Gilbert, meteorologist at News 8 WROC in Rochester, N.Y. When is it time to stop building back and simply move away? I’ve seen some articles about what I think is called managed retreat. I don’t know. Allison, do you want to try that, or Kameshwar?


ALLISON WING: I mean, managed retreat is basically when we say, yeah, we can’t withstand hurricanes at this location; we need to just abandon it and move our houses, no longer live in that area. I mean, there are certain areas that, you know, are hit time and time again and are just incredibly vulnerable. And we know that from the science. As to whether it’s worth rebuilding or just move back, that’s a question for the other panelists.


RICK WEISS: Does anyone else want to address that question about when is it time just to leave?


SABARETHINAM KAMESHWAR: It’s a hard question because, you know, people have attachments to their places, right? I mean, if someone grew up at a location, it’s not that easy to say, oh, there’s a hurricane coming every other year. We’re just going to move our data (ph). You know, it’s – so one way to look at it is just simply economics. Does it make sense to build again, or is it better to go back and retreat and build it somewhere else? That’s the economic perspective. So if we use the economic perspective, the decisions can be sort of just purely economic. But there is this attachment and the human emotions part of it, which makes it all complicated. So there’s no unique answer to this. In Louisiana, we have examples of complete communities moving together to a different location. So that’s a possibility because when people move, you know, the community just breaks down because everyone moves somewhere else, and, you know, it’s not – the same community cannot be brought back again. But if communities move together, that social fabric can still be kept intact. So it’s – the answer to this is very difficult. It depends on the resources available for a community and what the attachment level they have with that place. Purely from economic standpoint – straightforward, but with human emotions involved in everything, it’s not that straightforward to make a decision like that.


JAMES ELLIOTT: Yeah, and I’ll hop in on that and make a couple of points. One is that that social value does seem to be, again, preserved by those who have means. So it’s clear that people value this and if they have the resources to move close by, they tend to actualize that. So we need to build better policy for those who might not have the resources to retreat together. And on the other note I’ll make is that the current managed retreat policy – I get the fact that it’s probably not a question of if, but when. But when we look at FEMA’s current policy, it was really started in the 1980s to remove people like my grandfather from farmlands that were inundated in the Midwest. It was a rural program for rural folks owning a lot of farmland. If you look at the numbers now, there are over 40,000 buyouts across the country, and more are growing. Most of those – the vast, vast majority of those – are happening in urban areas with neighborhoods where the conversation about community just seems to disappear. The community seems to be something we see in small island communities like Isle de Jean Charles off the Louisiana coast or in Alaskan communities there. But we need to bring that community concept and sensibility into cities, and that’s going to be tricky. But getting the equity piece right is important because the question isn’t if government is responding to this. It’s how the response is playing out unequally for different groups.

Hurricane Katrina slightly de-intensified but expanded in size before landfall. Is that a trend?


RICK WEISS: That’s super interesting – a lot of good story ideas in there as we shift towards urban movement. A question here for you, Allison – this is back to Mark Schleifstein from The Times-Picayune and New Orleans Advocate. It seems that Katrina slightly de-intensified, he says, but expanded in size before landfall. Is that a trend now?


ALLISON WING: So we do see that within the life cycle of a hurricane, its intensity can go up and down, and its size can change a little bit. When hurricanes make landfall, sometimes they weaken before they make landfall. Sometimes they’re strengthening right up until the point of landfall, which we’ve also seen from a number of storms in recent years. It really just depends on this particular storm and the conditions around that time. But with those intensity fluctuations, if a hurricane goes through something called an eyewall replacement cycle – which is where its strongest winds in the eyewall will start to weaken a little bit, and then a new eyewall forms a little bit of a further distance away from the center, and then that can become the primary eyewall – and so when that happens, the storm does usually weaken, at least temporarily. But the strongest storms are further away from the center. So we do often see those size changes and intensity changes go hand in hand.

And I’m glad you brought up the size changes, because when it comes to impacts, you know, I think size is a thing that’s often under-appreciated in that, first of all, the area that is affected is, of course, larger if the storm is larger. But some of the actual impacts, especially things like storm surge – their severity depends on the size of the storm. You’ll have more coastal flooding and more storm surge with a larger storm because its winds are blowing over more area, pushing up more water. And that’s – and size is something that, you know, we still don’t have a complete understanding of, and it’s sometimes sort of forgotten in the conversation. So it’s definitely an important thing to consider from an impact’s perspective.

What are the impacts of repeat storms affecting the same areas over again, particularly for highly industrial areas or places where coastlines are disappearing?


RICK WEISS: OK. And a follow-up question here – I’ll also remind reporters of the Q&A icon at the bottom, if you have more questions. We have a few lined up here. I’m going to turn first back to Rachel Ramirez at CNN. She has a follow-up for Dr. Kameshwar. She says, meteorologists say there’s another storm brewing in the Atlantic now and that it might hit Lake Charles again. At the same time, last year, Hurricane Laura pummeled the area, as you’ve noted, and severe flooding happened afterwards. Can you talk more about the repeat nature or the impacts of these storms in areas like Lake Charles or even just Louisiana in general, which is dotted with industrial and fossil fuel facilities and seeing the coastline disappearing more and more?


SABARETHINAM KAMESHWAR: Yeah. Thank you for that question. So last year, Hurricane Laura happened, and immediately, in a month, we had a second hurricane, Hurricane Delta, which was – which made landfall in – at pretty much the same location. So we had back-to-back hurricanes even last year. And as you correctly pointed out, we have another one coming probably – hopefully not. You know, I hope it doesn’t – it just goes away somehow, but it won’t. Again, we have a – we have another hurricane looking at us right now. But, you know, so as these hurricanes happen again and again, back-to-back, that – there are multiple impacts of that. One, for homeowners – or not just homeowners, for people in general – for houses that got damaged during Laura were not fixed up until Delta. And now, a lot of those houses have still not been fixed yet. So for people who have already damaged houses, they might have further damage to their houses, and that will just make things worse for them. And people who did – who were able to fix the damage to their houses might see damages again. So I know several of – several people in my social group who had, you know, their places in Lake Charles, and they lost months of their life just fixing their home, living in a hotel and things of that nature. And that is going to have – that might happen again.

And that’s the human impact of it, is just people have – people’s life is completely unsettled because of that. And COVID on top of that is adding extra layers of risk when people are not – you know, when people cannot stay safe at home at this point. The second point is the infrastructure, which is the petrochemical infrastructure. On that side – so on that side – so there are several design guidelines. The one which is commonly used for storage tanks – I’ll talk mostly about storage tanks here because I’m most familiar with them. For example, there is a guideline called American Petroleum Institute 650. It’s a guideline for designing storage tanks. And that is – there are provisions for preventing wind failure, but there are very little provisions for preventing storm surge failure. So the question is, as we have sea level rise and, you know, stronger hurricanes, what is going to be the impact on those tanks and, consequently, the coastal parishes in Louisiana and the ecosystem there? So those are the kind of things that we need to think about. And there is an ongoing effort within the API community, within the industry, for – to come up with a set of guidelines to prevent accidents during hurricanes. For example, we had the Murphy Oil spill during Katrina. So to prevent that kind of accidents, there are some ongoing work. For example, there’s a committee called API 656 which is looking at this. But the bigger point is that our infrastructure is vulnerable, our oil and gas supply chains – as much as it is that we are going to phase it out eventually, but at this moment, we are dependent on oil and gas.

And it is essential for everyone to fill up their gas tanks for electricity and all of that. So our energy security at this moment is at threat because of these repeat hurricanes. And it is necessary for us to make our infrastructure safer. And if not, it may not be possible again here. I think I’ll go back to the retreat point. At some point for this case – in these cases, these are pieces of infrastructure. It’s an economic – purely economic decision. So some – we have to think about is it better to retreat and re-set up our industry at some other location where it is less vulnerable to failure, or do we keep our infrastructure where they are, where they might damage ecosystems and communities? So it is something that we need to think about.


JAMES ELLIOTT: I would just like to hop in there and point out that this is going to be one of the big issues going forward because there’s rarely going to just be a, quote, unquote, “natural disaster.” It’s almost always going to interface with these industrial hazards. And these types of social inequities and exposures and inequalities and procedure that I’ve mentioned, those happen in these fence line communities. These are where people who typically already are facing the burdens that I mentioned from the research are now facing this larger burden of an existential threat not just of a changing planet, but of their own health as they get exposed as first responders decide whether or not it’s safe to wander through that. In some of the research in Houston we’re finding the biggest fears about the future in respect to climate change and whatnot isn’t sort of determined or associated with whether you flooded in the last hurricane or whether or not, you know, you had friends or family or these sorts of thing or lost work, it’s whether or not you thought your neighborhood was polluted. The more polluted, the more you worry about the long-term consequences of these issues. It’s not just about the climate.


ALLISON WING: If I could add something, too – it’s a really interesting and important issue both societally and scientifically. So when you have a particular area getting hit in close succession by, you know, multiple hurricanes or other types of extreme weather events, that’s called a compound event. And it’s something that’s becoming a greater area of interest in terms of research into extreme weather events of all types because in addition to just having one hurricane after another, you know, you could have a hurricane and then have some other sort of, you know, extreme flooding event, or you could have a heat wave and a drought at the same time. And then we also have to worry about these things occurring not just in the same place at the same time, but, you know, within, you know, the same region or country because it’s something that sort of stretches our resources and ability to respond. I mean, last year, at the time that Louisiana was getting pummeled by hurricanes, there were also devastating wildfires occurring in the West Coast. And that’s something that, you know, national organizations like FEMA, you know, have to manage – how to deploy their resources across, you know, multiple threats in multiple areas. And so this issue of compound events of all types of extremes is, you know, only going to become a bigger problem going forward.

Are there examples of communities or cities that are doing a good job in terms of hurricane preparedness or policies that protect citizens equitably?


RICK WEISS: We’ve got time for just maybe two more questions, and one is for any of you here. But I wonder if any of you would like to point to a community or a city that you think has sort of a stellar – is doing a stellar job of addressing some of these issues in terms of preparedness or changing policies or protecting their people more equitably that reporters on the call today might want to look at – if it’s their own communities or check out, even if it’s elsewhere – as exemplars of doing something right. Would any of you like to volunteer to name a community or two that’s doing something interesting, innovative?


JAMES ELLIOTT: I think a lot of places are, and we don’t get enough reporting. So I’d like to turn the question around and have people on the ground. But I know here in Houston, there are marginalized communities who are doing remarkable things with the social resources they have in areas that are perpetually being flooded with poor drainage infrastructure. And they’re rallying and trying to work with their elected officials and do that. So I don’t want to call out any by name, but just to say that, you know, if you don’t hear folks, you know, advocating on behalf of their neighborhoods to do this, it’s out there if you dig a little bit. And the key is to maybe give them a stronger voice so that they can keep pushing for the equity issues. I know that’s happening here in Houston. When I lived in New Orleans and went through Katrina, that was happening there as well. The results were not always what we hoped for and were slower to come, but there are people doing great work.

What is one key take-home message for reporters covering hurricanes?


RICK WEISS: This sounds like a great opportunity for some Twitter reporting, where reporters can just put out the ask on social media – who’s working on this? It sounds like it’s happening, but it might require a little bit of digging. So we’re close to the top of the hour, and I want to just wrap up with one final question for everyone. And that is just if you could – we’ll go around the horn here and just take a half minute or a minute each to talk about a take-home, to just mention a take-home message. If there’s one thing you want reporters to walk away with today that sticks in their head as they do their reporting on this, what would it be? Allison, I’ll start with you.


ALLISON WING: Sure. I think my take-home message is something I mentioned in my presentation, which is to think about, you know, the multiple hazards that hurricanes bring. And I would say this applies both from a perspective of, you know, what do we talk about and worry about when an individual storm is approaching, but as well as the sort of the longer sort of climate change projections and adaptation and mitigation. You know, it’s not all about just how many storms and how strong they are. It’s also about, you know, where they go and how big they are and how much rain they produce. And especially those water-related impacts – you know, the vast majority of deaths from hurricanes come from those water-related impacts, from people dying in floods, drowning – either storm surge or inland flooding. And so don’t forget those sort of less obvious kind of impacts of hurricanes because they’re some of the ones that we have the most confidence in in terms of how they’re worsening with climate change and are some of the ones that cause the most devastating impacts.


RICK WEISS: Thank you, Allison. Kameshwar.


SABARETHINAM KAMESHWAR: So from the infrastructure side, I think one thing which I would like to, you know, give you all as a takeaway message is that hurricanes and other disasters are going to happen. We cannot stop them. The natural disasters cannot be stopped, but I think we can reduce their impact on infrastructure and consequently on people by simply having a better planning, you know? And then also we need to make people aware of what all are the potential impacts and the methods that can be used – not just technical methods, but, you know, just have a conversation. Oh, what do we do to improve our infrastructure? What do we have to do? What are our priorities, you know? So that kind of discussion alone is a good starting point, which will help us mitigate these hazards going forward in the future.


RICK WEISS: Thank you. And over to you, Jim.


JAMES ELLIOTT: Right, I think you all have heard it, but basically keep reporting. Maybe start reporting after the last weather folks have shot their footage in their yellow slickers. That’s when the job starts, because ultimately these hurricanes are about us as people and how we recover. And the story doesn’t stop when, you know, the raindrop – the last raindrop falls. So I think that’s where the real work starts – in following the stories of people making sense of what it means now to face the issue that they’re in. Particularly around housing and access to resources, they need to get going. Because we know that if you’re behind the eight ball early on, that these things tend to compound and cascade not just in terms of meteorological phenomenon, but also in terms of social inequities, where, you know, one inequity sort of builds on the other and builds on the other, and it becomes very difficult to pull yourself back and give you and your children a future. So keep going.


RICK WEISS: Great. Thank you for that advice. And to all three of you, thank you for your participation today and your preparation for this super interesting and informative event. For reporters on the line, I want to thank you for attending too and remind you or tell you that as you log off today, you will be prompted for a very short survey – just three quick questions. It takes a half a minute. We all hate surveys, but we all benefit from the surveys. We want to make sure that these briefings continue to be useful and as good as they can be to help you in your job. So please take that half minute, answer three quick questions. That will help us all. I also want to remind everyone to check out the website and to follow us on Twitter at @RealSciLine. Thank you all for your participation today. It’s been such an interesting session. I look forward to seeing you reporters again at our next media briefing. So long.

Dr. Jim Elliott

Rice University and the Kinder Institute of Urban Research

Dr. James “Jim” Elliott is professor and chair of sociology at Rice University and faculty affiliate at the Kinder Institute of Urban Research. He is a former advisor to the National Science Foundation’s program in sociology and past co-editor of the journal Sociological Perspectives. Dr. Elliott’s research focuses on the social production of inequalities and environmental hazards, identifying social inequities revealed and exacerbated by natural hazards and government-led recoveries as well as the historical accumulation and systemic spread of industrial hazards.

Dr. Sabarethinam Kameshwar

Louisiana State University

Dr. Sabarethinam Kameshwar is an assistant professor at Louisiana State University. His research focuses on performance of infrastructure systems subjected to natural hazards such as hurricanes and earthquakes. Specifically, his research focuses on multi-hazard performance of bridges and oil storage tanks, infrastructure resilience to extreme events, and hazard mitigation decision support tools for infrastructure systems considering deep uncertainties.

Dr. Allison Wing

Florida State University

Dr. Allison Wing is an assistant professor in Florida State University’s department of earth, ocean, and atmospheric science. She studies tropical convection, tropical cyclones, and climate using idealized numerical modeling and analysis of observations and comprehensive climate models. Prior to arriving at FSU, Dr. Wing was a National Science Foundation postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where she maintains an appointment as an adjunct associate research scientist.


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