Number 13, December 1998
"What's happening on the Societal Aspects of Weather WWW Site."
In October 1998, tropical storm Mitch (weakened after reaching Category 5 hurricane strength) dumped a tremendous amount of rain on the Central American nations of Honduras and Nicaragua. The storm, which had once been one of the most powerful ever recorded in the Atlantic, resulted in the loss of more than perhaps 10,000 lives and US$5 billion in damages. These numbers are beyond simple comprehension. This editorial seeks to place Mitch in context and to draw some of the lessons from this tragedy.
How bad was Mitch? Mitch was one of the worst disasters in recorded history in the western hemisphere. There are only a few tropical cyclones ever recorded which have resulted in a greater loss of life, the 1900 Galveston hurricane and a storm in the late 1700s are Mitch's only peers. To place Mitch in context, consider that 10,000 lives lost in Honduras and Nicaragua would be proportionally equivalent to the loss of 300,000 lives in the United States. The economic devastation in the region has also been significant. According to the Economist magazine, the storm resulted in damages in Honduras equal to about the nation's Gross National Product (US$4 billion), and in Nicaragua about one half of its Gross National Product (US$2 billion). These amounts are large in absolute terms, but in proportional terms are truly catastrophic. In the U.S., GDP is about $8 trillion dollars. All insured property in the first tier of coastal counties from Texas through Maine totals about $4 trillion dollars or about half of GDP. Of course, in absolute terms, the impacts of Mitch pale in comparison to some events in the eastern hemisphere.
So if we are to imagine the impacts of Mitch proportionally in the U.S., it would be the equivalent of the total loss of every piece of insured property in the 168 coastal counties from Texas through Maine (to be equal to Nicaragua's impacts), plus an equal amount of property damage elsewhere (to be equivalent to impacts in Honduras). Of course, the scale of the U.S. compared to Central American nations makes such a comparison difficult, but putting Mitch in terms of proportional impacts in the United States does help to illustrate the devastating impacts of this storm. The point is not that these sorts of impacts could occur in the U.S., but instead, that the impacts to these nations are well beyond anything ever seen in the U.S.
Mitch should prove to be as loud a wake-up call as Andrew was in 1992. Like Andrew, Mitch gives us warning that our assessments of tropical cyclone vulnerability need to be improved. Mitch warns us that the potential for a large loss of life due to tropical cyclone rains may be larger now than in any time in history. Consider population growth in central America and large islands of the Caribbean. In flood-prone Nicaragua and Honduras, population has grown about tenfold over 100 years. Similar trends have occurred in other Central American and Caribbean nations. This information, to a first approximation, suggests that human exposure is greater now than at any time in the past.
What is to be done? First, there is an imperative to better understand the dimensions of human vulnerability to tropical cyclone impacts. Who is exposed, where, and why? This information will be of little use unless it is incorporated into decisions that lead to a reduction in vulnerability (see, for example, a recent essay by M.H. Glantz Hurricane Mitch: Foreign Assistance and Building a new Honduras for the 21st Century (http://www.fragilecologies.com/nov17_98.html). This will require that the fortunate of the world, like the US, commit significant resources to countries like Honduras and Nicaragua so that vulnerability can be reduced. Without such aid, we will undoubtedly see more Mitch-like events in the future.
— Roger A. Pielke, Jr.
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In April 1999 the U.S. Weather Research Program will hold its first science symposium. The focus of the symposium will be on hurricanes and precipitation and will include the participation of both physical and social scientists. The objective of the symposium is to provide an opportunity for those researchers funded by the program to exchange information on recent research and to stimulate interdisciplinary interaction. You don't need to be a program PI to participate. This is especially important for those researchers in the social sciences, whose support by the program is scheduled to begin in FY 1999. So if you are a social scientist studying the impacts of precipitation or hurricanes, or focus in the area of the use, misuse, or value of forecasts, please consider attending the symposium. It is a good opportunity for past, present, and potential future awardees of the program to share research with others interested in addressing the U.S. weather problem. A letter of invitation and an agenda are linked.
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These links are courtesy of the Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado.
Beyond the many sources of news on the World Wide Web about this unprecedented catastrophe, the following sites offer additional country-specific details, as well as information about relief and recovery needs and operations:
Official updates, requests, and background information from the United Nations ReliefWeb site.
Information on recovery and media updates from the Pan American Health Organization.
PAHO's DisasterInfo e-mail list, providing subscribers with current information about disasters and disaster management in Latin America and the Caribbean.
A site created to facilitate response and recovery to this disaster.
The U.S. Geological Survey's Center for Integration of Natural Disaster Information's "Hurricane Mitch Atlas," with maps of the hurricane path, consolidated regional infrastructure, roads, streams and reservoirs, the regional electrical network, utility lines, airports and cities, land use, volcanoes, and various dimensions of potential flood risk.
The site for the United Nations Hurricane Mitch Information Center Honduras — offers situations reports, needs assessments, accounts of U.N. and other international response operations, and a list of other useful Web sites.
The Honduras Hurricane Mitch Web site — with official information about the disaster and contact information regarding institutions authorized to accept donations.
Data on the devastation and requests for aid from the government of Honduras, Office of the President.
News, including local information, about the disaster, discussion, and a means for contributing to the relief effort.
The site of COPECO, the Permanent Emergency Commission of Honduras — the agency within the country in charge of coordinating international response. The site includes an extensive list of needed supplies.
Extensive summary data on Hurricane Mitch, maps, lists of needs, and information about donating money and supplies.
A plea for aid and information on how to help.
Information from the Pan American Health Organization Office in Nicaragua on the consequences for that country.
Information from Costa Rica's Comision Nacional de Emergencias.
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