The New Normal: Lessons from Hurricane Harvey

Andy Koenigsberg

Aug 28, 2017

Many years ago, when I lived on the Gulf Coast, I went sailing with a friend near Galveston. During the late afternoon, we could watch the formation of thunderstorms over the water. The process literally looked as if the clouds were boiling up out of the Gulf of Mexico.

Actually, the explanation is not that farfetched. It is the energy of the warm Gulf waters that give these storms their energy, and can transform a disorganized group of thunderstorm cells into a Category 3 or 4 hurricane in a matter of a couple of days. This was the case with Katrina in 2005 and with Harvey this year.

Begs the question, are either of these hurricanes the result of climate change. Short answer is no. We have always had hurricanes, but a better question to ask is if the warmer waters of the oceans give these storms greater energy than they might have without it.

An analysis in a journal article estimates that since 1968, the additional heat stored in the shallowest depths of the oceans as our climate has warmed is roughly 200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules. That is equivalent to 5 MILLION megatons of TNT. The biggest H-bomb ever detonated was “just” 50 megatons.

Given that a single hurricane consumes about 12,500 megatons of energy or 200 times the electrical generation of the planet PER DAY, the answer to the question of whether global warming makes hurricanes stronger is, yes, most likely. There is energy to spare stored in the oceans that was not there a few decades ago.

The amount of rain pouring on Texas as I write this column is estimated at around 50 inches in some areas. That’s more than what we get up here in New England in an average year.

One of the lessons of this storm is that living outside the 100-year flood plain is no guarantee of safety. The second lesson is that the lack of regional planning and unchecked urban sprawl which Houston represents made such flooding far, far worse. Keep that in mind the next time you want to curse the Planning Board or our storm water management regulations.

In the coming weeks, we will feel the effects of Harvey, as most of the refineries which supply gasoline to large parts of the US are located in the Houston area and may be shut down for weeks to repair damage, but that is the least of it.

According to an article just sent to me by a friend who is an insurance actuarial, less than one sixth of the households in the Houston area have flood insurance. Either people could not afford it or they live in areas formerly not thought to be subject to flooding.

The economic effects of this storm will ripple through the economy in the years to come. Some areas are completely wiped out and this is just in the Corpus Christie and Rockport areas where the storm hit directly. The rains that have inundated the fourth largest city in America has left tens of thousands homeless already. What are many of these people going to do when insurance won’t cover the damage?

The post-Katrina history of New Orleans is instructive. There are vast swaths of the city that have never been rebuilt. The block I lived on up near the Lake Pontchartrain back in 1984 is still largely vacant 12 years later.

A nightmare scenario for the region’s economy is that like New Orleans, many people will just walk away from their homes and their mortgages. They won’t rebuild because they can’t afford it, even with Federal disaster aid assistance. Insurance companies, seeing how vulnerable large areas of Houston are to flooding, will jack up insurance rates even for standard homeowners insurance, not only in Houston but all over southeast Texas, making homeownership an even harder proposition.

Then there is the question of who will be willing to buy in these now vulnerable areas. Banks will be flooded (pun intended) with thousands of homes that may well be worthless, causing the real estate market to tank.

This scenario was expected to play out in Florida before anywhere else, but Texas may well be the first poster child for this kind of real estate collapse. This doesn’t even begin to cover the suffering of the many less fortunate people who will be left homeless by this disaster, who also lost everything as well.

I fear that what we are seeing here is part of the New Normal. Storm events whose frequency and magnitude will forever change our expectations. We are fortunate that this disaster did not hit us, but do not think for a moment that we are invulnerable.