Gluttons for Our Doom

There are so many topics I could share with you, but somehow all of them seem depressing to me. Like possibly irreversible ‘dead zones’ in the Pacific Ocean. Instead, in honor of the remaining seven weeks in this year’s largely quiet Atlantic hurricane season, let’s revisit Gilchrist, Texas, on the Bolivar Peninsula.

Gilchrist, Texas, was built on the narrowest part of a peninsula that at its highest point is only 10 feet above sea level. In 2008, Hurricane Ike brought winds of over 110 mph coupled with a 14-foot storm surge and waves topping 20 feet. The storm knocked 99 and 1/2% of the town’s 1000 buildings off their foundations and left virtually no surviving infrastructure in the community – electrical and water systems, bridges and roads, everything, needed to be reconstructed.

It’s not a location that is alone. Take a look at these statistics: in recent years, $11 or 12 billion dollars in damage from a single storm has become commonplace. Hurricane Katrina resulted in $100 billion in uninsured losses, cut U.S. economic growth by a full 1/2 percent, and by 2008 had required U.S. government spending of more than $200 billion.

Compare these billion dollar losses with the estimated $25 – 37.5 million per year in insurance premiums nationwide and you’ll get an idea of why these storms cost taxpayers all across the country. When Andrew destroyed 60,000 homes in Florida in 1992, it bankrupted 11 local insurance companies.

Hurricanes happen. And about 35 million people live along the coastline from North Carolina to Texas, the region that is most likely to be impacted by hurricanes. At least some of these millions of people live in areas that are just as or even more vulnerable than Gilchrist. It’s now a year since that town was mostly washed away for the second time in three years, and currently, Gilchrist, Texas, is being rebuilt.

It’s simple, really: We Americans seem to be bad at being told what to do, but we’re perhaps even worse at being told what not to do. People are going to continue to live in coastal areas for a variety of reasons, and even suggesting that perhaps some areas should not be built upon is likely to provoke the masses. Still, perhaps the provoking will lead to discussion, and ultimately an informed dialog, about locations, building codes, and vulnerability to nature. However we view the fate of Gilchrist, it’s a vivid example of the importance of understanding how our natural environment can influence our lives and livelihoods. In education, it’s called a teachable moment.