Jeni Miller: Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are not so natural disasters

Human decisions are ramping up the intensity and frequency of such storms and making their consequences worse

On 25 August I started texting my sister and her husband every few hours. As I watched the news, Hurricane Harvey was headed right toward them in Houston. Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Irma was flattening Caribbean islands and aimed straight up the center of Florida, toward my father, brother, and teenage nephews.

Hurricane Harvey unleashed a deluge on Texas, dumping a staggering 40-50 inches of rain, more than Houston’s typical annual rainfall, in just a few days. While the death toll hasn’t been high, the near- and long-term impacts on people’s health will be significant. Damaged oil refineries bled pollutants into the flood waters, and explosions at a chemical plant released airborne toxic fumes. The floodwaters carried raw sewage, spillage from gasoline and chemical storage tanks, pesticides and motor oil from people’s flooded garages, and may have been contaminated by several highly polluted Superfund sites.

Irma put vast numbers of Florida residents on the move, under mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders, and millions of people in the state have lost power, for up to several weeks to come. In the Caribbean, which took the full force of Irma as a category 5 hurricane, 60%-99% of homes and buildings were destroyed on several islands.

With the storms now past, people are grappling with injuries, displacement, lack of clean water, and lack of access to their medications. Receding waters in Texas will leave behind a layer of toxic sludge, and mold will pose a respiratory risk in buildings and homes that were flooded. While Houston’s hospitals came through Harvey fairly well, many doctors’ offices didn’t do so well, affecting people’s access to primary care. Those who can’t replace their cars will struggle to get to work, school, the grocery store, and so on.

The needs are more basic throughout the Caribbean right now—water, food, shelter—and humanitarian aid is key. And in Florida, we’ve already seen the death toll rise, when high temperatures and no power for air conditioning resulted in heat stroke for several seniors. Throughout all of these regions, many will lack stable housing for months or much longer. We know from previous hurricanes, such as Katrina and Sandy, that it will take years for many people to rebuild their lives, and that the stress and uncertainty take their toll.

Hurricanes are a fact of life in these regions. But human decisions are ramping up the intensity and frequency of such storms and making their consequences worse. Dense coastal development and destruction of protective marshland puts more people in harm’s way. And while human-caused climate change did not create these storms, it almost certainly increased their force, according to the World Meteorological Organization, which projects yet more frequent storms of this intensity to come.

What should we do, in the face of these disasters?

First, of course, we must respond to the needs of those impacted by the storms.

But responding will never be enough to keep up, if our own contributions to such disasters aren’t also addressed. If cities continue to ignore flood danger and rising sea levels, and pave over buffering ecosystems, no amount of hospital preparedness will suffice and the costs to rebuild will just keep rising. If we keep emitting the greenhouse gases that drive global warming, we’ll see hurricanes grow bigger, linger longer, and do more damage.

The US administration has cut federal risk mitigation requirements and has been pushing to cut many of the programs key to disaster preparedness. And by pulling out of the Paris Agreement and attacking greenhouse gas regulations, President Trump seems to want to guarantee that there will indeed be more frequent Harveys and Irmas.

As health professionals, we have a responsibility here. Certainly, we must prepare our facilities and ready our disaster response plans. And if these storms were purely acts of nature, that might be the best we could do.

But we know that policy decisions vastly increased the human impact of these storms. And at the Global Climate and Health Alliance, we know that doctors, nurses, public health professionals, and our organizations can make a critical difference in guiding policy. Even as we manage the aftermath of the current storms, we must be pushing for evidence-based policies to address the human-caused climate change making storms fiercer and more frequent.

My family, in both Houston and Florida, are fine. We are luckier than many others. But hoping for luck is a poor substitute for taking action, in the face of these unnatural disasters.

Jeni Miller, PhD, executive director, Global Climate and Health Alliance, @GCHAlliance.

Competing interests: None declared.