From: Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent, Reuters
Published August 27, 2007 06:20 PM

Super Hurricanes Coming, Experts Warn Communities

WASHINGTON - Global warming is expected to cause more severe hurricanes, and that means U.S. communities will need new tactics to minimize storm damage, emergency preparedness experts said on Monday.


These tactics range from restoring wetlands -- which may actually slow down approaching storms -- to making homes and other structures better able to withstand hurricanes to organizing finances so more can be spent on prevention, the panel of experts said.


Peter Webster, who teaches environmental engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, noted the consequences of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the U.S. Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005.


"We have a choice ... of being able to take hits like Katrina and pay the cost of $150 to $200 billion and many, many lives, or we have the choice of spending perhaps one-tenth or one-twentieth of that per year in hardening our infrastructure," Webster said.


Many scientists, including most of those working with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have reported a link between global warming and the severity of hurricanes.


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World surface temperatures have risen about 1 degree F (.55C) over the last 100 years, and are forecast to rise further this century. Because hurricanes feed on warm ocean water, some climate scientists foresee more severe hurricanes.


COSTLIEST NATURAL DISASTERS


Hurricanes account for nine of the 10 costliest U.S. natural disasters since 1989, with Hurricane Katrina at the top of the list with $125 billion in damage and 1,833 deaths, according to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


The only non-hurricane on the list was the Northridge, California, earthquake of 1994.


These statistics were cited in a report on how to cope with the stronger hurricanes expected to be associated with increased global warming, issued by the liberal Center for American Progress think tank, which also convened the forum where Webster and others spoke.


Jane Bullock, who was chief of staff at FEMA during the Clinton administration and now is based at George Washington University, said local community efforts including government, business, universities and environmental groups can be effective in mitigating the worst hurricanes' effects.


"We know it works, it worked in the 1990s," Bullock said. "It saves money. For every one dollar invested in mitigation, there's four dollars in benefits."


Bullock said one good mitigation project for coastal communities most vulnerable to hurricanes is to retain or restore wetlands.


Wetlands, which used to be drained as a matter of course in the United States, provide flood control by absorbing excess water during storms, filter pollutants before they enter streams, lakes and oceans and protect coastal areas from erosion, according to a 2006 Government Accountability Office report.


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