Hurricanes can be the most threatening and costly of natural disasters. When a big one hits, the health of our country drops: unemployment rises, the stock market falls. The impact is so enormous because coastal areas — the places most affected by storms — are home to 40 percent of America’s jobs and 46 percent of our GDP.
As another devastating hurricane season wraps up, the cleanup, healing, and rebuilding is only just beginning. Before we can move forward, we need to understand why hurricanes cause so much damage in the communities they affect.
We prepare for a battering from wind and rain by hurricanes but are continuously ambushed by the flooding, water contamination, and destruction that happen while the sun is shining. This season, Hurricane Florence alone tragically left more than 50 people dead and damaged 700,000 homes and buildings. When Hurricane Michael struck Florida and the Carolina coast a few weeks later, the area was submerged again before the ground had even had a chance to dry.
Global warming means that these storms are becoming ever more common and catastrophic. We see more rain during the storm, as human pollution has made rainfall 50 percent more intense. In the wake of these disasters — and with recovery from Hurricanes Harvey and Maria ongoing more than a year later — we must learn the lessons and adapt our urban planning and our habits to protect our future from more damage.
Planning for future storms means planning for how storms actually unfold. These are some of the most urgent and practical ways we can put our learning into action.
As the intensity of our storms increase, we need to realize that though solutions may seem costly in the short term, acting now will save us far greater costs in the future. Working together on sustainable development between hurricanes will protect us when the next storm hits.
For cities, this means accounting for heavy, rapid downpours as well as extended rainfall by planning urban areas with more green space, elevated buildings, and pervious surfaces that detain and manage water. For individuals, this means knowing the risks our property carries, getting our homes inspected to see whether they meet updated building codes, and making sure we’re well covered by insurance in case of the worst.
The scale and methods of our land development have further intensified rain’s effect as we blanket the earth with concrete and asphalt, impervious surfaces that prevent rain from absorbing naturally. The result is more water flooding businesses and homes. By covering our land with concrete, we divert the natural flow of stormwater and turn it into dangerous flooding. Instead of fighting nature, we should be imitating it.
Biomimicry does just that: looking to nature to for its patterns of hydrology, physics, engineering, and biology to design solutions that work. For example, a team of scientists, engineers, and designers has used biomimicry to develop “ECOncrete,” a coastal defense system inspired by the natural resilience of rock pools and oyster beds.
Homes can also imitate natural habitats, which often makes them more environmentally friendly, safe, and energy-efficient. It’s important to increase green space around homes and buildings, whether that means leaving natural, predevelopment site conditions in place, installing permeably paved driveways instead of concrete, or adding vegetated areas in every space possible — anything and everything to absorb water naturally and protect land and homes against flooding from storms.
The way we effectively learn from the storms that have hurt us in the past is by educating ourselves, those around us, and the generations to come. In Houston, for example, there has been an explosion of public education regarding stormwater management and the social, environmental and economic impact after the recent years of massive flooding. It’s also important that higher education students are taught about how to adapt the world around them to make it environmentally sustainable.
These actions can be part of systemic efforts among developers, city planners, architects, home and business owners as we work together to effect change. These changes will have to begin on a small scale; small actions can and will result in big transformations.
To learn how we can design our urban environments to efficiently and effectively handle storms, take a look at our whitepaper, “Stormwater Management Updated: Permeable Pavers Are the Answer.”