|A STORMY YEAR|
December 29, 1998
Phil Ponce recalls a year of devastating weather with Janet Abramovitz, senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, Bob Watson, director of the Environment Department at the World Bank; and John Clizbe, vice president of disaster services at the American Red Cross.
JIM LEHRER: This bad year in weather and to Phil Ponce.
PHIL PONCE: Mother Nature reeked havoc across the globe in 1998. Many experts call it one of the worst years ever for weather disasters.
Early this spring in Indonesia and Malaysia, severe drought and dry, thinning rain forests called wildfires to spread. Hundreds of thousands of acres of forests were blackened by the blaze and smoke covered the countryside, prompting thousands of people to seek treatment for respiratory infections.
In Western India last June a cyclone swept a half dozen villages in the western state of Gujarat into the sea. More than a thousand people were killed. Winds up to 65 miles per hour destroyed homes and cut communication lines. A month later, a massive tidal wave in Papua New Guinea killed at least 2,000 people. A 23-foot wall of water crashed into what used to be a string of fishing villages in this Pacific nation. In August, flooding on China's Yangtze River killed over 3,000 people, left 14 million homeless, and devastated at least 12 million acres of farmland. The price tag for China's worst flooding in more than 40 years is estimated at $30 billion. According to the World Watch Institute, that made it the costliest disaster of 1998.
But there was more flood damage to come. Within weeks in Bangladesh, the rising Jamuna River caused the worst flood in that area's history. For two months 2/3 of Bangladesh as underwater; 30 million people were forced to leave their homes.
And this year, hurricanes devastated countries in the Caribbean and Central America. Hurricane Georges' high winds and torrential rains left a path of destruction as it moved through both rich and poor areas of the Caribbean, including St. Kitts & Nevis, Anguilla, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba's eastern coast. It moved north through the Florida Keys.
But Hurricane Mitch was even bigger, the most destructive natural disaster in Central America's modern history. For five days torrential rains, flooding, and mudslides caused extensive damage in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. Nearly 2 million people were left homeless. In Honduras, officials said the economy had been set back 25 years.
Closer to home, Canada and New England suffered from the worst ice storm on record. The freezing rain and severe cold caused at least 30 deaths and left close to 1 million people without electricity. The cost for the damage reached more than $3 billion. Florida suffered when it was hit with the deadliest round of tornadoes in history. Winds up to 260 miles per hour battered the central part of the state. At least 39 people were killed and hundreds injured. Neighborhoods and shopping centers were turned to rubble.
Then last summer, with temperatures of more than 100 degrees, three separate forest fires burned out of control in Florida for weeks. Three hundred and fifty homes and businesses were destroyed, an estimated 500,000 acres burned. Thirty thousand people were forced to evacuate their homes. In September, Hurricane Bonnie, the first hurricane of the season, damaged the Florida Keys before it hit North Carolina, with 115 mile per hour winds. And Mother Nature made her presence known through the holiday as a pre-Christmas Eve ice storm froze the Southeast United States. Virginia was especially hard hit. [On Dec. 29] more than 50,000 Virginia residents are still without heat or electricity. And in the Northwest driving rain and melting snow resulted in massive flooding and mudslides in Oregon and Washington State. It's the worst flooding in the region since 1996.
|1998: A record-setting year.|
PHIL PONCE: Joining me now are Janet Abramovitz, senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization; Bob Watson, director of the Environment Department at the World Bank; and John Clizbe, vice president of disaster services at the American Red Cross. Welcome all. Ms. Abramovitz, give us the big picture, in historical context, just how bad a year was it?
JANET ABRAMOVITZ, Worldwatch Institute: 1998 was a record-setting year for economic losses from weather-related disasters. Storms, floods, fires, and droughts caused at least $89 billion in damage worldwide this year. And to put that into some perspective, that exceeds the total for the entire decade of the 1980's. And it's far higher than the last record-setting year, which was only two years ago in 1996.
PHIL PONCE: And as far as the - some of the disasters worldwide that come to mind, which ones, in your opinion, were particularly significant?
JANET ABRAMOVITZ: Well, I think the lead-in story covered quite a lot of them. Hurricane Mitch, the Yangtze River floods, flooding in Bangladesh, the cyclones and floods in India, but it - this year, no region was untouched. We also saw earlier in the year massive forest fires in the wet tropical forests which had never burned before -- the fires in Indonesia, the fires in Brazil, and Mexico. There have been so many of these natural events this year that each one - we almost forget about the last one because we're now - we're moving on to deal with each and every one. So it's been a record-setting year for economic losses and, of course, the human devastation can't be underestimated either.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Clizbe, in the United States, what kind of a year was it in historical terms?
JOHN CLIZBE, American Red Cross: Well, unfortunately, it's a record-setting year in the United States too. For the American Red Cross it was easily our most demanding and literally our most expensive year in our 117-year history, including a period of time, a six-week stretch or so, in September or October or whatever we're dealing with, more large scale disasters simultaneously than we had ever faced in our history at the same time.
PHIL PONCE: And when you say most expensive, was there one disaster that was particularly costly?
JOHN CLIZBE: Yes. Hurricane Georges in Puerto Rico - particular the Puerto Rico portion of Hurricane Georges was the most expensive disaster in American Red Cross History.
PHIL PONCE: And why was it so expensive?
JOHN CLIZBE: Well, it was a very devastating storm; it really hit Puerto Rico hard, and most of the island was hit, and much of the inner part of the island, up in the mountains and the communities that sort of slid down the side of the mountains, much like what we saw with Hurricane Mitch in Honduras and Nicaragua, very similar kinds of things happened in Puerto Rico.
|Examining the causes.|
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Watson, why was all this happening?
BOB WATSON, World Bank: Well, this year was clearly the hottest year on record, and the question is: Are these just natural events that occur every so often, or is it possible that we humans are slowly but surely changing the Earth's climate, and by changing the Earth's climate, we are seeing more of these very extreme events?
PHIL PONCE: And there was a lot of talk this year, obviously, about El Nino. I mean, at some point people seemed El Nino'd out. But a way to connect the dots, using that?
BOB WATSON: Well, the El Nino that we saw at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, it was clearly the most major El Nino of the last 150 years. It caused the massive floods in Peru, the droughts in Indonesia, but when - by the time we got to the very large floods in China and Bangladesh, they were not due to the El Nino event. What happened was we got some very, very unusual events where in parts of the Yangtze River we had 70 inches of rain in June and July, where you normally only get about 10 or 12. Bangladesh, 2/3 of Bangladesh was swamp. In a typical day one was getting five to ten inches of rain. And so we know that if you get a warmer world, there will be more very, very heavy precipitation events around the world, therefore, more floods and more droughts. And so one of the challenges is to find out if, indeed, we are changing the atmospheric composition, greenhouse gas, will it lead to more El Nino events, and, if so, we'll see more of these drastic floods, drastic droughts, forest fires, et cetera, throughout the world, unfortunately.
PHIL PONCE: And just a very quick reminder of what El Nino was - it's the warming that happens occasionally in the Pacific that warms the air and can cause extremes in weather.
BOB WATSON: That's right. It's the ocean off of Peru and Ecuador warms up - last year, it was as much as 5 degrees warmer than normal. And when that happens, you change all the precipitation patterns around the world, and especially in the tropics and subtropics. So, areas that have gotten normally fairly dry become very, very dry. Peru became extremely wet. And so what you see is very, very drastic changes in precipitation events, as well as temperature.
PHIL PONCE: And without making this a debate about global warming, what is the latest evidence on that?
BOB WATSON: Well, there's no question - we are changing the atmospheric composition of greenhouse gasses - there's no doubt that the Earth's surface temperature is warming. This year is probably the warmest year on record. Last year was the previous warmest, and so the question is, the bulk of scientists do believe that we humans are slowly but surely changing the Earth's climate, and this could have profound effects on agricultural productivity, sea level rise, and on natural ecological systems.
PHIL PONCE: Ms. Abramovitz, going back to the events of this year, the weather was the natural event, but were there things that humans did that sort of exacerbated things?
JANET ABRAMOVITZ: Yes, absolutely. I think we can see the hands of man in many of these disasters. Hurricane Mitch, for example, hit a region that was ecologically and socially very vulnerable. Honduras, for example, has lost 2/3 of its forest cover, including much of the forest cover in the Tegucigalpa watershed, and Central America has some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, likewise in the Yangtze River Basin; 85 percent of the forests have been lost, the lakes, the wetlands have been lost, and the rivers heavily dammed, and what happens is that without tree cover to hold the soil in place, when the rains come, they can't be absorbed into the land, and they go racing across the land, carrying mud and debris with it, filling up the rivers, gaining force as they go downstream, particularly when rivers are constricted, as many of the rivers in the world now are, and you have these sorts of events. On top of that, people are also settling in vulnerable areas, in coastal areas, in river flood plains, on steep hillsides, and so more people are in harm's way, and there's more harm to be done because of land use changes that have made the planet less resilient to withstanding these kinds of natural disasters. So, we've turned what otherwise would be a natural disaster into something -
PHIL PONCE: I mean, Mitch would have been horrible notwithstanding any of those things that you described.
JANET ABRAMOVITZ: Absolutely. Absolutely. But when you have a foot or two of rain every day, it's going to be a bad situation. But if you have bare hillsides and people living on bare hillsides, it's going to be a decidedly unnatural disaster. And I think we're in for more of these sorts of things in the future if we continue down the same path. Now, luckily, some governments have begun to recognize this. The Chinese government early in the Yangtze River flood said, no, this is a completely natural disaster. Later, they changed their story, and - and admitted, in fact, that it did have a large measure to do with deforestation, and then enacted a logging ban and have begun reforestation efforts.
|Seeking solutions for the future.|
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Clizby, in this country have people learned some lessons from what happened?
JOHN CLIZBE: Some. But probably not enough. The American people have - bless their hearts - have a propensity for living in disaster-prone areas.
PHIL PONCE: For example -
JOHN CLIZBE: Well, about 40 million people in the United States live in high-risk disaster areas, in earthquake-prone areas along the Southeastern coasts that are hurricane prone, so we're very vulnerable, and that certainly showed itself this year. Many - not all - but many of the significant disasters that happened this year were, in fact, in areas that are disaster-prone, and we know it.
PHIL PONCE: Would you put the flooding that took place in Texas -- Del Rio area in that category?
JOHN CLIZBE: Well, I think that was a surprise, I think, to many of the people in Texas. But Texas experienced severe floods this year, and I think in Del Rio felt that they were living in a safe area. It was a torrential rain and a flash flood that just caused unspeakable devastation very, very suddenly, but I think certainly - I think something like 80 percent of the population of Florida lives within 20 miles of a coast, so certainly Floridians are in vulnerable locations; all along the southeastern part of the United States, there's vulnerability. On the other hand, I think people are learning - in the United States there are decreasing numbers of deaths with disasters, and I think it's because we are getting better at mitigating to some degree; people are learning some lessons; and the Red Cross has found one of the things we've learned is we need to start working with communities and families to help them prepare so that they can head off some disasters better.
PHIL PONCE: Now, you actually make visits to places where disasters happen. What are the images that will stay with you from this year? What things come to mind?
JOHN CLIZBE: I think for all the statistics, I think what really strikes me increasingly is that every disaster is a personal disaster for a family or individual. If it's a single family in the middle of Kansas with a tornado or homes sliding off a side of a hill in Puerto Rico or whatever, it really boils down to people being hurt. And I think the emotional devastation, the emotional toll is often as great as the physical toll, and I can vividly picture - in Spencer, South Dakota, two things strike me: one, a community totally wiped out as if the tornado decided to come down to hit that six- or seven-square block area and then lift off the ground again. And at the same time, I remember seeing two men sitting on a pile or rubble with their arms around each other, obviously suffering with what they've gone through. Del Rio, that you mentioned, I can remember seeing the families that were impacted by what had been - what had just suddenly come upon them in a very unpredictable kind of way, or the families in Florida, and Alabama and Georgia, that went through the tornadoes that were there. I think it's - sometimes I think we can get preoccupied - I can get preoccupied with sort of the numbers and the scales and the scope and - it's been a major challenge for us and the Red Cross, but I think what strikes us we have to keep getting better and better at working and serving individual families and people.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Watson, how about in parts of the world where the resources might not exist that exist in the United States, is there - if there is a will, are there the means to sort of make better - build better buildings, build communities out of harm's way?
BOB WATSON: Our challenge now is to help prepare developing countries for these natural disasters. Too often we respond to a natural disaster. But we're making major progress in how to predict hurricanes. That's why we don't see the loss of life in the U.S.. We have to use that same technology in developing countries. But even more with El Nino, we can now forecast six to nine months in advance when we're going to see an El Nino. So we can help to reduce the human devastation. If it's going to be drier in some areas, we can help the farmers decide what plants to crop. If it's going to be drier, we can work with the water resource managers, so we don't see these massive hunger and famine events that we're seeing. If it's going to become very wet, we are going to work with the farmers, work with the water managers. In addition, we can also work with the infrastructure, better roads, better bridges, to reduce this threat, so I believe science is moving us in a direction where while we cannot avoid the disaster, we can be better prepared, we can reduce some of the human misery, and some of the economic costs, and the World Bank is working with many of our client countries, and we want to be there before the event, rather than after the event.
PHIL PONCE: And at this point, very quickly, the ability to predict?
BOB WATSON: As I say, hurricanes we can predict very well now. We have to use that same technology for other countries, such as Bangladesh, India, China, and we can predict the El Nino event, which is precipitation, mainly changes, drier or wetter, probably six to nine months in advance.
PHIL PONCE: Well, that's all the time we have. I thank you all very much.