Weather disasters and man's role


WASHINGTON -- On the day of a 22-car pileup on the tragically slick Dulles Airport access road, when the nation's capital and environs are iced in -- and when our emergency rooms are crowded with victims of falls -- I see that the rest of the nation and the world are also suffering the ravages of bad weather.

Detroit is almost paralyzed under two feet of snow. Buffalo, N.Y., normally notorious for its lake-effect snows, has already had half its yearly quota of snow. Much of California's orange crop is frozen. Power outages have plunged hundreds of thousands of people into the dark and cold.

It makes me ask, "Have we done something wrong?" And it has driven me to reread a report by Worldwatch Institute that suggests the world's climate has deteriorated and is growing worse.

Worldwatch estimates that storms, floods, droughts and fires caused at least $89 billion in economic losses worldwide in the first 11 months of 1998 -- 50 percent more than the previous record set in 1996, and well beyond the $53 billion in losses for the 1980s.

During the first nine months of 1998, the U.S. insurance industry alone had weather-related claims of more than $8 billion -- or three times the claims for all of 1997. That's partly because the Atlantic hurricane season last year was the deadliest in two centuries.

Worldwatch Institute estimates that, worldwide, 32,000 people were killed and some 300 million people were displaced from their homes by extreme weather events last year. The Red Cross says that at least 480 people were killed in the United States by weather disasters last year, a figure double the annual average.

We know about Hurricane Mitch, the deadliest Atlantic storm in 200 years. It left an estimated 11,000 people dead in Central America, forced the evacuation of half the population of Honduras and caused $4 billion in damages in that country, plus another $1 billion in destruction in Nicaragua.

Yet, Worldwatch Institute tells us, Mitch was not the costliest disaster of the year. It says that flooding of China's Yangtze River resulted in 3,700 deaths, the dislocation of 224 million people and the inundation of 9.6 million square miles of cropland -- all at a cost of $30 billion.

Billions of dollars more, and many lives, were lost to flooding in Bangladesh, ice storms in Canada and New England, a cyclone in India, forest fires in Siberia and floods in Turkey, Argentina and Paraguay.

Hand of man

Is all this just the quirks of fate? Worldwatch sees "the hand of man" in these disasters, as reflected in population growths and economic instability. It warns that "unless ravaged nations rebuild along a path of sustainable development that emphasizes restoring and maintaining healthy ecosystems, they risk even greater exposure to the devastation of unnatural disasters in the future."

Meanwhile, hurricane forecasters at the University of Colorado have told us to face the reality that another onslaught of deadly, destructive storms is possible this year. Others make the grim prediction that the next decades will be marked by more and more devastating storms, floods and droughts.

It is easy to dismiss these forecasters as alarmists. We can look at those beautiful photographs that our astronauts take of Earth spinning in space and say, "It's just the vagaries of nature; nothing fundamental has changed."

Well, I've never been much of a pessimist, but I look at the dreary mess outside my window, and I wonder.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/18/99

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