Examples of Natural Disasters
Before we begin, let’s look at some examples of natural disasters. This will help set the tone for the rest of the module and give an understanding of some of the sorts of scenarios we’ll be studying. The four examples presented here are four of the biggest natural disasters of the last decade. A fifth, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, will be discussed in depth later in the module.
2012 Hurricane Sandy, US East Coast
Hurricane Sandy (also known as Superstorm Sandy) was the most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season. Sandy made landfall in southern New Jersey and became incredible in its size and power. It was a large storm with violent gusts and storm surges that caused major flooding and left millions of people along the East Coast without power. More than 100 people died and tens of thousands of people were injured and relocated. According to NOAA, estimated damage from Sandy is $71 billion, making Sandy the fourth-costliest hurricane in United States history, after Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, and Maria.
2011 Earthquake and Tsunami, Japan
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake hit northeastern Japan and caused a savage tsunami that engulfed everything in its pathway. About 20,000 people were killed. The quake lifted the seafloor by 30 feet and the tsunami debris was found on US shorelines two years later. The twin disaster caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant which developed into the world's worst nuclear crisis. Throughout GEOG 030N, we have emphasized human impacts on the environment. It is important to recognize that humans do not cause earthquakes. We certainly do play a large role in determining what the impacts of an earthquake end up being. But the earthquake itself is caused by plate tectonics.
2008 Cyclone Nargis, Myanmar
Myanmar (also known as Burma) is a coastal country in Southeast Asia. On May 2, 2008, Myanmar was hit by a category 4 cyclone named Nargis. The damage caused by Nargis was extreme, both because the cyclone was so powerful and because Myanmar was not well prepared to handle it. Myanmar was not well prepared because it was quite poor and also because its military government was not well-organized for the relief effort. One tragic complication was that the government had bad relations with other countries. After Nargis hit, the international community offered to assist Myanmar with its recovery, but because of its government, this assistance was not easily received.
Officially, Cyclone Nargis caused about 138,000 deaths and $10 billion in damages. Unofficially, it is believed that the death toll is even higher and that the Myanmar government intentionally undercounted the dead to minimize the harm to its image and reputation. While we do not know for sure what happened, it is certainly the case that human factors can play a large role in the magnitude of disasters.
2005 Hurricane Katrina, US Gulf Coast
The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was one for the record books. Katrina wasn’t even the most powerful storm that season. Both Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Wilma were more powerful; Wilma was the most powerful ever in the Atlantic. But Katrina is the one we remember most because it caused, by far, the most damage. Whereas Rita and Wilma passed through less populated areas, Katrina passed directly through one of the most populous and most vulnerable sections of the Gulf Coast, in particular, the city of New Orleans. About 1,800 people died. According to NOAA, damages totaled about $160 billion, making Katrina the most expensive natural disaster in United States history (Hurricane Harvey is second at around $130 billion). As the following video shows, however, the damages were due to human factors as well as natural factors.
Compared to Cyclone Nargis, Hurricane Katrina caused fewer deaths and cost much more in damages. This is largely because the United States is a wealthy country and Myanmar is a poor country. In general, disasters cause more deaths in poor countries and more dollars in damage in rich countries. The role of wealth in natural hazards will be discussed in more detail in the module. Finally, note that hurricanes and cyclones are different names for the same type of event. The word hurricane is used for the Atlantic. Typhoon is used for the Pacific, especially towards the Asian coast. Cyclone is used worldwide.
As the videos of Cyclone Nargis and Hurricane Katrina show, the exposure of populations to natural hazards, the existence of protective infrastructure, and the effectiveness of emergency response and reconstruction are largely human factors that influence the severity of disasters. In addition, uneven distribution of wealth, education, and services within an affected area makes some people more vulnerable than others. Furthermore, some meteorological and hydrological hazards are becoming more severe due to anthropogenic climate change. For these and other reasons, many geographers such as Neil Smith find the phrase “natural disaster” misleading, as if the disaster were only natural and therefore inevitable. In this course, we will use the phrase “natural disaster” simply as a widely accepted convention, with the understanding that human and political factors, in addition to natural conditions, all come into play in determining the severity and distribution of damage following a natural hazard. In the following sections of this module you will learn more about natural hazards and the human factors that influence their impacts.