Environment and Society in a Changing World

Examples of Natural Disasters


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.

Hurricane Sandy: As it Happened (7:41)
Click for a transcript of "Hurricane Sandy" video.

Credit: Video from WSJ

ERIC HOLTHAUS: This is actually the storm that's going to be merging with Hurricane Sandy to form the Frankenstorm.

PRESENTER 1: Hurricane Sandy hammered the Bahamas early Friday after leaving 21 dead across the Caribbean. Some are calling it a super storm. What is that all about?

PRESENTER 2: As this storm moves farther north it will expand. It's just really moving into the question of where.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: This morning I formally declared a state of emergency in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy. We should not underestimate the impact of the storm that we should not assume the predictions will be wrong.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: The MTA has announced that they will start shutting down service subways starting at 7:00 tonight, buses at 9:00 tonight.

ADAM MARCUS: This guy at the beach is saying that this is all for nothing. The guy says in 40 years I've lived here, nothing has happened, and this could be the one time.

BARACK OBAMA: This is a serious and big storm.

CHRIS CHRISTIE- If something looks like it's stupid to do, it is stupid. Stay on the barrier islands for 36 hours of hurricane force winds of 75 miles an hour or more sustained, not gusting, is stupid.

PRESENTER 3: Tens of thousands of people were ordered to evacuate coastal areas on Sunday from Maryland through Connecticut as Hurricane Sandy prepared to make landfall Monday or early Tuesday.

PRESENTER 1: Here's a shot of Atlantic City, New Jersey this morning as Hurricane Sandy is on her way. Stock and options markets are closed today. Thousands of flights have been canceled. Earnings reports are being delayed, and like I said Sandy isn't even here yet.

PRESENTER 3: The east coast grinding to a halt as Hurricane Sandy prepares to make landfall. What are the major steps you should be doing to protect your home and the belongings from damage from flooding?

JULIE ROCHMAN: Well everybody should have a go kit. And everybody should have a plan as to where they're going to evacuate to, and let relatives or friends know where it is that you're going.

ALISON JIMENEZ: Just like people were doing we wanted them to make their preparations early. Start thinking about putting aside some of their pets' food, some clean water where their pets were drinking, their pets' medication, their pets' medical records.

SIMON CONSTABLE: Two crew members are missing from the HMS bounty. It was a tall ship, it has sunk. That is a live shot of a crane here in New York City, it has flopped over.

PRESENTER 4: This is a massive storm.

OBAMA- The most important message that I have for the public right now is please listen to what your state and local officials are saying. When they tell you to evacuate you need to evacuate.

PRESENTER 3: The east coast reeling this morning as it absorbs the aftermath of super storm Sandy. Where economic damages could be in the range of $10 to $20 billion. At least 30 people have been killed in seven states. More than 8 million homes are without power. And in New York City the wounds are particularly severe. In the borough of Queens between 80 to 100 homes caught fire last night and were destroyed. Public transportation meantime continues to be closed after extensive flooding. There is no timeline on when that will change.

- The level of devastation at the Jersey Shore is unthinkable.

LIZ HERON: People did have access to information was is still going on. A lot of people were getting tweets there's ways you can get tweets without actually having internet or being on Twitter because everyone has a smartphone. They're having a lot of photos.

PRESENTER 3: Everybody's a reporter now.

- Exactly, and there was incredible images being shared.

SIMON CONSTABLE: What are the problems we're trying to assess damage at this stage?

JOSH MITCHELL: Well there's two types of damage we're talking about here. One is property damage. So how much damage is there to people's homes, to office buildings, to roads, to the subway system that gets people to work.

PRESENTER 3: Millions are still without power as the East coast struggles to recover from super storm Sandy. At least 55 lives have been claimed so far in the US. Here in New York, Manhattan is beginning a difficult recovery process with paralyzed transportation services and power outages. You can just see massive paralysis coming to this city.

PRESENTER 5: Yeah, certainly I mean the city is just not set up to have everybody who needs to work here drive in.

PRESENTER 4: You have to have three people in the car. Bottom line is the streets can only handle so much.

SIMON CONSTABLE: President Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie surveyed storm damage across the Garden State.

CHRIS CHRISTIE- When all of you look around you see all this destruction that's fine, but you know what all that stuff can be replaced. You look to your right and to your left, to your husband or wife, your son or your daughter those are things that can't be replaced.

PRESENTER 3: Day three of super storm Sandy recovery and the death toll has risen to at least 72. Nearly half of those in New York City where fire still smolder in Queens, and there are reports of looting in Brooklyn and Long Island. Meantime Tens of thousands of people in the Northeast are battling traffic, gas lines, limited public transit to return to work this morning.

SIMON CONSTABLE: Super storm Sandy likely delivered insurance companies a $20 billion bill.

PRESENTER 4: Recovery is under way, and New York is starting to build again. The inspections of the crane on West 57th Street are complete. We plan to reopen public schools for classes on Monday. The MTA really did a phenomenal job of getting subway service partially restored in just a few days.

PRESENTER 3: The Governor was just speaking. It looks like some relief is going to be on the way for New Yorkers and people in New Jersey.

ANDREW CUOMO: Look it's been a long week, and it's been a long week for everyone. It's not over. There are still inconveniences, but it could have been a lot, lot worse. And let's not minimize what we went through. Sometimes we can have a short memory. After the storm we went through on Monday everything shouldn't be back to normal by Friday, it's going to take time. 

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.

Rare Video: Japan Tsunami (3:35)
Click for a transcript of "Rare Video" video

(Credit: Video from National Geographic)

PRESENTER: All across northern Japan, they felt it. A violent, magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11, 2011. It was centered about 80 miles offshore, and tsunami warnings went up immediately. In coastal cities, people knew what to do next-- run to higher ground.

It's from these vantage points on hills and in tall buildings that incredible footage was captured. In Kesennuma, people retreated to a high-rise rooftop and could only watch in horror as tsunami waves inundated their city, knocking buildings into rubble and mixing into a kind of tsunami soup filled with vehicles, building parts, and contents.

Seawater cascaded over seawalls and into cities. This video shows the water rushing over an 18-foot seawall in the Kamaishi city. The seawall here was the world's deepest and largest, but not enough for the magnitude of the March 11 disaster. It was the largest quake ever known in Japan and one of the five largest recorded in the world. More than 28,000 people are confirmed dead or missing.

When two tectonic plates pushed together under the sea, the resulting earthquake sends an enormous burst of energy up through the ocean, displacing enormous quantities of water. With the upward motion, a series of waves expands in all directions. In deep water, these waves travel fast, up to 500 miles an hour, but only reach a height of a few feet. A passing ship might not even notice. But as the waves enter shallow waters, friction with the ocean floor lowers the waves' speed, but raises their height.

This video is from a Japan Coast Park ship confronting a tsunami wave in shallow water on March 11. And a rare view from the air. Video of a tsunami wave approaching the shoreline. In Japan, some tsunami waves reach as far as three miles inland.

Japan may be the most seismological studied country in the world. And with more than 1,200 high-precision GPS stations, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska used the data to create a visualization of the March 11 quake. The waves of displacement that you see were moving as fast as five miles per second. In this photo, the ripples of tsunami waves are seen moving upstream in the Naka river at Hitachinaka city. New technology left an enormous amount of visual evidence for study in years to come and can perhaps help us better understand the power of earthquakes and tsunamis and prevent loss of life in the future. 

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.

Cyclone Nargis Underscores Challenges in Delivering Aid (3:16)
Click for a transcript of "Cyclone Nargis" video.
Credit: Video from VOA News

Credit: Video from VOA News

Cyclone Nargis-Module 8:Examples of Natural Disasters

PRESENTER: The damage from Cyclone Nargis was quickly apparent. Some 140,000 people were dead or missing. Hundreds of thousands were homeless. And thousands of homes, schools, businesses, and farms were destroyed. But the biggest challenge in helping survivors was not flooding or displacement, it was the military government.

For weeks, it refused most international aid. The US aircraft carrier Essex, carrying helicopters and tons of water and food, waited off Burma's coast for more than three weeks. It waited for approval to start ferrying its cargo inland to the Irrawaddy Delta. Approval never came. World Food Programme spokesman Paul Risley.

PAUL RISLEY: And that's truly unfortunate, because these helicopters represented immediate heavy lift capacity in the area of the delta.

PRESENTER: Burma's government also sat on visa applications from the United Nations and humanitarian agencies. It took pressure from the UN and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to persuade Burma to allow foreign aid workers to enter the country. [INAUDIBLE NAME] heads the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand.

PRESENTER 2: The UN has had limited impact, limited effect. Not so much effort. The effort is there. They have a lot of-- they have made strident efforts. But the outcome, the effects have been limited.

PRESENTER: Two months after the disaster, people in the hard hit the Irrawaddy Delta still wait by the road for help. They are storing the meager donations they have received. They know it will take months to recover their lost crops and incomes. Although the evidence proves otherwise, Burma's generals say the need for relief is now over. On a recent visit to China, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised country for reaching out for help in response to the May earthquake.

Rice said an approach to Burma must be found. China and India could provide one. Both have extensive diplomatic and economic ties to the government in Rangoon.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: It has been said that the Burmese authorities have, instead of making possible the international community's response to their people, that they put up barriers to that response. And we will continue to talk to China and others who have influence.

PRESENTER: Relief groups are still urging the country's generals to open up. Richard Horsey is with the UN.

RICHARD HORSEY: The authorities of the country need to open up to an international relief effort. There aren't enough boats, trucks, helicopters, in the country to run the relief effort at the scale we need.

PRESENTER: However for years, Western governments have asked Beijing and New Delhi to help push Burma's military to allow political reforms, tolerate dissent, and free jailed critics. So far, they have made little headway. For producer [? Praus Lapid?], Jim Bertel, VOA News. 

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.

Doomed New Orleans: Hurricane Katrina (2:57)
Click for a transcript of "Doomed New Orleans" video.

(Credit: Video from National Geographic)

PRESENTER: When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, entire neighborhoods vanished under 20 feet of water. The devastation ranks as one of America's worst natural disasters, but also one of the worst man-made disasters. That's because since it's early days, New Orleans has been sinking. The soil in and near New Orleans is a tenuous combination of silt, sand, and clay.

Over time, the soil compacts and sinks. Before the Mississippi River Delta was developed, the river flooded regularly. Fresh silt from the floodwaters replaced the sinking ground and kept the land above sea level. But New Orleans is built to keep the river out. High walls, called levees, have been erected around the city to keep rising river levels at bay.

They have also kept out the silt and sediments. Without the renewing sediments, New Orleans continues, ever so slightly, to sink. Its present rate is three feet every 100 years. Parts of New Orleans today are eight feet below sea level. If another storm surge like Katrina's breaches the levees, New Orleans will again be under water.

The odds of another flood have increased because the ground under New Orleans is not all that's shrinking. So are the surrounding wetlands. Every hour, another two acres of wetlands disappears under the sea. Like the sinking of New Orleans, the reasons are largely man-made. Canals dug through the wetlands increase erosion and destroy habitat, and levees help funnel the silt out into the Gulf before it can be absorbed by the coastal wetlands.

Ironically, it is the wetlands, not the levees, that truly protect New Orleans from the sea. Every three miles of wetland absorbs a foot of a storm surge, acting as Mother Nature's insurance policy against hurricanes. Since 1930, Louisiana has lost over 1,900 square miles of wetlands. By 2050, many barrier islands will disappear altogether. New Orleans is still sinking. Unless something is done, the Big Easy will slip beneath the sea, with or without another hurricane. 

Credit: National Geographic

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.