Pugwash: Hurricane damage prevention could be more intelligent

The topic of preventing or mitigating natural disaster destruction has re-entered public dialogue, thanks to this season’s unusually strong hurricanes. Can a solution be developed from new or existing technologies? Is there any way to reduce damages in a cost-effective manner? Or is the only way to stave off hurricane damage to abandon the coast entirely? Last week, Carnegie Mellon University Student Pugwash met to discuss just that.

The first step in determining how to stop hurricane damage is to figure out what causes the damage. The destruction stems from two fronts: wind and water. With wind speeds beyond anything human infrastructure is designed to withstand, the gale force of a storm can wreak havoc, picking up trees, cars, power lines, and other debris, then slamming them into anything standing. Water from torrential rain and potential storm surges causes major flooding in the hurricane affected area, leading to even more damage. Even after the storm recedes, a community must deal with homelessness, water-bourne diseases, looting, supply chain disruption, and a general lack of order. How does a government deal with problems of such scale?

One of the most obvious, yet problematic, prevention methods to a hurricane’s powerful waters is a levee. Several problems arise when trying to construct extensive floodwalls. The first is cost; building a levee that encircles the entire Gulf of Mexico would be prohibitively expensive. Any gaps left for cost reasons could allow destructive waves to slip through. Not to mention, many of the states and nations in the region, such as the Caribbean islands, have economies heavily dependent on beach tourism — levees would be visual pollution. All in all, levees may not be the best solution.

Another possible solution may stem from improvements in construction techniques and materials. New materials like carbon fiber may be able to better withstand a storm. Screws better designed to stay together could help prevent homes from falling apart. Building houses on stilts is an effective way to mitigate flood damage.

The problem with these materials is, once again, cost. While middle and upper class residents of the Gulf region may be able to afford them, the lower income residents who are disproportionately impacted by weather catastrophes may not be able to. For them, this solution is not helpful.

Another idea is inspired by Dutch infrastructure. In the Netherlands, where much land is below sea level, some communities are being built to float. This idea may serve the Gulf well. Instead of being destroyed by flooding, a house could simply ride out the storm on top of the waves. While the cost of the improvement would likely be significant, it would be more practical than a massive levee and may save money in the long term.

One thing is for sure: this problem isn’t going away. As ocean temperatures rise, hurricanes will continue to hit harder and more often. If a solution to the problem isn’t found in the next decades, residents of the Gulf may be forced to make a grim choice between abandoning the region or bearing the consequences of remaining in the path of these storms.

Student Pugwash is a non-advocacy, educational organization that discusses the implications of science. This article is a summary of last week’s discussion on the corporatization of academics.