Weather: What terrible weather we're not having

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Extremes of weather regularly lead to huge economic damage and loss of life throughout the world. The British are fortunate in the moderation of our climate, however much we may complain.

The supposed British obsession with the weather is difficult to understand. Our worst-ever storm - the so-called hurricane of 10 years ago - claimed 20 lives and cost the insurance companies just pounds 1.2bn. Elsewhere in the world, such figures are almost commonplace.

According to the national Climatic Data Centre in the United States, the US has suffered 25 weather-related disasters over the past 10 years that have topped a billion dollars worth of damage. The total costs of these large-scale disasters is approximately $140bn. Twenty-one of these have occurred in the past five years, adding up to a bill of more than $90bn.

Here are some typical items from the catalogue of disaster:

August 1992: Hurricane Andrew hits Florida and Louisiana; $27bn damage and 58 dead.

Summer 1993: floods in the midwest: $15-$20bn damage, 48 dead.

January-March 1995: winter storms and flooding cause 27 deaths and $3bn damage in California.

Late 1995-summer 1996: severe drought in the southern plains costs Texas and Oklahoma more than $4bn in lost crops.

January 1996: the "Blizzard of '96" and the following floods cost $3bn and leave 187 dead in the north-east.

September 1996: Hurricane Fran strikes North Carolina and Virginia; more than $5bn damage and 37 deaths.

December 1996-January 1997: flooding caused by melting snow and torrential rains in the west of the country leave 36 dead and $2bn-$3bn worth of damage.

April-May 1997: flooding in Dakota and Minnesota; 11 dead, $1bn-$2bn in damage.

The worst of all recent disasters in the United States, however, did not have the drama of a flood or a hurricane: the drought and heatwave of summer 1988 is estimated to have cost the country $40bn and led to between 5,000 and 10,000 deaths, including many heat-stress related fatalities.

You do not have to cross the Atlantic, however, to find weather disasters. Nearer home, the floods this July centred on Poland and East Germany led to more than 100 deaths and affected the lives of more than a million people.

The lesson to be learnt from such figures is a disturbing one: for all our improvements in weather forecasting and construction techniques, the amount of damage caused by extreme weather conditions seems not to be declining, even when adjusted for inflation and increased population density. Neither people nor buildings are constructed to be able to withstand the worst ravages of nature, and the limitations of both common sense and forecasting techniques combine to ensure that we do not take sufficient precautions against the weather.

A few cases of CJD caused half the British nation to give up beef. Yet who changed their behaviour after the 20 deaths in the storm of 1987 and the 47 killed in the less-publicised winds that hit southern England in 1990?

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