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Their names are seared into the minds of those who lived through them. Andrew. Charley. Hugo. Ivan. Rita. And, of course, Katrina.
These and other major hurricanes ripped through United States coastal areas around the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic shoreline with 100-plus mile-per-hour winds and stinging sideways rain. These storms left devastation in their path, ripping roofs off houses, flattening whole buildings, tossing around cars as if they were toys, and taking lives.
The recipients of their wrath number in the tens of thousands, the damages in the billions of dollars. Recovery often takes years. Two years after Hurricane Katrina struck land on August 29, 2005, thousands of Mississippi and Louisiana residents have yet to restore their homes, businesses and lives. And some may never do so. Hurricanes gather and release nature’s fury, and the consequences are deadly.
And now the actions of humans since the dawn of the industrial age will only propel future hurricanes’ power. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere released by burning coal, oil, and other fossil fuels has begun to warm the planet. The surface temperature of the eastern Atlantic Ocean has increased by nearly one degree Celsius in the last century, and the temperature will likely increase in the future.1 Scientists have determined that warmer water can boost hurricanes’ ferocity, and may even increase their frequency.
In short, the global warming forecast is for severe storm warnings ahead.
Even if the United States and other nations were to severely slash their emissions today, the Earth will continue to warm in the coming years due to the pollution already in the atmosphere. It is imperative that we immediately adopt global warming pollution reductions to slow and eventually halt the warming that is underway.
In the meantime, coastal communities facing the greatest hurricane threat must take steps to increase their resilience to damage from these future, fiercer storms. Community-based mitigation efforts, supported by federal policies and resources, can dramatically reduce the effects of a future Andrew or Katrina. The urgency of this work grows every day as thousands of Americans return to their homes and communities to try to rebuild their shattered lives and others go about their daily lives a potential target for the next storm.
This report begins by detailing scientists’ current understanding of the effects of global warming on the severity and frequency of hurricanes and the need for more scientific research on the relationship between these phenomena. After all, as our globe warms, our understanding of long-term environmental consequences requires more than the analysis of annual weather patterns. Evidence is growing that future storms will be more severe and unpredictable. Future storms will also continue to be more costly as more Americans settle in coastal communities that are more vulnerable to natural disasters.
Just as importantly, though, this report also includes recommendations for proven steps that communities can undertake to significantly reduce the devastation that hurricanes can suddenly deliver to those in the paths of these storms. We also outline essential steps that the federal government must take to assist cities and towns on the frontline of global warming. With the best science, the best local preparation, and dedicated federal support, we can minimize the likelihood that future storms join the tragic roster of the deadliest hurricanes.