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2003-09-19

"Global Warming" –Two Words You Never Hear in Wall-to-Wall Coverage of Hurricane Isabel

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Hurricane Isabel crashed ashore in North Carolina yesterday. 100mph winds brought down trees, caused air travel chaos and knocked out electricity to more than 3 million people. We speak with author David Helvarg about hurricane Isabel, Bush’s environmental policy and the federal insurance system. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript Hurricane Isabel crashed ashore in North Carolina yesterday, leaving a trail of destruction as its 100mph winds ploughed along the eastern seaboard. The storm brought down trees, caused air travel chaos and knocked out electricity to more than 3 million people.

At least eight deaths were attributed to Isabel. Four people were killed in storm-related traffic accidents, two men died after being struck by falling trees, a man drowned and a utility employee was electrocuted.

The governors of North Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia declared states of emergency. Washington DC is at a standstill for a second day as public and government buildings remain closed and public transport halted.

President George Bush declared major disasters in North Carolina and Virginia, and ordered federal aid to both states. Well over 1,500 flights were cancelled at airports in the major Eastern cities.

The hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm last night as its top winds fell below 74 miles per hour. Though its strength was diminished from the 160-mile-an-hour winds recorded as it moved across the open ocean, the hurricane was still the strongest to hit the Atlantic Coast since Hurricane Floyd surged ashore in 1999.

  • David Helvarg, founder of the Blue Frontier Campaign in Washington DC and author of 'Blue Frontier–Saving America's Living Seas.’

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: of course, referring to another one, but today we’re going to talk about hurricane Isabel, I’m Amy Goodman here with Juan Gonzales.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Good day to all of our listeners and viewers. Hurricane Isabel crashed ashore in North Carolina yesterday leaving a trail of destruction as 100 per mile hour winds crashed along the eastern seaboard.

The storm brought down trees, caused air travel chaos and knocked out electricity to more than three million people. At least eight deaths were attributed to Isabel, four people were killed in storm related traffic accidents, two men died after being struck by a falling tree, a police detective drowned, and a utility employee was electrocuted. The governors of North Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia declared states of emergency, Washington D.C. is at a stand still as second day as public and government buildings remain closed and public transportation halted.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush declared major disasters in North Carolina and Virginia, and ordered federal aid to both states well over 1500 flights were cancelled at airports in the major eastern cities. Hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm last night as its top winds fell below 74 miles per hour, though its strength was diminished from the 160 mph winds recorded as it moved across the open ocean. Hurricane was still the strongest to hit the Atlantic coast since hurricane Floyd surged ashore in 1999. We’re joined on the phone right now by David Helvarg who is founder of the blue frontier campaign in Washington D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!, David.

DAVID HELVARG: Good morning Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks for joining us. I know that the city is pretty much closed down.

DAVID HELVARG: Yeah, it’s dark and windy, but this certainly wasn’t the storm it could have been. It was a category five and hit shore at about a two. Most of the damage was fully predictable and preventable.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve been watching the wall to wall coverage of hurricane Isabel. But I’ve never yet, maybe I’m just watching the wrong channels, heard those two words, global warming.

DAVID HELVARG: It’s interesting. I think that you’ve got two factors that play here. Certainly with pretty low winds in my neighborhood we had a major tree right across the street that came down against apartment building, metro was closed yesterday. I was taking a cab and we passed a car crushed by a tree the cab got a call from a buddy who just had a tree land on his cabin Georgetown. What you have here with all these big trees coming down is the ground simply saturated. We’ve had seven months of extraordinary rain in the area. Unprecedented historically at the same time we’ve seen summer heat wave hit Europe killing 13,000 in France. The west has just come through long term drought. You can’t attribute any single weather event like saturating rains we’ve had here in D.C. to global climate change, the international meteorological society in London has said that the last extreme weather events we’ve seen over the last several years are in fact indicators that we’re in the footprint of global warming, and recent C.E.O. report put out by the U.N. and organized by Munich Reid which is one of the major insurance industries of the world, they report that we’re now seeing about $150 billion a year in weather related damage directly ATTRIBUTABLE to fossil fuel-fired climate change. On Atlantic there’s a little more complex because aside from increased storm surge and wind speed related to climate change you also have Chris Lancey’s, the climatologist in Florida discovered this pattern of 25 to 40 year cycles of lesser and greater hurricane intensity. That’s probably natural cycle tied to one degree warming in the north Atlantic. The problem there is we’re now into the more intensified period of hurricane activity, probably starting late 1980’s when hurricane Hugo and Floyd and Fran and Opal and now Floyd and Isabel coming ashore. This is intensified period. Unfortunately during that period of relative low hurricane activity, the 1970’s and 1980’s is also the period that we SAW coastal sprawl just boom and 17 of our 20 fastest growing counties are now coastal. Ironically, to a certain degree hurricanes remain natural phenomenon. But multibillion dollar deadly disasters that we’re now facing are product of policy and during this historic period of low hurricane activity it was ironically federal emergency management agency and flood insurance program that acted as driver for all this coastal sprawl.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you explain a little about how that happened and why we see continue to see this enormous development on the shores and coast despite the increased storm activity.

DAVID HELVARG: Sure. Why is the emergency management agency helping to place people in harm’s way, it’s kind of counter intuitive. Back in 1968 it was well intentioned, that is FEMA had been established, was starting to get respond to hurricane disasters. The idea with providing flood insurance was that they would create insurance people so that the flood victims would help pay their own costs. Of course until FEMA came along no private insurance company would ever consider insuring construction and flood plains on barrier islands and exposed beach fronts. FEMA created this flood insurance to create insurance pool that made it very cheap to make sure that the insurance pool was very large. The result was that today we have 600 billion dollars of flood insurance coverage being held by the taxpayers, our largest financial exposure. Creating this large insurance pool that would pay for itself worked for about 20 years. As long as this historic lull in hurricane activity as soon as hurricane activity began peaking in the early 1990’s with Andrew and the like, it became a loser. Now as I say it’s a tremendous exposure, it’s hard to change now because you have this built in constituency. Just this weekend I spoke with James Lee Witt who is head of FEMA under Clinton.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It’s not necessarily a poor constituency, I’m assuming that except for rare cases like the rockaways, in New York city the poor people don’t have beachfront properties.

DAVID HELVARG: A lot is areas like outer banks of North Carolina where you have a lot of both very well to do folks who built their weekend mansions on the beach as well as income property. I saw yesterday on TV a stilt house that was down in the outer banks. Reporter was saying this was rental property that rented for $4,000 a week during the summer now you and I, our taxes are going to pay to rebuild that unit so this guy can make more money. When James Lee Witt tried to do minimum reform of the system under Clinton, propose that the government not pay multiple payouts when you lose a house and you rebuild in the same place, you lose it again. These multiple claimants account for about 40% of all the FEMA claims. He wanted to reform that system, immediately The national home builders association, the real estate markets and their political allies shot them down. What he said, he admitted this weekend now that he’s out of office he hoped to privatize the system. He had Hoped to get the federal government out as one developer stated to me, out of the business of making stupidity feasible. Unfortunately like you say a built in constituency and the effect with this coastal flood insurance at least is that you have lower income taxpayers inland subsidizing wealthier taxpayers who like to build their dream house on a barrier island or some other sand spit that’s very exposed. The proof that it really is this federal insurance program that’s been major driver, is back in the early 1980’s congress took a look,and realized this is crazy they created Cobra, coastal barrier resources act. It excludes 1.3 million acres of just sand spits that are so at risk that congress said, okay, you can have your private property here, we’re not going to subsidize it. You don’t get FEMA flood insurance or highway and bridge construction. The ARMY CORPS of engineers won’t give you beach replenishment. When you fly over Florida in areas that have Cobra zones and you see that property owner have the right to develop if they don’t have the federal subsidies they won’t develop. If you can’t get the flood insurance, you don’t get the mortgage, you don’t have the financial incentive to build in harm’s way.

AMY GOODMAN: Well I want to thank you very much for being with us, David Helvarg founder of the blue frontier campaign in Washington D.C. When we come back we’ll find out about new settlement in New York that would bar officers from racial profiling. We’ll find out about that. Then what about jet blue sharing its passenger data with weapons contractors. Stay with us.


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