Natural disasters can occur worldwide at any point in time and cause extensive and sometimes irreversible damage to an area.
Natural disasters are caused by different natural processes occurring on Earth; these processes typically involve tectonic plate shifts or drastic weather changes. Exceptionally damaging disasters may be classified as either severe natural disasters or super severe disaster based on the number of people killed by the event. A natural disaster will be considered a severe disaster if it causes 10 or more deaths as a result of the event, while a super-severe disaster is classified by having caused 100 or more deaths from the event (Brown 1). Additionally, Brown also states that within a decade as many as “1 in 3 counties experienced a severe disaster and 1 in 10 counties experienced a super-severe disaster” (Brown 2). There are several different types of natural disasters that can occur across the world possessing the ability to create widespread issues for the community, the population, and the government affected; common natural disasters include: earthquakes, widespread wildfires, tornadoes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. However, certain natural disasters are more or less likely to occur depending on location, time of year, and climate; Iowa is more likely to get a tornado compared to Hawaii, but Hawaii is more likely to experience a volcanic eruption or hurricane than Iowa is. Hurricanes are a more common natural disaster and are commonly associated with widespread damage and an extensive death toll; most category 4 and 5 hurricanes will fall under the super-severe classification identified by Brown. Hurricanes are rated on a scale of 1 to 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.
The scale evaluates the intensity of the storm’s sustained winds in relation to the damaged expected to occur from the winds; a category 1 has sustained wind speeds around 74-95 mph and will likely cause light damage where a category 5 has wind speeds of 157 mph or higher which will cause major damage to the areas affected. Hurricanes pose a large threat not only to the United States, but also several other countries with coastal communities as they have the potential to level cities and states, make affected areas inaccessible, cut off power and resources to the area, and significantly impact the economy; however, with the help of proper tools and effective emergency action plans, communities can be better prepared for Earth’s unpredictable disasters. Prior to the start of the 2017 hurricane season, the NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, warned that the upcoming season would be “extremely active” due to increased warm waters around the world and a lack of wind shears (Wolf 1). A wind shear, which can also be called a wind gradient, is a difference in the speed and direction of the winds over a short distance. These wind shears help to break up hurricanes before they make landfall, reducing the damage they cause on land. Hurricane Harvey was the first big hurricane of the 2017 hurricane season, making landfall in Texas on August 26th as a category 4 hurricane. Hurricane Harvey stayed over land longer due to “two equal-strength high-pressure systems” (Wolf 2), on both sides of Hurricane Harvey, trapping Harvey in place. During Hurricane Harvey’s life it is estimated that Harvey dropped almost 50 inches of rain.
Just over 10 days later, on September 10th, Hurricane Irma struck the coast of Florida causing almost $13 billion dollars of damage and nearly leveled 10 Caribbean countries. For a large majority of the 10 Caribbean countries, their power grids were almost completely lost. For Antigua and Barbuda, an island nation located between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, it was the first time in nearly 300 years that no one was living on the island. Unfortunately, Hurricane Maria, a category 5 hurricane, came through a month later affecting several of the same Caribbean Islands previous hit by Hurricane Irma. The extensive damage and lack of accessibility to the area has left a large portion of Puerto Rico and other Caribbean Islands without power for several months.
Hurricane Harvey not only heavily affected millions of people in Texas, but it also affected power companies across the country. CenterPoint Energy, a major power company used throughout Texas, worked around the clock to try to return power to the communities and people affected by the storm. Due to the massive amounts of damage and flooding to the area, many power companies turned to new technology to speed up the recovery process; CenterPoint used commercial drones to access areas inaccessible due to catastrophic flooding. Along with the drones, CenterPoint Energy had more than 3300 workers from four states working together to restore power to customers. Hurricane Harvey damaged hundreds of miles of transmission lines, which was primarily caused by high power winds and falling trees associated with storms of this strength.
In order to access the areas most affected by flooding, lineman used a variety of different methods to reach the problem areas in order to repair the power grid such as airboats, amphibious vehicles, and other watercrafts. CenterPoint Energy mandated that all linemen walking around floodwater had to wear personal protective equipment and flotation devices. CenterPoint Energy also provided a staging area where linemen could reset and get the items needed to work, including food, lodging, and fuel. Due to the extensive damage and several of the roads remaining unpassable several days after the storm, a large majority of CenterPoint Energy employees were required to stay in the area for over a week before all of the power grids were properly running.Power grid repairs have not been nearly as successful in Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Maria, as they were in Texas after Hurricane Harvey; nearly four months after the storm areas of the island nation are still without power.
PREPA, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, “lost 55% of its transmission and about 90% of its distribution network” (Wolf 7). An electricity transmission team flew in from New York to assess the damage done to the power grid. They used helicopters and drones to survey the damage and determined that PREPA would need a complete rebuild of the grid.
Knowing the nation would be unable to complete the rebuild alone, Puerto Rico asked the U.S. mainland utilities teams to help return power to the area. Due to severe damage to the area it was several weeks before U.S. repair men and rescue teams were able to move into the area, but several issues still remain. At nearly 100 days without power this is now being considered the worst blackout in history.
Natural disasters don’t only affect major power companies, they also have a significant effect on the economy. Hurricanes can completely shut down a country’s economy, especially the smaller and underdeveloped nations. This can be seen in the case of Antigua and Barbuda where the entire nation was destroyed leaving the islands uninhabited after Hurricane Harvey. Brown claims that this is a common outcome for countries that have been hit with a severe disaster or a super-severe disaster; other common outcomes of natural disasters, identified by Brown, are higher poverty rates and lower home prices. Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico in a similar state compared to that of Antigua and Barbuda; however, the issue is worse in Puerto Rico as more people stayed on the island and still remain without power and proper resources.
Since Puerto Rico has people on the island, the country faces all three of the issues identified by Brown when faced with a severe disaster. Hurricane Irma weakened Puerto Rico’s in late August, but Hurricane Maria created the most destruction completely wiping out Puerto Rico’s power grid out. The effects of the hurricane have resulted in Puerto Rico currently having one of the worst economies in the world due to the inability for the majority of businesses to open because of the lack of power, the significant decrease in tourism which provides the island with the majority of its income, and many people have simply left the island.In order to always remain prepared for unexpected large-scale natural disasters, and hopefully prevent situations similar to Puerto Rico’s current state from reoccurring, companies and countries need to be properly prepared to natural disasters common in that area.
Coastal communities need to have plans in place for hurricanes and cities on common tectonic fault lines should build earthquake resistant buildings. Every year CenterPoint Energy holds a storm drill to practice their emergency action plan for natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey. Edward Scott, director of operations at CenterPoint Energy, stated, “we used drones during this event more than we ever have, due to the inaccessibility of the structures, they really worked for us” (Fischbach 4). Through the use of drones, the electric companies were able to fly over transmission lines and other structures to evaluate the safety and damage of the lines incurred from the storm, and inspect the area in general.
CenterPoint Energy was able quickly to pinpoint the main areas causing the majority of power outages and send electricians in to correct the issue; without the use of drones scanning large portions of the affected area, it could have taken the power companies’ significantly longer to correct the power grids. Drones and the newer technology devices should be used whenever possible to help rebuild and repair damage from natural disasters.Hurricanes pose a large threat not only to the United States, but also several other countries with coastal communities as they have the potential to level cities and states, make affected areas inaccessible, cut off power and resources to the area, and significantly impact the economy; however, with the help of proper tools and effective emergency action plans, communities can be better prepared for Earth’s unpredictable disasters. NOAA knew that the 2017 would be a bad year due to warm waters and missing wind shears. Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Harvey, and Hurricane Maria all caused significant amounts of damage to the Gulf of Mexico coast and to dozens of Caribbean Islands. Natural disasters not only affect the people, but also the basic necessities in the area and the economic stability of the country. Natural disasters can completely wipeout power grids, similar to what Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico and Hurricane Harvey did to Texas; unfortunately, Puerto Rico did not have the easy accessibility to electricians and other emergency personnel that Texas was fortunate enough to receive.
However, with all of the new advances in technology, surveying the disaster revenged area has been made easier than ever. Many power companies can now use commercially available drones to survey the damage done to the power grid, and speed the repair process up. When communities are better prepared for natural disasters and utilize the latest technology, they are more capable to quickly repair the damages caused by the event and prevent significant harm to the economy.