As the population grows in coastal communities, so does the risk of extreme natural events


Americans have been flocking to the coastlines for decades, which means that the number of people potentially living in harm’s way of possible extreme natural events has increased. Tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons, sea-level rise, and coastal erosion all pose threats to those who seek the beauty of the sea and the freshness of the salty air. It’s just how it is.

Thalassophiles, or people who love the ocean, make up a significant number of the U.S. population, according to statistics provided by the United States Census Bureau. Over 97 million people in total lived in a U.S. coastline county in 2017. That’s 29.1% of the entire U.S. population. A 15.3% growth since 2000, and things don’t seem to be letting up anytime soon. Not to mention, the accumulative influx into coastal communities also adds potential for devastating collateral damage due to hurricanes, and the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf of Mexico regions are particularly at risk. 

“The Gulf of Mexico was the fastest growing of the coastline regions,” reports the U.S. Census Bureau. “It added more than 3 million people between 2000 and 2017, a 26.1% increase. The nation as a whole grew by 15.7% over the same period.”

Looking back at the 2005 hurricane season as a reference point, we can see that Hurricanes Rita and Katrina caused an enormous amount of devastation. It was the costliest hurricane season on record, with over 200 billion dollars in damage. A total of 1,833 people died during Katrina. 

And let’s not forget Hurricane Maria, which devastated parts of the northeastern Caribbean in mid-September of 2017, causing an estimated $91.6 billion in damage and killing 3,057 people, more than 70 times the original count.  

Another horrific example is the Great Galveston Storm of 1900, the deadliest hurricane in American history. The cyclone killed an estimated 8,000-12,000 people after it made landfall on the night of September 8, 1900, with little to no warning. 

One survivor of the event recalled “a great grey wall about fifty feet high and moving slowly toward the island,” according to an oral testimony archived in the city’s Rosenberg Library, as reported by NPR. The eyewitness’s uncanny account foreshadows the destruction that would come moments later. 

Reiterating the dangers of coastal living in the early twentieth century, the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 takes the cake. The powerful storm ravaged Palm Springs, Florida, after it brutally pounded Puerto Rico with more than 18-inches of rain. High winds and water surges pushed water to the south and washed away homes, killing an estimated 3,000 people. The storm serves as a grim reminding of just how fast mother nature can get out of hand. 

Earthquakes and tsunamis are a concern for coastal communities.

Earthquakes pose a significant threat to coastal communities and can trigger a crescendo of other effects detrimental to human life. Landslides and tsunami waves are among the worst after-effects of an earthquake and can be deadly. 

In the late twentieth century, for example, an estimated magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan in the region of Sanriku, subsequently triggering a massive 124-foot tidal wave that killed a reported 22,000 people. The tsunami was so giant that it allegedly reached China’s east coast, killing an additional 4,000 people. 

In recent times, there have been several notably devastating tsunamis. One of which occurred on March 11, 2011, around Japan’s North Pacific Coast. The 10-foot tall wave traveled to shore at speeds exceeding 400 miles per hour and struck with brute force killing 18,000 people. As a result, surging waves lambasted the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing a nuclear disaster of epic proportions. 

The powerful magnitude 9.0 earthquake was the fourth-largest ever recorded to have struck in the region at the time. Damages from the earthquake-tsunami combo ran well over 230 billion dollars and are still affecting lives today.

Let’s not forget about Sumatra, Indonesia–December 26, 2004, when a magnitude 9.1 earthquake caused a 1,300 foot-long fault zone to slip along the ocean floor, displacing an enormous amount of water, which reached over three miles inland, killing 227,898 people. Wave reportedly reached a height of 100 feet as they headed inland, destroying virtually everything in their path.

An article published by Patch reveals the grim reality regarding how ‘the big one’ would impact Puget Sound. 

“It may be this decade, or it could be hundreds of years from now, but at some point, the Cascadia subduction zone will give way, causing a massive earthquake centered right off the coast of Washington,” writes Patch staffer Charles Woodman. “For years, local leaders have been studying the subduction zone to predict, and hopefully mitigate, some of the extensive damage that quake is likely to cause.”

Woodman points out one key takeaway from the research is that “the tsunami will come on quick.” Not giving much warning. 

During such an event, water would flood the entire Seattle region, leaving those in the lowlands at risk. A Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America research paper addresses populations’ vulnerabilities in the Pacific Northwest. According to the paper’s authors, “Many coastal communities throughout the world are threatened by local (or near-field) tsunamis that could inundate low-lying areas in a matter of minutes after generation.”

All of this is of concern; hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives from tsunamis over the past few decades alone.



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