Measuring Weather Events: A Few Options

Like most people in the US this past week, I was glued to the news watching the terrible devastation Hurricane Harvey was inflicting on Houston. I have quite a few close friends and close work collaborators in the area, who thankfully all are okay and appear to have suffered minimal property damage themselves. Of course all are shaken, and they have been recommending good charities in the area to donate to.  As someone’s whose lived through a home flood/property destruction/disaster area/FEMA process at least once in my adult life, I know how helpless you feel watching your home get swallowed by water and how unbelievably long the recovery can be. Of course when I went through it I had a huge advantage….the damage was limited to a small number of people and we had easy access to lots of undamaged places. I can’t imagine going through this when the whole city around you has suffered the same thing, or how you begin to triage a situation like this.

However, as the total cost of Hurricane Harvey continues to be fully assessed, I want to make a comment on some numbers I’m seeing tossed around. It’s important to remember in the aftermath of weather events of any kind that there are actually a few different ways of measuring how “big” it is:

  1. Disaster Measurement:
    1. Lives lost
    2. Total financial cost
    3. Long term impacts to other infrastructure (i.e. ability to rebuild, gas pipelines,etc)
  2. Storm measurement
    1. Size of weather event (i.e. magnitude of hurricane/volume of rainfall)
    2. Secondary outcomes of weather event (i.e. flooding)

538 has a good breakdown of where Harvey ranks (so far) on all of these scales here.

Now none of this matters too much to those living through the storm’s aftermath, but in terms of overall patterns they can be important distinctions to keep in mind. For example, many people have been wondering how Harvey compares to Katrina. Because of the large loss of life with Katrina (almost 2,000 deaths) and the high cost ($160 billion) it’s clear that Katrina is the benchmark for disastrous storms. However, in terms of wind speed and power of the storm, Katrina was actually pretty similar to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 which resulted in 61 deaths and had a quarter of the cost. So why did Katrina have such a massive death toll? Well, as 538 explains:

Katrina’s devastation was a result of the failure of government flood protection systems, violent storm surges, a chaotic evacuation plan and an ill-prepared city government.

So the most disastrous storms are not always the biggest, and the biggest storms are not always the most disastrous. This is important because the number of weather events causing massive damage (as in > $1 billion) is going up:

Source of graph.
Source of disaster data.

However, the number of hurricanes hitting the US has not gone up in that time (more aggregate data ending in 2004 here, storm level data through 2016 here). This graph does not include 2017 or Hurricane Harvey.

Now all of these methods of measuring events are valid, depending on what you’re using them for. However, that doesn’t mean the measures are totally interchangeable. As with all data, the way you intend to use it matters. If you’re making a case about weather patterns and climate change, costly storm data doesn’t prove the weather itself is worsening. However if you’re trying to make a case for infrastructure spending, cost data may be exactly what you need.

Stay safe everyone, and if you can spare a bit of cash, our friends in Houston can use it.