Topic 5.1: Societal Impacts of Tropical Cyclones

Co-Rapporteurs: James C. Weyman Linda J. Anderson-Berry
RSMC Honolulu James Cook University 2525 Correa Road Suite 250 Centre for Disaster Studies
Honolulu, HI 96822, USA P.O. Box 6811
Cairns, Qld 4878 Australia
Fax: 808-973-5271 61 7 4042 1214
Working Group: N. Koop, J. Nott, R. Pielke, Jr., T. Kayahara, K. Walsh

Societal impacts of landfalling tropical cyclones can be substantially different depending upon temporal and spatial scales. In the spatial scale, a local community can experience devastating losses, while on a regional or national scale, a storm might actually be a benefit through increased profits from higher costs of commodities, the demand for supplies in the stricken area, or welcomed rainfall. In the temporal scale, direct immediate impacts arise from economic losses or human injuries and loss of life. Second-order impacts from disaster response actions and medical problems can occur days to weeks after the event. Third-order impacts from changes in tax revenue and land-use can occur months to years later. It is easy to identify some of these impacts, but often difficult to quantitatively and/or qualitatively evaluate them.
Societal impacts also vary between developed and less-developed countries. In the Asian and Pacific regions that have half of the world’s population (3.1 billion people), approximately 900 million (30 percent) are poor and over 1.9 billion (60 percent) live in rural areas. The priorities of the poor, and those living in subsistence economies, are sustaining their sources of livelihood and securing food, shelter, and clothing. When tropical cyclones impact the poor, their livelihoods along with their ability to obtain food, shelter, and clothing can be significantly disrupted because they have fewer assets, reserves, or opportunities to fall back on. Communities in many less-developed parts of Asia and the Pacific that do have the capability to feed and provide suitable drinking water to their populations, can lose this basic capability following a tropical cyclone. This may have disastrous short-term and long-term effects. Where the ability of communities to withstand and recover from natural disasters is diminished, the application of social protection programs and policies is required to reduce people’s exposure to risks, enhancing their capacity to protect themselves and thus reduce the population’s vulnerability.
The more-developed countries face different impacts. Increases in property damages due to tropical cyclones have been largely attributed to increases in population along the coasts, the number of insured properties, the value of insured properties, and the infrastructure and industrial complexes in coastal areas. In these countries, identifying and understanding the increased societal vulnerabilities requires decision-makers and scientists working together to take the necessary steps to reduce or mitigate these vulnerabilities and minimise loss of life and property damages.
Finally, the nature of the societal impact varies in different areas of the world based on geophysical exposure in combination with societal factors. Some countries such as India and Bangladesh have lost thousands of people due to storm surges. In other areas, heavy rainfall that produced flooding and mudslides has killed thousands. High winds with flying debris have taken a tremendous toll in some areas. In some unfortunate areas, the combined impacts of storm surge, flooding and high winds produce near-total devastation.

Several discussion items and recommendations to reduce societal impacts are provided.

5.1.1 Introduction

Tropical Cyclones with their triple threat of high winds, storm surge, and heavy rains can bring devastation to many areas of the world. The societal impacts are numerous and depend upon factors such as storm intensity, the area impacted (topography and bathymetry), the local and regional economy, the state of development (developed v less developed countries), community demographics, the status and integrity of physical and social infrastructure, and household and community wealth, to list but a few.
In the 5-year period from 1995 to 1999, the member countries of the WMO/UNESCAP
1 Typhoon Committee reported yearly average of approximately 1145 people dead or missing, nearly 700,000 houses destroyed, and about 1,500,000 people left homeless as a result of tropical storms and cyclones. Direct financial losses were estimated to be US$3.6 Billion annually.
These statistics, although profoundly revealing, do not include the significant indirect, and often less tangible and more difficult to quantify, associated societal impacts to individuals, families and communities.
Landfalling tropical cyclones can devastate regions and cause situations where authorities and national administrations can no longer provide the basic necessities of food, safe drinking water, and adequate health care to their citizens. Chaos and social upheaval can follow. In addition to the immediate direct impacts of lost lives and property damage, there are medium- and long-term adverse impacts. These may include effects on the physical and emotional health of the people impacted, the break-down of family or community support systems, reduction in agricultural and livestock output, loss of business revenues, communications failures, and transportation infrastructure deficiencies. The medium-term impacts can continue for weeks to months and long-term impacts can last from months to years.
A total warning system, comprising accurate and timely tropical cyclone forecasts and warnings, efficient communication mechanisms to transmit the warning messages, and public education encouraging appropriate disaster preparedness and defensive actions, is essential if citizens are to be empowered to reduce their vulnerability and build community resilience. This, along with hazard-risk and community-vulnerability assessments and the application of a social protection system, is absolutely required to achieve sustainable development and to lessen the human and economic impacts of tropical cyclones.

5.1.2 Layout of the Report

This report will consist of five parts. First, some examples from around the world of specific tropical cyclones and their broad impacts will be presented. In the next section the synergistic effect of various societal contexts and characteristics produced by landfalling tropical cyclones will be discussed. Next, the consequent vulnerability of various countries or areas will be considered. Finally, mitigation activities and recommendations for the working group to consider will be suggested. A short conclusion will complete the report.

5.1.3 Examples of Devastating Tropical Cyclones

The following are just a few examples of the devastating impacts of tropical cyclones from around the world.
a) India and Bangladesh. During the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, tropical cyclones in the North Indian Ocean have together taken more than one million lives. In 1970, 300,000 lives were lost; and in 1991, 138,000 deaths occurred, most as a result of storm surge. An earlier cyclone in 1864 was directly responsible for the loss of 50,000 lives, and diseases that followed killed another 30,000.
b) China. China has the highest frequency of land-falling tropical cyclones in the world, with an average of about 8.8 each year. In August 1975, Typhoon Nina moved deep inland and became a weak tropical depression three days after it made landfall. It stagnated in Henan Province with record heavy rain over one-third of the whole province. Two huge reservoirs and more than 10 small reservoirs collapsed at almost the same time. Flood heights in excess of 10 metres burst toward the downstream area. Nearly 100,000 people died and 100 kilometres of the main railways were washed out. The direct economic losses amounted to US$1.2 billion.
c) Philippines. A tropical storm in 1993 swept across central parts of the Philippines causing flash floods that killed 5,000 people.
d) Vietnam. In 1997, Typhoon Linda resulted in 4,502 people dead or missing, 440,000 hectares of paddy land lost of which 330,000 hectares were seriously damaged, 133,000 houses were seriously damaged, and the total loss reached in excess of US$100 million.
e) Australia. Although earlier cyclones have caused greater loss of life, by far the greatest overall impact that a tropical cyclone has had on Australia occurred on Christmas morning 1974 when Tropical Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin causing 65 deaths. Damage from the cyclone, estimated at approximately US$2.5 billion dollars, was so extensive that the town of 45,000 became dysfunctional and a massive air-evacuation of the population ensued. The event sparked a reassessment of both government and individual attitudes towards tropical cyclones and spawned an accelerated interdisciplinary research interest into natural hazards in Australia.
f) United States of America. The deadliest tropical cyclone for the continental United States occurred in 1900 in Galveston Texas and 8000 people died. However, the costliest tropical cyclone was Andrew in 1992 that cost an estimated $35 Billion, (dollars adjusted to 2000).

5.1.4 The Societal Context and Characteristics that Determine the Societal Impacts Produced by Landfalling Tropical Cyclones
Throughout the social science literature ‘disasters’ are widely described as being a social construct because the extent and dimension of hazard-related societal impacts (economic and social) are a function of the societal context and conditions within which the hazard occurs. That is, “hazards” (such as landfalling tropical cyclones) only become “disasters” when people are severely and negatively impacted.
There are many different societal contexts and characteristics which, when taken into account (individually and in combination) with landfalling tropical cyclones, can produce various societal impacts - for example: the state of development of the country or area affected; the type of government; the centralization or decentralization of government agencies; the ability of different government agencies to implement coordinated, cooperative efforts; the political status of the current government; the existence of a social protection ‘safety net’; the number of people in poverty; special needs groups that may have been overlooked; and available assistance either from the local or national governments, from outside governments, or from national or international non-government organizations; the socio-cultural and demographic structure of the population; natural ecosystems; domesticated animals; wildlife; topography; bathymetry; location of industrial and residential settlement centres; subsistence (agricultural or fishing) verses industrial economies; and past policy decisions regarding tropical cyclones (particularly in relation to land-use planning and emergency management).
Widely different societal contexts for cyclone risk exist throughout the world. A common theme however, is the growth of populations and infrastructures leading to increased overall risk:
1) The majority of Australians now live along coastal areas. In recent years, the tropical regions have experienced enormous growth in population, infrastructure, and industrialization as people realize the economic and climatic potential. Tourism in the tropics has been a large growth area with Far North Queensland now a significant world tourism destination. In Cairns, 61% of all tourist accommodations; 82% of business and commercial premises; 51% of community buildings; 62% of emergency services; 65% of health services; 88% of power utilities; and 82% of logistics (bulk gas, fuel, transport, food storage etc) are all located in the > 3 metre storm-surge prone coastal zone. Western Australia is the nation’s biggest exporter of raw materials (iron ore, crude-oil, natural gas, coal, and other minerals). People have migrated into this growing industrial area and older persons have moved to enjoy a tropical lifestyle in retirement thus increasing the population exposed to cyclones.
2) In India and Bangladesh, most tropical cyclone disasters have occurred in the Bay of Bengal. The delta formed at the mouth of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers is heavily cultivated and densely settled. These people are poor and their housing and other buildings are generally flimsy, un-engineered and thus easily damaged. When confronted with the threat of a landfalling tropical cyclone and/or storm surge they are very resistant to evacuation because they do not want to flee and leave their hard-earned belongings. In recent decades, extensive industrial installations such as ports, steel mills, and nuclear power plants have been built in the coastal areas. Finally, the people in the coastal areas have a tendency to look to government or official agencies for help in case of disaster.
3) In China, three areas are highly susceptible to storm surge: one from the mouth of the Yangtze River to the coastal area of Zhejiang; the second is from the mouth of the Pearl River to the west coast of Guangdong; and the third is the Shantou area. All of these are plain areas with very low elevations. All have undergone extensive industrialization and have built the required infrastructure to support it. However, they also continue to have vast populations involved in fishing and agricultural industries and many reservoirs have been constructed for irrigation and flood control purposes. In other areas the topography of the land is conducive to mud and rock flows that can bury villages.
4) In the United States there has also been a tremendous growth in population along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. As in Australia, older persons have moved to enjoy a tropical lifestyle in retirement. With the growth in populations in tropical cyclone areas, many of the newer residents have little idea of what impacts to expect from a landfalling tropical cyclone. Industries and infrastructure have been built to support the growing coastal population. The growth in the number of insured properties along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts and increased values of these properties has been significant. From 1990-1995, the aggregate growth costs for all coastal counties was 46 per cent, which was more than twice the rate of inflation.

5.1.5 Vulnerability
An awareness of the many contextual and relational aspects discussed in Section 5.1.4, leads to an appreciation of the complexity of the vulnerability of communities in tropical cyclone-prone areas and the implications of this for the local and national governments. Roger Pielke, Jr. suggests that when confronting the issues of minimising loss of life and damage to property related to tropical cyclone (hurricane) impacts, it is important to focus attention on the actions that can be taken to reduce a community’s vulnerability. It follows logically that consideration should also be given to identifying actions that will build community capacity and resilience. Taking this approach, it is possible to discover important, but perhaps neglected, avenues of action outside the conventional problem definition.
a) A 1995 U.S. Senate report asserted that hurricanes “have become increasingly frequent and severe over the last four decades as climatic conditions have changed in the tropics.” However, R. Pielke Jr. and C. Landsea have shown through a normalized hurricane damage analysis (normalized for inflation and population, and wealth increases) that normalized damages actually decreased in the 1970s and 1980s. The 1990s have similar normalised damage to that which was experienced in the 1940s and 1960s. Therefore, the escalating damage values are more likely related to societal factors than changes in climate or more frequent extreme weather events. Similar arguments could be made for the tropical areas of other more-developed countries affected by tropical cyclones.
b) Societal factors in less-developed countries or areas are quite different. Severe land-falling tropical cyclones can: stretch the natural coping mechanisms of the informal sector such as extended family and village support systems; produce unsafe drinking water; reduce minimal hygiene standards to below safe levels; cause malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies due to failures of domestic gardens or small farming areas which then leads to increased health problems; promote widespread insect infestations; result in an increase in social unrest; lead to an increase in school absenteeism because children/youth are needed to help families to obtain food and water for the family’s survival or because schools have been damaged. The poor and near-poor people are considered to be more vulnerable, and therefore at greater risk, since they have fewer assets, reserves, or other opportunities to fall back on. In areas suffering the direct impact of land-falling tropical cyclones it is likely that the welfare of individuals and households will fall below minimum consumption levels.
c) Other factors can affect a society’s vulnerability in both developed and less developed areas. The destruction of natural habitats and the degradation of natural terrestrial and marine systems can severely undermine the integrity of ecological systems. Urbanization and industrialization can gradually diminish the effectiveness of traditional or informal support mechanisms such as families, friends, and neighbourhood networks and villages. Communication process and systems failures at all levels (from the delivery of warning messages to the transmission of essential information required by government, community managers and emergency services) can limit the capacity for developing policy and making informed community risk-management decisions. A lack of proper training or education for government decision-makers, business people, the media, and the general public limits an understanding of the meaning, limitations, applications, and value of tropical cyclone forecasts and warnings. A lack of legislation enforcing comprehensive risk-assessment studies in hazard prone areas (for example, the Resource Management Act in New Zealand) can result in a lack of policies controlling inappropriate development and land-use practices.
5.1.6 Progress since IWTC-IV
There has been quite good progress in understanding societal vulnerabilities on some fronts that we are aware of. Researchers in the United States, notably Roger Pielke Jr, Chris Landsea, and many of their colleagues have carried out detailed studies of the societal and economic impacts of landfalling tropical cyclones in the United States, in the sub-continent and in the Carribean. In Queensland Australia, detailed studies of risk from storm surges, riverine flooding, and wind impacts on housing have been undertaken for a number of coastal cities at the household to community level under various Government and University supported projects
3. In Cairns, a longitudinal study of community vulnerability to landfalling tropical cyclones has recently been completed and presented in a doctoral dissertation. Publications relating to these (and more) are listed in the bibliography.

5.1.7 Mitigation and Recommendations for Societal Impact Vulnerabilities Societal impact vulnerabilities will only be mitigated when societies, at all levels of social aggregation, have the information and capacity to reduce, prepare for, withstand, and recover from, hazard impact. This may, to some extent, be achieved with the application of a range of public policy measures. It will only be possible when all impacts (direct and indirect, tangible and intangible) are ‘valued’ and in some way quantified and qualified and addressed within the socio-cultural context of the society. A list of some suggested measures for discussion appears in Appendix 1.

5.1.8 Conclusions
Tropical cyclones can bring devastation to many areas of the world. In less-developed countries, the impacts can threaten the very existence of an area by denying the people the capability to obtain the basic necessities of life, food and water. In developed nations with large, expensive coastal communities, industries, and infrastructure, the societal impacts are reduced because of insurance protection and reserves to fall back on. However, the impacts to the economies of all countries can be substantial. The question scientists and decision-makers must ask is: What actions can be taken to reduce community vulnerability to tropical cyclones? The first step in answering this question is to determine qualitatively and quantitatively, if possible, the vulnerabilities that exist. Then find short-/medium-/long-term strategies and plans to reduce these vulnerabilities. This is not an easy or quick solution, but the only one that will work in the long-term.
It is the task of this working group to consider the societal impacts of landfalling tropical cyclones, and management and mitigation strategies, holisticaly and within the specific context of improving the "total warning system. It is likely that this group will be able to contribute to the economic impacts and evaluation discussion and also to the effective warnings discussion, particularly in relation to the societal impact of warnings. This is an excellent opportunity for multi-disciplinary discussions to contribute to and build on the recent research output in this relatively new field of study.

The authors would especially like to acknowledge the work done in this area by Roger Pielke, Jr., the Asian Development Bank, and U.S. NCAR’s Environmental and Societal Impacts group. We would also like to thank the various sections authors of Volume I, Part II, of the two volume series Storms and many others who have contributed in many different ways.


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Part II of Storms is focused on Tropical Cyclones and the references cited therein provide a fairly comprehensive listing of literature in this area to the date of publication:
FUTURE Christopher W. Landsea

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Appendix 1

Public policy applications and social measures to identify and mitigate societal vulnerability.

a) Provide both the general public and policy makers with a higher level of tropical cyclone awareness education and training.
b) Invoke both quantitative and qualitative research methods to investigate and determine societal tropical cyclones vulnerabilities and meteorological variability so policy and decision makers can make informed choices on the effects of climate change, variability, and extreme weather events. Conduct behavioral studies that identify realistic assumptions of how the public will respond to cyclone threats. Ensure research results are useful, relevant, and focused and linked to users’ needs. Establish good decisions as the goal of research rather than good predictions, good theories, or good models.
c) Each country that experiences the landfalling tropical cyclones should conduct quantitative assessments of the impacts on society – ensuring that: the impacts are measured correctly and accurately; factors are not overlooked because of reliance on available quantitative information; the interrelation of atmosphere and societal trends that condition temporal or spatial patterns in impacts are considered; and the needs and vulnerabilities of ethnic and other groups previously under-represented in social and environmental sciences are included. These assessments should then be collected to form a global database of societal and economic impacts and vulnerabilities.
d) Establish good communications and research cooperation in the international research community, especially between physical and social scientists. Establish good communications and cooperation between researchers and the users that can benefit from this research. Ensure the common task of making good decisions to reduce vulnerabilities and risk is an integrated, common goal for research, public, media, and private sector communities.
e) At a national level strengthen communications and sharing of information among departments and agencies. Institute plans, arrangements, and mechanisms for agencies to effectively work together in preparedness, to reduce vulnerabilities, and to respond to impacts. Develop partnerships among government, non-government, amateur radio, and media agencies to ensure integrated, non-duplication response and preparedness activities.
f) Shift focus of disaster management from relief and response to comprehensive risk management aimed at reducing social vulnerability.
g) Establish good short-/medium-/long-term social and economic policies and programs designed to improve societal and environmental resilience to tropical cyclones and reduce the level of vulnerability by providing social protection and addressing the structural causes of tropical cyclone vulnerabilities.
h) Invest in strengthening and diversifying the sources of livelihoods of people in tropical cyclone prone areas. Capitalize and nurture the inherent social and cultural support capacities of poor communities and families. Systematically integrate poverty reduction and vulnerability reduction programs so people get out of poverty and cope better with tropical cyclone risks.

1 WMO/ESCAP – World Meteorological Organisation / United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific

2 Definitions of ‘Vulnerability’ ‘Hazard’ and ‘Risk’ vary throughout the literature. For the purpose of this discussion Risk is defined as a complex function of the hazard (described by its spatial and temporal characteristics) and vulnerability (exposure of the elements at risk) –

3 In addition to the bibliography attached to this report, please refer to Topic 5.2 Rapporteur Report

Session 5.1