Horror of Haiyan: Nature's fury unleashed

Horrific death and destruction wreaked last week on the Philippines by Super Typhoon Haiyan, called one of the mightiest storms ever to make landfall, should serve as a grim reminder that the effect of climate change continues to play out exactly as scientists warned, with extreme weather of increasing intensity variously battering, baking or inundating large swaths of the planet.

Haiyan's savage winds, roaring up to 235 mph, propelled a massive sea surge that swept over the Southeast Asia republic, flattening entire villages and killing an estimated 10,000 people - a number likely to grow as relief agencies struggle to reach remote areas choked with debris.

The typhoon exploded a little more than a year after Superstorm Sandy pummeled the East Coast, a meteorological monster from which many, including residents in this region, are still recovering. While some homeowners and businesses in storm-ravaged communities have chosen to rebuild, many others correctly are coming to the conclusion that the risks of living and working in low-lying hurricane zones, not to mention dealing with more stringent regulations and higher flood insurance premiums, outweigh the benefits of returning to their old neighborhoods.

Too often we applaud people's determination to rebuild when really we should be encouraging them to relocate to higher ground. Increasingly, local, state and federal regulators are taking this more reasonable, cautious approach, requiring those who insist on rebuilding after hurricane destruction to construct buildings on stilts, using stronger materials and otherwise minimizing loss of life and property. In addition, they must either pay significantly more for federal flood insurance, or forego such policies altogether and assume 100 percent of the liability if - or more likely, when - the next storm comes along.

These new restrictions have caused some grumbling among the storm-displaced, and while this newspaper sympathizes with all victims of natural disasters we can't condone the actions of those who carelessly put themselves in harm's way, especially when government services are required for rescue and subsequent restoration.

As sea levels rise and storm intensity accelerates, emotions likely will boil up more frequently over who is allowed to rebuild, and where. How do you tell the owner of a shoreline cottage whose family has lived there for generations, or someone who has operated a boardwalk clam shack, they no longer can return? What about the boardwalk itself? Is it fair to ask taxpayers to reconstruct a waterfront landmark that could wash away again?

Expect to be challenged by these and similarly daunting questions, for which there are few, if any, good answers.

For those of us living on the East Coast, this has been the quietest Atlantic hurricane seasons in nearly half a century. According to the National Hurricane Center only two Category 1 hurricanes materialized this year, and neither hit land - the first time that's happened since 1968. With the season officially ending Nov. 30 and temperatures cooling it seems unlikely we here in New England will face anything quite as destructive as Sandy in the next couple of weeks.

"It's not only quiet, but it's got the potential to be near record quiet for the Atlantic Basin," Chris Landsea, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, told the independent research organization Climate Central.

This contradicts dire predictions made earlier this year. In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned there would likely be between 13 and 20 named storms in the Atlantic with sustained winds of at least 39 mph, including seven to 11 that would achieve hurricane status (winds of at least 74 mph); and that three or four major hurricanes of category 3, 4 or 5 (winds of at least 111 mph).

Meteorologists suggest the volatility that has created such superstorms as Sandy and Haiyan also contributes to the growing difficulty of accurate, long-term forecasting.

While it's good news that so far we in the Northeast haven't had to deal with a hurricane this season, Philip Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher and seasonal forecaster at Colorado State University, points out a related danger: complacency.

Just as we cannot allow wanton development along the coast, we can never afford to let our guards down that another Sandy, or worse, a Haiyan, will one day slam ashore. That's a risk none of us can afford.

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