‘Hurricane fatigue’ and adaptation on the Gulf of Mexico

Tuesday, 9. September 2008     0 comment(s)
Anna Korppoo
Researcher - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme

The 2008 Atlantic hurricane season was predicted to be severe but the hurricanes arranged in a line from the Western coast of Africa towards the Gulf of Mexico via the Caribbean to cause the scare of the week still seems somewhat unexpected. Under such conditions the population will very soon start suffering from ‘hurricane fatigue’ and refuse to disrupt their lives to evacuate, especially on areas which have been evacuated recently but were mostly spared from severe impacts. A lot of effort and media attention were loaded on the approach of hurricane Gustav, but this trouble seemed pointless when the storm was not half as bad as expected. The administration was even accused of overstating the threat. Now that hurricane Ike is approaching, many residents have already declared that this time they will rather ride the storm than to go through the misery of evacuation yet again.

A lot of the interest in the Gulf of Mexico is linked to the US oil and gas production. Hurricane Katrina which hit the Gulf in 2005 with hurricane Rita in its tail underlined the need of the oil and gas industry to improve its hurricane preparedness. According to various spokespersons of the leading companies, a lot has been done since 2005, and as a result, part of the Gulf oil and gas infrastructure is now fit to survive even a category 5 hurricane without major damage. Even so, the constant evacuations of the staff from the rigs when there is a hurricane scare must hinder the normal activities of the industry and lead to losses whether or not the storm actually hits.

Then there is the oil price which was pushed by the Katrina-Rita combo up to the record high 70 US dollars per barrel in 2005. Since then a lot more than just the preparedness of the Gulf industry has changed; the fact that oil price has hit record high at almost 150 dollars per barrel in July 2008 and has remained above 100 dollars per barrel may have prepared the world economy to a permanently higher oil price to the extent that closing down the Gulf of Mexico production for a week or two may seem like a walk in the park. And, like the residents in the Gulf coats, also the oil markets may start feeling the ‘hurricane fatigue’ when yet another storm approaches. As Gustav caused no massive damage and Hanna missed the Gulf altogether, also Ike may seem less threatening and not worth a wide speculation in the market.

All this could be seen as adaptation to the more severe hurricane seasons possibly caused by climate change. The US administration is certainly keen to avoid a repeat of the scenes of devastation in the scale of Katrina. As a result, funds are allocated for evacuation.

Also the oil and gas industries have successfully adapted to the rougher hurricane seasons, however, these improvements are yet to be tested by a direct hit by a major storm. When the hurricane threat becomes even more common due to climate change, perhaps even the oil market will stop reacting on approaching storms. This may be partly the result of the better equipment and the publicity these developments have gained, partly ‘hurricane fatigue’ when the information on yet another approaching hurricane just gets blurred with other market signals. The threat posed by Gustav still caused a price peak but it stabilized before it became obvious that the hurricane was not as damaging as feared.

The most dangerous type of ‘hurricane fatigue’, however, is that of the population. Bad luck with the next storm can cost lives if the crowd chooses to ignore the warnings by the experts and the administration in the aftermath of the previous hurricane threat. Not only the mitigation of climate change but also adaptation to it will lead to lifestyle changes. However, the mitigation path could be organized and thus more pleasant than the reactive adaptation route. Perhaps the 2008 active hurricane season was a lucky coincidence to take place just before the US presidential election; should the new administration come up with a serious set of domestic climate policies, it will need public support beyond rethorics.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

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