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Are ‘safer’ hurricanes more damaging?

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Don’t be tricked by the wind speeds

Puerto Rico Faces Extensive Damage After Hurricane Maria Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

After Irma and Harvey and Maria, there’s another hurricane on the horizon: Hurricane Nate, which is expected to make landfall this weekend.

Compared to the others, Nate doesn’t seem as powerful: Irma sustained speeds of 185 mph, while Nate’s force is estimated at 80 mph (a Category 1 hurricane instead of Category 5). But don’t be fooled by the seemingly low number.

First of all, though winds are frightening, it’s the water that really causes the damage, and the potential deaths. The winds last a few days, but the flooding and the storm surges can last for much longer. According to the National Hurricane Center, about 88 percent of hurricane deaths from 1963 to 2012 in the US were caused by the water, not the winds. This is already the case with Nate, which has caused 22 deaths in Central America already, mostly from flooding.

Interestingly, “safer” hurricanes in general tend to lead to more damage, according to a 2005 study from the Southern Economic Journal. The researchers note that though hurricanes have become less deadly, the cost of damages have increased over time. By 1995, for example, there was already more hurricane damage in the five years of the ‘90s than in the two previous decades combined. Why?

The scientists conclude that precisely because forecasting and other scientific advances have made hurricanes less deadly, the cost of living along these coasts is lower — which means more people live there, which means more property to damage.