Despite storm size, Patricia damage is managable


Last night along the Pacific coast, as thousands sheltered in place, people all around the world watched the live streams of the Mexican Pacific coast with anticipation and dread. For the previous 24 hours, the meteorology community watched in surprise, along with the rest of us, as Hurricane Patricia grew from a small tropical storm to a category 5 hurricane in a mere 36 hours. Friday morning, news of the storm broke on international media and prompted Mexican officials to order last minute evacuations. Due to the short notice, and in many cases lack of resources, evacuation was not possible for many people. They were forced to shelter in place in structures that were never built to withstand this kind of storm.

Disaster response and recovery nonprofits along with government agencies from multiple countries positioned themselves for what had the potential to be catastrophic damage. Overnight, as the hurricane came ashore, it quickly weakened, as anticipated, as it crossed into the mountains. This morning, as the sun rose we were greeted with a sigh of relief — no reported casualties, few injuries, and physical damages, though severe, within the ability of local groups and organizations to manage without aid from the international community.

Right before landfall, Patricia had sustained wind speed of 200 mph (equivalent to an EF 5 tornado.) Wind gusts were reported to have reached 250 mph, which put it nearly at the current world record of 253mph.

So, how could a storm of this size cause so little damage, and no deaths when storms much smaller have drowned cities and killed thousands?

The reason the damage is less than one would assume from a hurricane of this size is because of how the hurricane impacted the communities it crossed, namely that at its strongest it was situated between two population centers (Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo.)

A disaster is the product of the interaction of a hazard with society. A hazard (in this case the strongest ever recorded hurricane) alone is not a disaster. It is only when that hazard negatively interacts with the lives, property, or livelihoods of people that it has the potential to become a disaster. Even then, the extent to which we would consider the results of that interaction to be a disaster is an order of magnitude based on the extent of the impacts and the ability to address the needs generated.

It helps to think of disasters along a spectrum. On one end are emergencies (large apartment fires), towards the middle are disasters (the Joplin tornado, Hurricane Sandy), and on the high end are catastrophes (2010 Haiti Earthquake). Yes, Hurricane Patricia was on this scale, but it was far from catastrophic.

In emergency management there is a hierarchy that guides who should and should not be involved in a given disaster. It can be thought of as concentric circles with the impacted community at the center, surrounded by state/ regional, followed by national, and finally the international community. The resources of the impacted community are used first, and then the resources of the surrounding communities, and so on and so forth until all needs are met.
Organizations outside an impacted country must ask themselves two questions when deciding if it is appropriate to become involved:

Have the local community’s resources been overwhelmed?
Can we provide resources or expertise that no one else can?

The only responsible course of action when the answer to both of these questions is no, is not to respond. The Mexican government is seemingly well within its ability to address the impacts and did not request international assistance though gratefully acknowledged that it was available if needed. There is rebuilding to be done in the communities that did feel the effects of this storm, but the resources needed to do so are within their reach.

There remains a threat of flash flooding and mud/ landslides in many areas of Mexico. Texas however, has been experiencing serious flooding throughout the day as Patricia dissipates in the area. HDR Staff will continue to monitor the situation and, as always, will be ready to launch a Humanist Disaster Recovery Drive if it is needed.

100% of money raised for Humanist Disaster Recovery Drives go to our selected beneficiaries to help survivors and impacted communities. However, it costs money for FBB to run HDR Drives. If you are interested in helping FBB keep programs like HDR Drive operating so we can help others please donate to our general fund here.

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