Hurricane Katrina to Cyclone Pam: whose losses count more?

(This article has originally published on and can be found here)

This year marked the tenth anniversary of hurricane Katrina that had devastating consequences on New Orleans and the entire Gulf coast of the United States.

The event killed at least 986, displaced up to 600,000 for over a month, and caused an estimated USD $135 billion in damages.

Seven years later, hurricane Sandy struck the Eastern coast of the states causing another estimated USD $72 billion in damages, of which $70 billion included insured losses and $7.2 billion in payments by the National Flood Insurance Programme.

These two hurricanes were the most costly disasters in US history but will likely not be the last.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) points out, climate change impacts will have adverse impacts for all countries around the world both due to direct and indirect effects.

For at least 49 countries however these effects will be more severe not only because of their geography but also due to the lack of resources to adapt to, cope with and respond to disasters. The United States is not one of them.

Report: Vanuatu’s banana farmers face bleak future after Cyclone Pam 

Over the past decade, several international processes have been marred by fatal environmental disasters that have struggled to sway the conservative opinions of most developed countries.

Most recently at the 2015 World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction it was hurricane Pam that devastated Vanuatu and surrounding islands.

While these events have helped make the case for least developed countries to push for greater support, the process has been slow.

Despite evidence from the scientific community that these events are becoming more frequent and are increasing in intensity, several countries have been reluctant to address future losses and damages due to climate change.

Yet still, if a country like the United States with one of the largest economies in the world could feel the devastation of a single hurricane like Sandy, imagine what this would be like for a small island state.

Unlike the United States that has a huge territory along with substantial financial reserves to draw upon, one might imagine a hurricane like Sandy would swallow the country whole.

Report: Flooding could cost US$1 trillion a year by 2050

This was the argument made by developing countries at COP18 after several newspapers published that losses and damages due to Sandy amounted to $72 billion.

This helped create the wedge for Parties to agree to the establishment an institutional arrangement on loss and damage the following year.

This starkly contrasts to the time when Vanuatu proposed an insurance mechanism to the UN’s climate body in 1991 to help support small island states deal with future environmental events and their voice was quickly drowned out.

Now over two decades later, the country is forced to pick up the pieces from hurricane Pam that destroyed Port Vila in less than 24 hours.

Although Cyclone Pam was significantly smaller than Katrina, it has killed and displaced per capita more people in Vanuatu.

Additionally, relief workers have reported damage to more than 90 percent of the buildings in the capital city and a critical shortage in shelter supplies.

Time to insure?

While humanitarian aid is beginning to pour into Vanuatu from countries like Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, it has left some of us wondering how things might have been different if an insurance mechanism had been adopted in 1991.

Hurricane Pam hit the Pacific at a time when most environmental ministers around the world were arriving in Sendai, Japan, for the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction.

The purpose of the conference was to create a post-2015 Hyogo Framework for Action that was originally established as a guide for countries to respond to future disasters.

While the framework was never meant to create binding responsibilities, these negotiations were expected to foreshadow discussions in New York for the Sustainable Development Goals and the new climate agreement in Paris later on this year.

The final ‘watered-down text’ as most civil society organizations might argue, at the very least, demonstrated that countries have been willing to compromise and come together to send a positive message on their efforts to reduce disaster risks.

Although there remain many uncertainties on the road to Paris, one of them being the inclusion of loss and damage in a new agreement, claims for a compensatory mechanism are increasing.

“The cyclone Pam tragedy graphically illustrates that while we are facing 21st century storms, stronger and more destructive than ever before due to climate change, our infrastructure and disaster response systems are stuck in the 20th and some cases 19th century,” Ahmed Sareer, the Maldives’ ambassador to the UN, told the ClimateWire website.

“We urgently need to modernize our preparedness and part of that means looking at how loss and damage plays a role in addressing climate impacts.”

Written by: Dr. Saleemul Huq, Director, ICCCAD and Stephanie Andrei, Visiting Researcher, ICCCAD