Natural disasters hit a record high in 2020. Wildfires swept the western U.S. with devastating force and decimated millions of acres of land, a record-breaking number of hurricanes and cyclones tore up the east coast, and the world hit a new high temperature. Climate anxiety—much like the climate temperature itself—is at an all-time high.
These natural disasters in the U.S. alone have cost at least $1 billion in damages, this number purely describing initial damages. Natural disasters often have domino-like effects that echo for months and years afterward. One type of disaster the world will undoubtedly see more of this year and in the years to come that damages homes, businesses, and personal health: Natech disasters.
What Are Natech Disasters?
Natech (natural-hazard-triggered technological) disasters are technological accidents triggered by a natural disaster. Think of these types of disasters as the second—and often more devastating—phase of a natural disaster. When a flood, fire, earthquake, lightning storm, or tsunami hits, they often have second, third and fourth-order consequences that continue to harm the environment and public health.
These tech disasters aren’t focused on small issues like blown-down telephone poles that can easily be fixed without long-term ramifications. These disasters center on damages to buildings and areas that store hazardous chemicals, fossil fuels, and other dangerous and toxic materials that could harm the public if released. When natural disasters hit those types of storage sites (think pipelines, mines, waste dump sites) toxic materials and byproducts release into the surrounding environment.
And when those toxic materials disseminate, they contaminate nearby water supplies, surrounding soil, and air, and become life-threatening to anyone in the area.
Natech Disasters Pose Long-Term Health Threats
When Natech disasters strike, the resulting contamination, pollution and contamination can take a heavy toll on local communities. It’s often a price they pay for years.
Environmental resources like local rivers and city drinking supplies are frequently contaminated after a disaster. While it’s usually easy to see when potable drinking water has been contaminated without testing—black specks in a home’s water supply mean there’s water heater corrosion and a noticeable smell in water indicates a water filter needs to be replaced—but natech contaminations aren’t easily detectable. And those contaminations may not be noticed until large groups of people start to become sick.
Last August, a lightning storm sparked a massive wildfire along California’s Santa Cruz mountain range. The wildfire was eventually contained, but local officials warned residents that their drinking supply had been contaminated. Benzene, a toxic carcinogenic that was most likely released into the water from melted plastic pipes, had made its way into the water supply.
Unfortunately, other natech disasters aren’t caught until people start to become sick. When Hurricane Harvey hit the eastern and gulf coast in 2017, natech disasters popped up everywhere and exposed countless people to toxic chemicals. The eastern coast holds around half of the U.S.’s oil and gas refineries—and was essentially a natetch time bomb waiting to explode. The hurricane hit the refineries hard and released millions of pounds of toxic chemicals into the surrounding air. Those exposed to those toxic chemicals were in danger of serious harm to their respiratory system. After the hurricane, reports of chemical burns and other respiratory injuries started rolling in after being exposed to those poisonous and toxic fumes from the hit chemical plants and refineries.
Toxic chemicals can linger in the air, soil, and water long after the storm moves on, causing lingering health problems to those in the exposed area. And with the rise in natural disasters over the years in no small part due to climate change, these disasters will most likely become more common (and more devastating). While increased security measures are happening, it may not be enough should the world keep breaking that natural disaster high records.
Author: Natasha Ramirez is an avid writer, reader, and dog-lover. Her work has carried her from the bustle of New York at Inc. Magazine to the Santa Fe deserts at Outside Magazine. Natasha currently works as a copywriter, guest blogger, and freelance journalist. Natasha’s blog is natasharamirez.com and you can follow her on Twitter.