In the world of medicine, surgeons are forced sometimes to make decisions that enable them to help some patients while leaving others to their “doom”. The decision making process is known as triage, and focuses on concentrating the doctor’s effort where the most good can be accomplished. This is an accepted, and even expected, practice. The doctor who over-reaches and tries to save everyone tends to save no one instead. The same rule ought to govern the approach science takes towards intervention in natural disasters. If the power to direct a hurricane exists, and the choice is to let it hit either a densely populated, highly developed city or a sparsely populated and far less developed expanse of countryside, the choice should be clear. In such a case, the question is not “is it right or wrong to doom the rural residents?” The real question is “which path offers the least harm to people, and enables the fastest recovery?”
Wherever a hurricane strikes, it wreaks devastation. People must evacuate or face the wrath of the storm. Much of the local population is rendered homeless, industry is disrupted or destroyed, and property damage is extreme. Consider what this means in terms of numbers affected, economic impact, humanitarian aid, and recovery.
A single major city includes millions of people. The populace of nearby rural areas can be numbered in the thousands. The population in the city is densely packed, while a rural populace is widely spread. Hurricanes are slow in coming, giving people time to flee to safety. From a logistics standpoint, it is much easier for people to evacuate from the countryside. The sheer number of people in the city turns it into a trap, with heavy traffic congestion and a limited number of roads leading out. Fuel demand is high, and can easily overrun supply. In short, the city-folk have a much more difficult time escaping before the disaster reaches them. A well-organized bus scheme could easily support the evacuation of the smaller population of the countryside in advance of the coming storm.
When the storm is over, homes and places of employment have been damaged or destroyed. As a result, a large fraction of the population takes on refugee or jobless status. With the majority of jobs located in the city, the economy takes a much harder knock when it is the target of a hurricane. The resources needed to rebuild must be imported, and the millions of displaced people provided for at the same time. While the nearby rural communities are no-doubt willing to assist, the idea of the few supporting the many is not a practical one. Conversely, the economy of a thriving city can easily support the relatively small influx that a displaced rural population represents.
By the very same token, the humanitarian aid provided by the world goes farther when fewer people are affected. A billion dollars worth of aid split between one million urban refugees amounts to a mere thousand dollars per capita. When a person has lost home and livelihood, that is of limited help. On the other hand, the same billion, divided amongst ten thousand refugees is one hundred thousand per capita – enough to start getting lives back on track.
Recovery is also linked to rebuilding. Cities are highly developed areas, with intricacies of glass, concrete and steel spanning upwards and outwards in a dense superstructure. Travel and communications networks interlace utilities and buildings – all of which takes a great deal of effort to maintain, let alone rebuild. When a city is devastated by hurricane, reparations are extremely expense and lengthy. Rural areas, by contrast, are primarily croplands or pastures. Homes may be destroyed, but they are far fewer and less complex structures than skyscrapers and factories – much more easily rebuilt, both in terms of speed and money. So long as the topsoil is not lost, crops can be replanted. Grasses grow back of their own accord, or new pastures can be found.
With all things considered, rural areas are better able to withstand and recover from hurricanes. It is an all around better choice to “doom” the rural residents than those of the city, and make no mistake – if the ability to save the city exists and is not taken, then the choice has been made to “doom” the city residents. Once the decision to direct the hurricane is made, then the second step must be to commit the resources to helping the people who will be affected. The spared city has great resources available to help their rural neighbors who sacrificed for them. The world has shown itself time and again to be ready to help hurricane victims. With all humanity willing to help, it makes excellent sense to minimize the help that is required, maximizes the impact it will have.