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Science and Innovations

NAU Research Shows Ripple Effects of Hurricane Harvey on U.S. Economy


Hurricane Harvey is expected to be one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. Researchers at Northern Arizona University specialize in mapping how local climate events affect the national economy. They say Harvey’s influence on food and fuel prices could be felt for months. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with lead researcher Ben Ruddell.

Melissa Sevigny: Why is Houston so important to the nation’s food and energy supply?

Ben Ruddell: Houston is the nation’s hub for the petrochemical industry. What that mostly means is gasoline, diesel, fuel, various types of oils and natural gas. In addition, Houston is one of our nation’s largest ports…. where a lot of the food that we produce in the United States gets shipped to other countries.

An important thing you realize when you do this analysis is that when you live in a city, most of the things that you consume and buy, they weren’t produced in your own neighborhood. They come from the other side of the country or the world. We are all connected through this network of supply chains. And this means that no matter how far away a disaster is, or a policy or an event, it’s going to affect you somehow in our globally connected world.

So potentially Hurricane Harvey could have an effect on folks here in Arizona?

Potentially. I wouldn’t expect any major disruptions to supply chains coming in to Southern Arizona and major metro areas down there. I would expect a pretty small disruption to Northern Arizona. We get our energy from more local sources. We don’t get a lot of it from Houston, and our food supply doesn’t largely come from there either.

The places in the United States that are going to be most affected by this, many of them are concentrated along the Gulf Coast. But there’s also some far flung locations that have a lot of exposure, and you would be surprised to know what they are. The Chicago area has a lot of exposure to Houston. Minneapolis does not. Southern California in the L.A. area has a lot of exposure to Houston, but San Diego doesn’t have as much. An important thing about supply chain data is that it lets us make these really specific statement about who might have an issue.  

So you have to collect this data really fast. Harvey is still happening and you’ve already run out and got the information you need to see what’s going to be happening months down the line.

That’s right. We have the capability to rapidly produce this because we’ve been building it over time. That capacity has largely been funded by the federal government, by the National Science Foundation. These investments in public research, and dollars that go into universities to do that research, are necessary to prepare this type of work and to provide these types of services.  

So it’s predicted that we’re going to see more and stronger hurricane events. What can be done to make coastal cities like Houston more resilient to these types of disasters?

Speaking as a civil engineer and hydrologist, I would say we need more storm water retention, we need to increase our flood protection standards, and we need to make sure we’re not building, and we’re actually reversing building, in floodplain areas.

But I have another message also, about these coastal flooding disasters. We are all affected by them, it’s a national problem as this disaster shows, we will have national costs. And many of us do business with Houston and we have family there. What happens there really does have a consequence everywhere in the United States. It’s very important we look at a coastal flooding from storms as a national policy issue whether you live there or not, because we all affected by it.

Thank you very much for speaking with me.

Thanks for your time.

That was Melissa Sevigny speaking with Ben Ruddell, assistant professor at NAU’s School of Informatics, Computing and Cybersystems. He leads a project to map the nation’s food, water and energy systems.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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