The Impact of Tropical Cyclones on Coastal Communities

by Miranda Silano

Tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Ocean, such as tropical depressions, tropical storms, and hurricanes, are one of the most awe-inspiring, yet terrifying, climate and weather phenomena in the world. Tropical cyclones are a low-pressure group of thunderstorms that form from atmospheric disturbances over areas of warm water. These groups of thunderstorms are allowed to intensify when they travel over warm water and no other atmospheric phenomena can break them up. Due to this, it is expected that as climate change raises sea surface temperatures, tropical cyclones will be allowed to strengthen. This means there is a possibility for more major hurricanes.

Figure 1: Hurricane Katrina on August 28, 2005, over the Gulf of Mexico, from a satellite image. You can see here that Hurricane Katrina is roughly the size of Florida. For reference, the mainland of Florida is more than 440 miles from North to South (NASA, NOAA, Staff, 2015).

Figure 1: Hurricane Katrina on August 28, 2005, over the Gulf of Mexico, from a satellite image. You can see here that Hurricane Katrina is roughly the size of Florida. For reference, the mainland of Florida is more than 440 miles from North to South (NASA, NOAA, Staff, 2015).

They are the only hazardous events that we give unique names to. We see the horrifying news coverage while the Weather Channel shows us the size of these storms from space. We have individualized and personified them by giving them the power of names Since 2000, tropical cyclones have cost about $724.4 billion in the United States and taken the lives of more than 3,000 people, most dying from inland flooding caused by storm surges. This makes them the costliest and deadliest climate and weather-related hazard in the US. A method that I use in my research to predict costs from tropical cyclones is FEMA’S Hazus Program, a Geographic Information System (GIS) tool that examines a hazard (here, tropical cyclones) and the physical and social effects they can have on an area. The information generated by Hazus includes wind speeds, storm surge extent, potential building losses, potential fatalities and losses for varying demographic/socioeconomic groups, debris generated (and where it will be), and structures that are likely to be damaged.

Figure 2: A map showing where billion-dollar weather and climate events occurred, when, and what they were, in 2021. While only four out of 22 are tropical cyclones, in total, the four cost $78.5 billion (Smith, 2022). 

While my research takes into consideration the science of tropical cyclones, I also look at the people who can be affected. Geography plays an important role in tropical cyclone impact, who you are can affect your interactions with hurricanes. Certain demographic or socioeconomic groups are socially vulnerable, meaning they are at risk of suffering the most financially and have the highest potential for loss of life from tropical cyclones. Social vulnerability is a critical component in understanding risks to hazards. For example, communities of color, in some areas, experience lower levels of income, leaving them with a harder time preparing and recovering from hurricanes; lower-income communities in general struggle with this issue. The elderly, very young, and disabled, can have a harder time taking care of themselves, or may not be able to withstand the physical conditions that come after a hurricane if they stay. Lower levels of education or poorer English proficiency can result in the misinterpretation of evacuation warnings and preparation procedures. 

Figure 3: FEMA’s “recipe” for their National Risk Index, which is composed of an expected annual loss, social vulnerability, and community resilience. My research specifically focuses on the social vulnerability and community resilience components (FEMA). 

While tropical cyclone death and cost may never be eliminated, there is still hope for decreasing both. Community resilience, or the ability of a person or community to adapt and overcome complications for hazards, can be increased to lower risk. This is important when it comes to recovery, as 75% of all tropical cyclone costs are spent on recovery. I want to highlight the importance of understanding if specific improvements to community resilience that target socially vulnerable groups can have a greater impact on reducing risk. Community resilience can be measured by a Resilience Scorecard, a method that involves asking policymakers, city officials, and urban planners within cities to rank areas of strengths and weaknesses in their communities related to community resilience. For example, a city with clear evacuation routes, preparation procedures, and recovery plans, will score higher than a city that lacks in there. The goal is to find a way that creates more sustainable coastal cities by helping them to save money and lives from tropical cyclones that will inevitably strike in the future.


Image Sources

Figure 1: NASA, NOAA, Staff. (2015). Photos: Hurricane Katrina from Space,

Figure 2: Smith, A. B. (2022). 2021 U.S. billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in historical context,,list%20of%20billion%2Ddollar%20events.

Figure 3: FEMA. Determining Risk, .

Acknowledgement: This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number (NSF Grant #1922687). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This analysis was done as a member of the urbanPRism Lab led by Dr. Chandana Mitra in the Department of Geosciences at Auburn University.