Extreme Weather

Relentless Storm Season Reinforces Need to Rebuild Differently

Over 95 percent of the buildings and infrastructure on the island of Dominica were destroyed or damaged by Hurricane Maria. (Andrew MacCalla/Direct Relief)
Over 95 percent of the buildings and infrastructure on the island of Dominica were destroyed or damaged by Hurricane Maria. (Andrew MacCalla/Direct Relief)

Highlights:

  • While storms of 2017 didn’t increase in number compared to years past, they increased in strength.
  • Whether 2017 storm season is “new normal” remains uncertain.
  • True resiliency for health systems means planning for crisis, not just bouncing back.

On Sept. 13, 2017, the National Hurricane Center began monitoring an atmospheric trough near the northern coast of South America. Three days later, right around the Lesser Antilles, that long low-pressure zone coalesced and built up enough power to be named a tropical storm. Two days after that, unusually warm waters in the Atlantic, approaching 86 F, fed a massive increase in the storm’s power and sent it hurtling northward towards the Leeward islands on the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea.

This was Hurricane Maria. It made landfall with devastating force on the island of Dominica and then again with a direct hit at Category 4 strength across the island of Puerto Rico. When Maria struck Puerto Rico, it was the strongest storm there in nearly a century, knocking out in one massive blow all electricity and most telecommunications, ripping roofs, doors and windows from buildings, sending torrents of flood water throughout the river systems which flow like veins through the mountainous interior. Core infrastructure on the island will take months to recover.

Maria was the 13th named storm of the current Atlantic hurricane season and the third to make landfall in highly populated areas at Category 4 or above. Governments, citizens, journalists and relief workers of all kinds expressed not only sorrow and support for the victims, but a kind of exhausted bewilderment at the remarkable succession of events, made all the more intense by concurrent earthquakes not too far away in Oaxaca and then again in Mexico City.

Old questions arose with fresh urgency: Was this year different? Have we arrived finally at the outpost of a long-predicted “new normal” in which climate change fuels increasing frequency and ferocity of storms at levels and speeds beyond the design of our infrastructures and our historic capacities to respond?

The image above is the Puerto Rican island of Vieques before Hurricane Maria whipped through the landscape with Category 4 winds. (Images courtesy of Digital Globe)

A Tipping Point?

The answer to these questions is at once straightforward and impossible to determine. On the one hand, the science is clear and unambiguous: there is no doubt that the buildup of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is raising air and water temperatures, altering wind and current flows, and steadily increasing the frequency and ferocity of major storms. It’s not only in the Atlantic where this is happening, but throughout the world, where in the same time period marked by the furor of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria, large parts of West Africa and South Asia also saw nearly unprecedented and deadly flooding.

The Atlantic season measured in number of hurricanes is high, but hardly without precursors. Yet measured in terms of the total amount of energy mustered by these storms, it marks a first of its kind in the annals of recorded weather data. We’re not sure whether it happened exactly this year, or over the past ten, but we’ve arrived at an anticipated but desolate outpost of our epoch, confronting a turbulent new landscape ahead of us.

The thing about turbulence is that specific consequences can be hard to predict with great certainty. Will the 2018 or 2019 seasons be worse than 2017? Should we now expect three or more storms at Category 4 or above each year? Should we move away from the coasts this very minute? On these points, in the near term, it’s really anyone’s guess. Storm seasons vary in frequency and intensity. They always have and they always will.

Possibly the curvature of the variation on all the metrics that matter is bending steadily upwards. But the fact of variation, much like the fact of carbon emissions’ impact on global temperatures, is not in doubt. Next year could be better or it could be much worse. We don’t, and can’t, really know. It’s wise in that sense not to get too fixated on the immediate prognostication game.

In any event, prognostication of the immediate future, although it seems to be laden with immense urgency, can also easily distract from the more pressing questions of our time. What can practically be done to prepare ourselves for the new patterns of variation which are surely to come? What does a society which is equitably and honestly prepared for the climate changed future even look like? I ask these questions not as someone involved in climate science or the policy of energy systems, but in humanitarian relief and global health. I ask them in terms of operational activity and in terms of the universal values upon which humanitarianism is based.

It certainly seems that the variations are going to get wilder over time, with profound implications for the health of individuals and communities, and for the infrastructures of power, communications, water, food and shelter upon which we all depend. Maybe not next year, or even the year after, but the signs of the landscape are unmistakable – this new world has in some sense arrived already, and we would ignore the signs only at the cost of great ignorance and peril.

The image above is the Puerto Rican island of Vieques after the storm, the strongest to hit Puerto Rico in almost a century. (Images courtesy of Digital Globe)

The Meaning of Resilience

“Resilience” is buzzword often used to described this sense of needing to prepare for, or brace against, an unruly future. It’s also an odd word choice. To be “resilient” as a personality type is to be someone who takes what life throws at them and makes of it what they will. It emphasizes recovery, being able to “bounce back” to retain whatever it is that the storm had washed away. It places the burden of planning not so much on hardening ourselves to deflect impact, but on bending in the face of mounting adversity, though never quite breaking. Despite these nuances, there’s something missing from “resilience.”

What “resilience” fails to convey is the sense that societies of the future may need to be different than societies of the past. “Bouncing back,” in other words, may not be sufficient.

Among the most obvious examples is post-Maria Puerto Rico. While the island does need to regain the capacity to generate electricity for all of its citizens, replicating the same electrical grid in the same way would be self-defeating. The Puerto Rican power systems should not “bounce back,” nor should it “bounce back better.” What is needed, from the standpoint of power generation, is a new approach that distributes capacities across many different sources and modes of generation, preventing the knock-out blow just witnessed, while at the same time considering how, for what and for whom we are generating power.

The grid pre-Maria functioned poorly and failed to serve the island’s residents equally. Complaints were issued constantly, from many quarters, regarding not only outages, but also the inefficiency and inconvenience of an opaque and convoluted system. The healthcare system faces many of the same problems and choices. Prior to Hurricane Maria, even by official estimates, the system wasn’t working well. Of 78 municipalities on the island, 73 were considered by the federal government to be “medically underserved.”  In Maria’s aftermath, healthcare workers throughout Puerto Rico are struggling to provide what care they can at the highest standards they are capable of. For them and the communities they serve, to just “bounce back” isn’t enough. Doing so would, at the most, return people to precarious place they were before the hurricane.

The turbulence of our climate, whether next month or next year, or years to come, poses enormous challenges of both practical design and imagination. Roads must be cleared, hospitals and clinics must be restocked, communication networks must be repaired, and the lights need to come back on. But that’s not enough to avoid a repeat of this crisis. We also must imagine new forms of infrastructure and systems that can withstand the future and serve everyone equally.

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