By Regan Reeck
In recent weeks media outlets across the United States have been inundated with breaking news and constant updates on the slew of hurricanes that have hit the coastlines of the U.S. and surrounding areas. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, Katia, and Maria have incited fear and panic, destroyed homes and businesses, made areas completely uninhabitable and taken lives.
While there’s been a scrupulous eye trained on what actions are being taken (or not taken) by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), there is less conversation surrounding climate change, which has been widely accepted as increasing the strength of hurricanes as of late.
A devastating set of ingredients
Hurricanes require a relatively simple recipe and are a natural phenomenon that have existed long before humans began tracking their movements. They begin as tropical storms in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans near the equator where the warm water helps their development. As this water evaporates it rises and gathers as moist, heated air that in the atmosphere begin to spiral, following the slow movement of Earth’s planetary rotation. For the storm to continue to grow in both size and strength they must remain over water with a temperature of 79 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. These storms will lose power as it travels over land or cooler waters but, and this is where climate change begins to play its role, as ocean temperatures across the globe increase and become warmer, the severity of hurricanes has also increased.
What’s been seen so far
The Atlantic basin hurricane season begins on June 1 and ends on Nov. 30 and according to the Hurricane Research Division at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, the Atlantic basin has on average seen 11.7 named storms, meaning they’ve developed into a tropical storm with winds above 39 mph.
There is still close to two months left in the hurricane season and already 2017 is set to be one of the most active seasons on record. To put it in perspective, the average number of hurricanes to occur in the Atlantic basin is a little over 6, with 2.4 of them being considered major hurricanes (Category 3 or higher) and 1.7 hitting U.S. soil. The U.S. has already seen two Category 4 storms hit the U.S. this year, Harvey and Irma, which is in itself a record.
“This season is probably worse than average, but because we’re talking about just a couple of storms it’s really hard to make a trend out of that,” Thijs Heus, an associate professor of Physics at Cleveland State said. “A few big storms a year, that’s already really hard to distinguish what is luck – or bad luck- and what is actually a change in global trends.”
Heus explained that climate change isn’t necessarily causing more of these storms — there isn’t enough data to determine that quite yet — but warming waters were definitely a contributing factor.
“If a storm is just sitting on the Atlantic and not hitting any land, we’re not going to notice it,” Heus said. “That is unless there were three storms just before that, now the next storm that shows up, we will for sure take notice of it.”
Heus points out that Hurricane Harvey was the first hurricane of the year that had made it into the news, and for good reason. A Category 4 storm, Hurricane Harvey brought record rainfall to Houston, Texas and surrounding areas and flooded the area with about 27 trillion gallons of water over Texas and Louisiana. It was the first major hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. since Hurricane Wilma in October of 2005 and it was the first major hurricane in 56 years to hit Texas.
Hurricane Harvey wasn’t the only storm this year to break records. According to the National Hurricane Center (NHC), Hurricane Irma was the strongest Atlantic basin hurricane ever recorded. At its strongest, Irma hit 185 mph sustained winds and at a Category 5, devastated 95% of the island of Barbuda which is currently completely uninhabited. While Irma dropped to a Category 4 by the time it hit Florida, it still did considerable damage, leaving about 60% of the state without power which has taken weeks to return to normal.
Hurricane Maria also joined the ranks as it barreled directly into Puerto Rico at a Category 4 and brushed against the Dominican Republic, Dominica, Turks and Caicos Islands onward to the Bahamas. Maria, the strongest storm to hit the island in 80 years, resulted in hundreds of thousands of people evacuating their homes and going to shelters. With power out across the island exact rainfall will not be known until it can be collected, but it is estimated parts of Puerto Rico saw over 30 inches of rain from Maria, causing what the National Weather Service calls “catastrophic” levels of flooding.
“The names [for hurricanes] circulate every five years, unless you’ve got a devastating storm like Irma, Maria and Harvey,” Heus said. “Those names will retire. We will never have another storm named Harvey again because they were just so traumatic.”
Heus explained that the U.S. could potentially see storms this destructive next season, and maybe their strength would abate in the next year or two, but there isn’t enough collected data currently to make that assertion.
This is not the first time that the U.S. has been hit hard by hurricanes. Heus explained that many of the conversations happening now, were happening 12 years ago in 2005 with another record breaking season of hurricanes when the U.S. was grappling with Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma. What the U.S. experienced in the past few weeks wasn’t abnormal in the sense of them occurring in these areas, in fact these affected parts of the coastline were due for their “100 year flood”.
What was unusual though was the way the hurricanes followed one after the other. It’s not typical, but there was always a chance of it happening and what is increasing is the probability that this pattern will become more likely as the climate continues to change.
“Everyone was wondering then too, ‘is this going to be the new normal?’” Heus said. “It’s not going to be the new normal, but it’s going to be more likely that we get these storms.”
FEMA: Prepared? Responsive? Committed?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) introduced in 1979, is meant to act as a federal response to a disaster that occurred in the U.S., natural or otherwise, that cannot be managed solely by state and local authorities. After a hurricane, individuals can register for disaster assistance and they may be eligible for temporary housing assistance, home repair or replacement as well as financial aid to help cover expenses caused by a disaster including medical, funerary and the replacement of personal property.
After Hurricane Katrina, FEMA became infamous as government response to the aftermath of Katrina was slow and mismanaged. With an inadequate amount of food and supplies being distributed and an evacuation plan that left many people stranded, a great number of people died not because of the hurricane itself but because of the government’s response to the disaster. Since 2005, FEMA has made strides in an attempt to be better suited to respond to disasters, including a massive increase in federal funding.
According to a report released on Sept. 22 by FEMA, Hurricane Harvey caused the evacuation of approximately 780,000 Texans and put 42,000 Texans into temporary housing and shelter. After Hurricane Harvey, President Trump immediately issued a major disaster declaration which allowed for the deployment of over 31,000 FEMA employees, National Guard and other federal agencies to help distribute supplies, which were already prepared to be disbursed. This included 3 million meals and 3 million liters of water. Over the course of 30 days, victims of the hurricane received $1.5 billion in federal funds and 270,916 of Texan households were given $571.8 million from FEMA to help pay for essential needs. President Trump has visited Texas twice since Hurricane Harvey made landfall, first on Aug. 29, 4 days after the storm made landfall, and again on Sept. 2.
Hurricane Irma received an even larger response, with over 40,000 federal personnel in place and aiding victims of the storm by Sept. 14, 4 days after the hurricane made landfall. Florida also received 6.6 million meals and 4.7 million liters of water. A report released by FEMA on Sept. 16 declared that over 413,000 claims had been made with $92.8 million being approved for survivors of the Hurricane, as more claims are registered, these number may increase. In response to the devastation in Florida, President Trump managed to visit Florida on Sept. 14, 4 days after Irma made landfall.
While these relief efforts in Texas and Florida are both necessary and impressive, federal response to the destruction in Puerto Rico is making many draw parallels to aid response after Hurricane Katrina. President Trump, who plans to visit the island on Oct. 3, almost two weeks after the Maria, has been widely criticized for his reaction to the catastrophe. Addressing his issues with the NFL protests and Stephen Curry’s hesitation to visit the White House, President Trump then turned his gaze to the Mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital city San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz. In a tweet, sent in the early hours of Sept. 30, he responded to Mayor Cruz. “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.” Trump tweeted.
With over 11,800 federal staff and over 800 FEMA personnel on the ground, Puerto Rico undoubtedly has a long road to recovery. The island, which in parts was also hit by Hurricane Irma, lost power across most of the country and it could be up to 6 months until it’s fully restored. As of Sept. 30, FEMA reported that only 45 percent of the island inhabitants have access to freshwater. FEMA in its report stated that it has provided millions of meals and millions of liters of water to both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
‘It’s not a question of if it exists, but a question of how it will be dealt with’
While political leaders, such as Roosevelt Skerrit, the Prime Minister of Dominica, plead with other world leaders to recognize the immediate effects that climate change is having on the world, others continue to ignore the issue. It could be said the idea of climate change is widely contested in the U.S., President Trump calls it a hoax and removed the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, but as global temperatures rise and incidences such as what is being experienced currently with the bevy of hurricanes, it’s a hard argument to defend, especially on unseasonably warm September afternoons.
“The overall picture is absolutely clear,” Heus said. “It’s happening [climate change], it’s quite hard to deny on a day like this.”
“It’s certainly enough of a topic, the problem is that it quickly becomes a politicized topic, ” Heus said. “It shouldn’t be. In the end, the facts are the facts.”
From the Netherlands, Heus explains that there is quite a large difference in acceptance of the fact of climate change between Europeans and Americans, but he points out that the global community has been successful in eradicating other threatening things such as acid rain and the thinning of the ozone layer.
Still not necessarily pessimistic on the current climate change situation, Heus highlights three actions that need to be used to reduce our impact on the earth. With a combination of mitigation, reducing our CO2 use, adaptation, making sure that rather than having people live in uninhabitable areas that they attempt to make habitable — golf courses in the desert — and investing more into geo-engineering, trying to modify climate on purpose.
“The discussion to a large extent should be I think, not, if this is happening what should we do about it? But do we want to do anything about it? It doesn’t make sense to me to have a conversation on whether or not temperatures are changing. It is changing, period.”
The damage done at home
It’s difficult to fathom the experience of living through a hurricane. While Cleveland isn’t in danger of being hit by a hurricane anytime soon, there are many students at Cleveland State who had no choice but to sit, watch and hope that their family members would be okay during these storms.
Jayuya, Puerto Rico
Jessica Aviles, a senior majoring in psychology at Cleveland State, watched as Hurricane Irma and then Hurricane Maria crashed into Puerto Rico. Helpless to do anything but watch as her husband’s family braced for the 155 mph winds that ravaged the islands infrastructure.
While her husband, Michael Aviles and grandparents in-law maintain a calm demeanor, Aviles has been openly distressed.
“Even just talking about it, not knowing if people are okay and not being able to get in touch with them is this level of upsetting that is so indescribable,” Aviles said. “He acts like he’s fine, I can’t imagine what it is like for [my husband].”
As far as Aviles and her family know, relatives in Puerto Rico still have access to food and water, but like much of the island are without power.
“I wish the U.S. had a much better response to this,” Aviles lamented. “I am appalled by the actions and words of the president, the things he has said in regards [to Puerto Rico] are disgusting.”
She continues to explain the gravity of the situation, mentioning that the island needs to be treated as a priority, and it’s not.
Aviles emphasizes the impact that the hurricane had on Puerto Rico, in comparison to Texas and Florida, she believes it will be economically and situationally much more difficult for the islands inhabitants to recover.
“It’s so poor down there, I grew up ‘poor’ or ‘struggling’” Aviles said. “And then I go down to Puerto Rico and see what poor really means, I can’t imagine [what it’s like] for these poor people.”
Born and raised in Miami Florida, Jorge Larren Junior, a sophomore majoring in sports management at Cleveland State knew that there was a very real possibility of his family being in serious trouble and there was nothing he could do about it
“Imagine being here and trying to call your parents and you don’t know anything, no one is telling you anything, you can’t get in contact with anyone and all you hear is there’s massive flooding,” Larren said. “I was devastated. Emotionally it just takes a toll on you.”
Before moving to Cleveland, Larren lived with his mother, grandparents and dog. Once the storm hit, they all lost power and for three days he was only able to speak with his family for a moment at a time.
“We could call and have enough time to say ‘Are you good?’, ‘Yes’, because the lines were all down,” Larren said. “It’s different if I was there, I’m here and I can’t do anything about it, but if I was there and water starts getting in…you know there’s two grandparents, a dog that wouldn’t do anything and my mom who can’t do much regardless. But I could do more. These are the things that go through your head.”
After three days he was able to get a good enough connection to talk to them for two minutes. It took another four or five days before he was able to have an actual conversation with his family. In preparation, they had to buy water, batteries, generators and non-perishable food, Larren noted that his family was lucky as many others struggled to find enough supplies.
Larren also has family in the Florida Keys, an area whose residents were highly urged to evacuate and received substantial damage.
“The area is completely devastated, nothing’s left,” Larren said.