Hurricane Maria surpassed the predicted costs due to global warming

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Photo: Centro de Periodismo Investigativo


By:Damaris Suárez / Source: Centro de Periodismo Investigativo / The Dawn News / October 26, 2017


Climate change is not something esoteric, and much less in Puerto Rico after María: it represents three million inhabitants without communication, thousands without roofs, highways destroyed by landslides, the total collapse of the electrical system, problems with food supplies and people waiting in never-ending lines to buy fuel and items of basic necessity.


Ramón Cruz, member of the board of directors in the United States of Sierra Club, mentioned that in the case of Puerto Rico, the immediate effect of the lack of planning of the authorities in the face of an atmospheric event like Maria can be seen in the total collapse of the electrical and telecommunications infrastructure.


“Evidently we were not ready. The fact that the communications system, the electrical system, hospitals, running water… that all of that has collapsed, it has to do with the fact that we did not have an adaptation plan to climate change. If you don’t have a plan to deal with this, you don’t have a way to recover quickly,” explained the environmental policy analyst.


The specialist in Climate and Development, Ramón Bueno, attributed -in part- the lack of planning to decades of excessive development in vulnerable areas without thinking about the vulnerability of the Caribbean location of Puerto Rico.


“There was an enormous amount of expansion of construction and development in areas that experts knew weren’t suitable. There are two factors (that influence the magnitude of the devastation): the enormity of nature and what is found in its path, that is built by humans,” claimed the academic.


The disaster provoked by the hurricane confirmed what this professor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) stated since 2008, in his study “The Caribbean and Climate Change: The Costs of Inaction” that around 40 million inhabitants of the twelve islands in the Caribbean are vulnerable and on the front lines in the face of climate change with a regional cost that a decade ago was projected to be $10 billion in 2025, including the damage by hurricanes, loss of tourism and the damages to infrastructure in the zone.


The damages to transportation infrastructure, electronic system and private structures caused by Hurricane Maria have already surpassed the annual costs in the damages by hurricanes, loss in infrastructure because of the increase in the sea-level and the loss of tourism, that the study projected for the entire Caribbean. The estimation of the damages to Puerto Rico by Maria fluctuate between $20 billion and $95 billion. This last preliminary figure was offered by the governor, using the estimates of the Moody’s credit rating and it included the loss of productivity of the economy.


“If this does not wake us up, I don’t see what can,” stated Ramón Bueno, specialist in development and climate change.


The warming of the atmosphere and the oceans as a consequence of the emission of gases by the burning of fuel and deforestation is a phenomenon that in the last century has provoked changes in the climate. Temperatures are rising, glaciers are melting, there are changes in precipitation and the phenomenons like storms and extreme weather are some of its manifestations.


In agreements with Dr. José Molinelli Freytes, professor of the Department of Environmental Sciences in the University of Puerto Rico, the impact of this last hurricane can be considered an effect of climate change, not due to the force of its winds, but for the speed in which it reached them.


María went from a storm to a category 1 hurricane on Sunday September 17. That monday morning, it was already a category 2 hurricane and hours later it converted to a category 3, later it had winds of a category 4 and that same night it was already category 5.


The extreme and unforeseen development of this hurricane is a product of the accelerated changes that occur in the weather as a product of the warming of the planet. The geomorphologist pointed out this causes events with a low probability occur with greater frequency, like for example, that potential tropical cyclone or tropical depressions can become in just 24 or 36 hours a category 4 or 5 hurricane.


“We are talking about an extremely quick intensification that occurs with these phenomenons and it is a product of the high temperatures of the ocean,” he stated.


Molinelli recalled that Maria is not the first case. In 2015, the Hurricane Joaquín flooded the El Faro ship in the north of the Bahamas that had left the Jacksonville port. “When the ship left, there was bad weather to the north of La Española. In a question of 24 hours this system had converted to a category 4 hurricane and it sank the ship,” he pointed out.


This same year, Hurricane Patricia went from being a bad weather area to a small depression and then turned into a storm. In a question of 24 hours, Patricia became a category 5 hurricane battering the pacific coasts of Mexico with winds of 220 mph; a situation that had never been seen before.


“A greater amount of water vapor in the atmosphere gives the energy to a hurricane, that does not only intensify the winds of a phenomenon but also substantially increases the amount of rain that will be more intense and cause flooding in less time,” confirmed the academic.


Periods of strong rains in record time and intense periods of drought are some of the changes that we will experience every day with more frequency as an effect of this new climate. On top of that, there are also extremely high and low temperatures. Climate change promises to make us witnesses with more frequency to diverse extreme events that will make the infrastructure of these countries more and more vulnerable due to the regularity of these events.


¿Drought in sight?

Molinelli laid out, that as a consequence of the hurricane, it is probable that Puerto Rico is more vulnerable to the effects of a drought due to the fact that landslides, erosion of mountainous areas and vegetative debris that the cyclone destroyed when it passed, end up in the bodies of water that feed the reservoirs. They convert into sediment that reduces the capacity to store water.


In 1998 after Hurricane Georges, the dam of the Grande River of Arecibo lost almost a third of its original capacity. “Puerto Rico is now more vulnerable to the effects of a drought that was lived recently, because the capacity of water has been reduced. How much was it reduced? This will have to be studied calmly after the event,” he stated.


In agreement with the scientist, during the first weeks, the authorities should have taken satellite images of high resolution of the impact of the hurricane in Puerto Rico to do studies and evaluate the damages. The image of the country changed with deforestation and it would be evident which communities were covered by vegetation and the density of structures that the trees hid before. In this way, the government could have made a real inventory of the residences that lost roofs, the fallen electrical overhead cables, and other information, before the vegetation naturally regrows.


“The scientific study is important to see how the island was left and understand changes that could occur later. It is vital, to have this historic record. This window was only available in the first weeks, and maximum one month after María,” he stated.


Call to the government to analyze the lessons of María

According to Dr. Bueno, the devastation in Puerto Rico after the battering of this hurricane is already discussed in academia, not as an isolated case but as an example of the category of hurricane that will be more and more common in the Caribbean as a product of climate change.


With 80% of the electrical system destroyed and thousands of citizens with their houses partially or totally destroyed, the reconstruction of Puerto Rico after Hurricane María represents a great opportunity to rebuild the island, a new infrastructure that is resistant, efficient and sustainable in the face of the climate that is coming.


For Bueno, the government should give what he calls “a qualitative jump” to rebuild from the transformation of social infrastructure to make it more resistant to this type of phenomenon. He also suggested that it is the moment to create a common space with the academia so that the construction is organized, thinking about the imminent risks that climate change has brought.


“The construction in Puerto Rico was done with the consideration of possible winds of up to 120 to 130 mph, but the reconstruction of the country should consider that more dramatic events could come,” insisted Molinelli.


For example, the government has to decide if it will relocate the residents of communities in areas vulnerable to flooding, landslides and coastal areas. He insisted that these areas would be in much greater risk according to how the effects of global warming are advanced.


“All of this needs to be evaluated and do a strategic relocation to get us out of the dangerous areas and the objective should be that what is built be outside of the zones of risk,” said Molinelli.


But with the changes in public policy of the President of the United States Donald Trump about the issue of climate change, the path for the reconstruction of Puerto Rico is more difficult since the new president not only reversed the international agreement of the USA to deal with the carbon emissions, but he also eliminated the federal programs on climate change and with them the funds that were assigned to make them happen.


“With the elimination of the policies of Obama to deal with emissions and the elimination of all of the federal programs that referred to climate change, the issue has been erased. How will be plan in the most vulnerable parts, if all of Puerto Rico is vulnerable? With these policies everything will be left in the hands of the local government,” he warned.


Since 2007, members of the scientific and academic community of Puerto Rico released a declaration to the government where 175 professores linked to the issue of climate change anticipated the changes in public policy that had to be taken to be prepared for the natural phenomenons as a product of global warming. However the warnings and recommendations were ignored.


This week a group of scientists and academics urged the government to stop construction in vulnerable areas and follow through with the public policy that for years existed in the current legislation, but that has been evaded by the functionaries in the moment of giving permits and endorsing construction projects.


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