How Climate Change Is Complicating Puerto Rico’s Hurricanes Recovery

How Climate Change Is Complicating Puerto Rico’s Hurricanes Recovery

Armando Perez and his 81-year-old mother survived Hurricane Maria when it hit Puerto Rico in 2017. Five years later, they witnessed Hurricane Fiona, a categorically less intense storm but one that nevertheless disrupted their lives.

Perez’s mother, Carmen, has advanced Parkinson’s disease and dementia and has been bedridden since June. The two live together in the town of Dorado, and Perez bathes and feeds his mother and changes her diapers.

But since Fiona reached the island five days ago, they have been without electricity or clean public water. And triple-digit temperatures bake the concrete walls of their home, turning Carmen’s room into “an oven” in the afternoon.

“Although the storm wasn’t that bad, if the power goes out, no water, it just makes it super hard,” Perez told CBS News on Friday.

It’s an eerily similar feeling to what life was like after Maria, Perez said.

“It’s hell now. Mary came closest to the end of the world,” he said. “It looked like an atomic bomb went through it. … I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

Climate change and Puerto Rico’s struggle to keep up with recovery efforts have left experts and residents concerned about future storms.

Hurricanes are becoming more common

When hurricane Maria stormed into Puerto Rico in 2017 as a Category 4 storm, incapacitating the entire island, killing about 3,000 people and being named one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history. And almost exactly five years later, Fiona once again left the island in ruins.

Experts say hurricanes and storms are becoming more intense and frequent because of the warming planet.

David Keellings, a professor of geography at the University of Florida, studied the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. He found that the hurricane was “if not the most extreme, certainly very extreme” in terms of rainfall, which he said was “significantly higher than anything that’s happened since 1956.”

When his research was published in 2019, he found that a Maria-like storm was about “five times more likely” because of climate change. In 2022, that opportunity could be even greater, Keellings said.

The planet’s temperature has risen 0.14 degrees Fahrenheit every decade since 1880, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Keellings explained that as temperatures rise, so does the atmosphere’s ability to hold moisture. That moisture is essentially a fuel tank, ready to be used by storms as they develop.

“Puerto Rico is being hit by a lot of storms, but looking at the data, it seems that things like Maria, things like Fiona, are becoming more and more likely,” Keellings said. “…You’re going to have to deal with these kinds of storms more and more.”

Carlos Ramos-Scharrón, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who is originally from Puerto Rico, said major storms can be expected “every decade.” His research also found an increased chance of storms with Maria’s record-breaking rainfall.

“You’re going to have more of the really high, extreme cyclones, like a cat 4.5 plus, and then they have the potential to become more extreme than in the past,” he told CBS News. “You are exposed to the most extreme events.”

Even weak storms can have devastating effects

Both researchers warned that hurricanes don’t have to be more than a Category 1 storm to do damage. Why? Because, as Keellings explained, it takes “years” to return to normal after a major storm.

Maria and Fiona are the perfect example. Puerto Rico has experienced a slow recovery in the five years between the two storms and has been hampered by a recession, the impeachment of the governor and the coronavirus pandemic.

After Maria, the island spent $20 billion modernizing its power grid and has worked to improve infrastructure, rebuild homes, and try to stabilize. But it remained a work in progress when Fiona struck. The power grid went out again this week, and the island’s agricultural industry and infrastructure, although somewhat improved since Maria, have now been put back on.

For example, the island’s flood maps, which are used for city and strategic planning, are still based on data from before the 1990s, Ramos-Scharrón said.

A metal bridge was erected in Utuado this week that was swept away by flooding a year after Maria. The bridge was intended to be temporary until a more permanent structure could be built in 2024, CBS News’ David Begnaud reported.

Ramos-Scharrón told CBS News that the bridge, like much of the rest of the island’s infrastructure, was something of a plaster solution to a bigger problem.

“For now, things usually stay in Puerto Rico forever,” Ramos-Scharrón told CBS News, adding that short-term solutions need better standards and should be replaced sooner.

Even when Fiona hit, more than 3,000 homes on the island were still covered with Maria’s blue tarpaulins.

“It’s not just related to the weather, it’s all the other things that create disturbances in the system that have never been rebalanced,” Ramos-Scharrón said.

These problems affect everyone on the island, but the elderly, such as Perez’s mother, feel it the most.

Perez has yet to hear when power will be restored, and he only has enough bottled water to last a few more days.

When Puerto Rico is hit by another hurricane, no matter its size, he’s unsure how it will fare for him and his mother.

“We’re going to have a huge storm. And if we can’t manage a Fiona as Category 1, how are we going to handle a 5?” he said. “This isn’t catastrophic. This is sad and screwed up. What’s going to happen is super catastrophic because they don’t learn from their lessons.”

He now says he’s “just surviving day to day” — and hopes there’s time to recover before the next big storm hits.

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