How climate change hinders recovery after a hurricane in Puerto Rico

Armando Pérez and his 81-year-old mother survived Hurricane Maria when it hit Puerto Rico in 2017. Five years later, they witnessed hurricane fionaa decidedly less intense storm, but one that nonetheless turned their lives upside down.

Pérez’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. Pérez bathes and feeds her mother and changes her diapers.

But since Fiona arrived on the island five days ago, they have had no electricity or running water. Triple-digit temperatures are baking the concrete walls of her house, turning Carmen’s room into “an oven” in the afternoon.

“Even though the storm wasn’t that bad, when the power goes out, there’s no water, it just gets really rough,” Perez told CBS News on Friday.

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

“It’s hell right now. Maria was the closest thing to experiencing the end of the world,” he said. “It looked like a nuclear bomb passed by… I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

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

Hurricanes are becoming more frequent

When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm in 2017, knocking out power to the entire island, killing nearly 3,000 people and being named one of the deadliest natural disasters in US history. Almost exactly five years later, Fiona has once again left the island in ruins.

Experts say that hurricanes and storms are becoming more intense and frequent due to global warming.

David Keellings, a geography professor 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 has happened since 1956.”

When his research was published in 2019, he found that a Maria-like storm was “five times more likely” due to climate change. In 2022, that chance could be even higher, 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 retain moisture. That moisture is essentially a fuel tank, ready to be used by storms as they develop.

“Puerto Rico gets hit by a lot of storms, but it seems if you look at the data, things like Maria, things like Fiona, are more and more likely to happen,” Keellings said.

“You’re going to have more and more frequency of these types of storms.”

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

“You’re going to have more really high extreme cyclones, like cat 4, 5 more, and then they have the potential to become more extreme than they have in the past,” he told CBS News. “You’re going to be exposed to the most extreme events.”

Even weak storms can have devastating effects

Both researchers cautioned that hurricanes don’t have to be more than a Category 1 storm to cause damage. Why? Because, as Keellings explained, it takes “years” to get back to normal after a big storm.

Maria and Fiona are the perfect examples. Puerto Rico had a slow recovery process in the five years between the two storms. It was hampered by a recession, the ouster of its governor, and the coronavirus pandemic.

After Maria, the island spent $20 billion to modernize its power grid and has worked to improve its infrastructure, rebuild homes and try to stabilize itself. But it was still a work in progress when she hit Fiona. the the power grid went out again this week, and the island’s agricultural industry and infrastructure, though somewhat improved since Maria, have now regressed once again.

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

In Utuado this week, a metal bridge that was installed a year after Maria was washed away by floods. The bridge was intended to be temporary until a more permanent structure could be built in 2024, David Begnaud of CBS News reported.

Ramos-Scharrón told CBS News that the bridge, like much of the rest of the island’s infrastructure, was something of a patch for a larger problem.

“Provisional things tend to stay forever in Puerto Rico,” Ramos-Scharrón said, adding that short-term solutions need better standards, and those solutions need to be replaced sooner.

Also when Fiona hit, more than 3,000 homes on the island they were still covered with blue tarps from Maria.

“It’s not just climate related, per se, it’s all the other things that create disturbances in the system that never balance out,” Ramos-Scharrón said.

These problems affect everyone on the island, but the elderly, like Pérez’s mother, are the ones who feel them the most.

Pérez still does not know when power will be restoredand only has enough bottled water for a few more days.

If Puerto Rico is hit by another hurricane, regardless of its size, he’s not sure how he and his mother will fare.

“We are going to be hit by a massive storm,” Pere said. “And if we can’t handle a Fiona as a Category 1, how are we going to handle a 5? This isn’t catastrophic. This is sad and messy. What’s going to happen is super catastrophic, why don’t you learn from her lessons.”

Perez said he is now “just surviving day to day” and hopes there will be time to recover before the next big storm hits.

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