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Summer of Hazard: Pandemic, hurricanes and other dangers

climate change

We’re in for a wild ride this summer if the early indications are to be believed. The COVID-19 pandemic is not showing any signs of waning, irrespective of how tired people are getting to shelter in space and despite wishful thinking by politicians. Unlike in Asia and Europe where the numbers of infections are actually going down rapidly, the US pandemic is still growing. Just in one day, May 21st, there were more than 24,000 new cases reported in the United States. Only the geographical patterns are shifting.

On top of the pandemic we are seeing other threats creeping up on us, many of them also related to the global environment. I say also, as it is a scientific fact that the root causes of this pandemic — like the ones before it and others to come after we have cleared this one — lie in how we interact with and abuse the natural environment. The virus causing COVID-19 is zoonotic, meaning it originated in animals and jumped over to humans. Such spillovers have gotten more frequent as our contacts with both domesticated and wild animals have intensified and as our activities have spread deeper into previously undisturbed environments through urban sprawl, agricultural expansion, road building, logging, mining and other disruptive actions. While weather is notoriously hard to predict even with the highly sophisticated computer simulations using big data that today are used for the purpose, virtually all major organizations engaged in such predictions agree that the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season will be way more active than in an average year.

NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, released its annual forecast on Thursday, May 21, predicting there will be 13–19 named storms in the season from June 1 to November 30, as opposed to an average of 12 such storms. Out of these, NOAA predicts 6–10 may become hurricanes, compared with an average year’s 6 hurricanes. Three to six out of these could further develop into major hurricanes — or category 3–5 storms — with wind speeds of more than 111 miles per hour (178 km/h). Of course, we do not know how many of these will actually hit continental USA, but even one major hurricane can do terrible damage.

Tropical cyclones — types of storms that include hurricanes in the Atlantic and typhoons in the Pacific — are named in order to easily distinguish between them as in busy times more than one may be active. Names are usually given to storms that reach sustained wind speeds of at least 40 miles per hour (65 km/h). Although the season only officially starts on June 1 there already was one — Arthur — that formed as early as May 16 off the Florida coast. While Arthur veered off to the open sea having brought only moderate rain and wind to the southeastern coast, its early appearance can be seen as a harbinger of things to come.

The increased hurricane activity is inevitably linked to climate change. It is statistically impossible to link any particular hurricane or storm to climate change. However, at a larger scale and over longer timeframes scientists are able to model how the warming trends increase the likelihood of hurricanes in terms of their frequency and intensity. One of the key drivers of stronger hurricane activity is the warmer than normal sea surface temperatures in the tropical parts of the Atlantic and the Caribbean. The primary reason for this is the warming of global temperatures caused first and foremost by the burning of fossil fuels for energy and transportation. Cutting down forests to make way for agriculture and human settlements, as well as methane emissions from cattle ranching are other huge culprits.

A warming climate gives a double whammy to coastal communities. It brings more frequent and larger storms, and it causes sea levels to rise as the warming water expands. Places like the Outer Banks off the North Carolina coast will bear the brunt of these changes, but in the medium term the entire Eastern Seaboard and its large cities from Miami to New York are vulnerable.

Further inland, this past week we saw two catastrophic dam failures in the Tittabawassee River basin in central Michigan, forcing the evacuation of 10,000 residents from their homes in the midst of the pandemic. This is another climate-related disaster. The dams were breached because of excessive rainfall upstream. The engineers described this as a once in a 500 years event. However, such standards are rapidly becoming obsolete with rainfall and other weather patterns changing as a result of global warming, bringing increased rains to some places and droughts to others.

A natural hazard only becomes a disaster when it meets frail infrastructure. The broken dams failed because they were in poor shape. CBS News reported on Thursday (May 21, 2020) that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, had in 2018 revoked the license from Boyce Hydro Power, the company that operated one of the failed dams, the Edenville Dam, citing the company’s “long history of non-compliance” related to the dam’s ability to cope with a major flood.

This is by no means a unique situation amongst America’s 91,000 dams. As reported by the Guardian (May 23, 2020), the federal government’s National Inventory of Dams identifies over 15,000 dams in the country that would likely result in deaths should they fail. According to the inventory, at least 2,300 of them are in poor shape. The average age of the US dams is 57 years (the Edenville Dam was built in 1924) and many are hardly maintained. Seventy percent of the nation’s dams are under the jurisdiction of state governments and another 5 percent watched over by the federal government, but one quarter have no governmental oversight at all. Even in cases where regulatory agencies point out to deficiencies, the operators often fail to follow up because of high costs associated with repairs and upgrades.

The dams, of course, are but one aspect of America’s infrastructure that has been rendered vulnerable due to decades of lacking investment in maintenance. Powerlines, bridges and other transportation infrastructure will be equally susceptible to damage and disruption from floods, storms, landslides, erosion and other events that are likely to increase as the climate changes and we continue cutting down forests and building in unsafe places.

In the highly politically polarized environment of the USA today, there is a certain irony in how these multiple hazards manifest themselves geographically. One of the reasons why it has been easy for protesters to dismiss the pandemic thus far is that it has mostly ravaged big cities like New York and San Francisco. These cities are also liberal bastions and epitomize the degenerate coastal elites in the minds of many in the heartland. This has allowed people to believe in conspiracy theories that the pandemic is really just an invention of those who want to foil President Trump’s re-election bid or force vaccinations upon people or just generally destroy the American way of life. This is now changing as the pandemic spreads to smaller cities and rural areas, when states are prematurely opening up their economies. Amongst the states with the highest increases in infection rates are now Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, North Carolina and Michigan.

Some of these are the same places that are going to suffer from the other hazards, as is indeed the case of Michigan where the dam breaches and flooding disaster added to the pandemic woes. The hurricanes, naturally, are mostly going to pound the states on the Atlantic shore. The hardest hit will be those in the south, from Florida to North Carolina — including its barrier islands — places where beach vacationing plays a central part in lifestyle and economy.

Unfortunately, too, as we’ve seen in the past, the first ones to be hit by hurricanes are the Caribbean islands whose economies are so totally dependent on tourism. In September 2017, Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria whose effects are still acutely felt on the island. The storm caused as much as $95 billion in damages, wiped out 80 percent of the island’s agricultural crop, and has since caused more than 130,000 residents to leave the island. It has taken months to restore reliable power and water to households. This spring, the pandemic has halted tourism to Puerto Rico as well as other islands placing a further strain on the recovery and people’s lives.

It is of course not only the islands and coastal areas that are exposed to such multiple hazards. Dams and other vulnerable infrastructure exist everywhere in the country. Like always, the people who suffer most are the ones who have the least resources to fall back on when they lose their property, livelihoods or health. They also tend to be the ones living in locations most exposed to both natural and manmade hazards. COVID-19 has demonstrated clearly the inequalities at play, and many of them have a geographical dimension. But that is a story for another piece.

Now, as many states are reopening and so many people can’t wait to get their lives back, it is not an easy message to deliver that the summer that is so full of hope may end up being full of hazards instead. Medical experts and epidemiologists all seem to agree that getting back to normal, enjoying the parties, the barbecues, the beaches that go with a good summer, will almost inevitably result in second waves of the pandemic in places where it now has started to wane — and to full blooms in places that have yet to be hit by it. When at the same time we get hit by hurricanes and other natural calamities, coping only gets that much harder. We can of course get through it, if we decide to behave responsibly and to support each other. We also need competent public services that can help people and communities in distress. In the longer term, we must get used to the idea that this may be the new normal.

It still isn’t too late to improve our relationship with nature, to become more mindful of how we use natural resources, where and how we build, and how we pollute the atmosphere, land and oceans. We must find ways of more sustainable development that shares the benefits more equally. These are solutions that are absolutely needed but will only start making a difference many years from now. For the immediate future, we need to find effective ways of adapting to climate change and building a society that is more resilient towards shocks, be they pandemics, storms, floods or something that we cannot even imagine at this time. It can be done, but it requires trust: in institutions, in expertise, in science and, not least, in each other.


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