3 key questions Puerto Rico faces in it’s recovery…

VIA

It’s been two-and-a-half days since Hurricane Maria barreled through Puerto Rico, slamming the island of more than 3.5 million people with torrential rains, winds, and flooding the likes of which haven’t been seen in nearly a century. The latest reports indicate that at least six people have been killed in Puerto Rico (and 27 total throughout the Caribbean) as a result of the storm, but that figure is likely to rise as authorities make their way through areas still cut off from communications and rescue operations, according to the Associated Press. As of Friday, much of the island was still without power and working cell phone networks; El Nuevo Dia, one of Puerto Rico’s main news organizations, is reporting that dozens of municipalities are still “incommunicado.” Carlos Mercader, the Washington, D.C.-based representative of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, says that there are likely more municipalities still cut off, and that authorities still don’t know the full scope of the damage, noting that even he can’t get in touch with his parents who live in the western part of the island. “That whole west side is totally compromised in terms of communication,” he tells Mother Jones. Meanwhile, Guajataca Dam in the northwestern part of the island suffered a “failure,” according to the National Weather Service, causing the evacuation of at least 10,000 people in the area, Mercader says.

Here we look ahead at what’s next for the island.

What is the latest with the federal response?

President Trump signed a disaster declaration for Puerto Rico on Thursday, paving the way for federal support for things such as grants for temporary housing and home repairs, loans for uninsured property losses, and other federal programs. Making matters more complicated is Puerto Rico’s dire financial situation. Jennifer González-Colón, the island’s non-voting representative to Congress, sent a letter to the president that same day asking that he waive FEMA’s cost-sharing requirements, which typically requires a 25 percent match from local jurisdictions.

The federal government began flying supplies in to Puerto Rico on Thursday morning, including water, helicopters, trucks, and equipment to clear the roads, Mercader says. On Friday morning, after a request from Gov. Rosselló, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo assembled a relief flight that included large-scale generators, 34,000 bottles of water, 10,000 ready-to-eat meals, along with thousands of cots and blankets, according to CNBC. Rosselló told MSNBC Friday that all supplies were being coordinated through a logistics center and will then be distributed through 12 zones on the island, the New York Times reports.

The US Department of Energy reported as of 4 p.m. ET Friday that all of the island’s major ports were closed and that the US Postal Service had closed all of its facilities.

How long will it take to restore power?

The Department of Energy report noted that nearly all of the 1.57 million power customers on the island were without power, and “all generation assets are believed to be offline.” Local authorities have estimated that it could take four to six months to fully restore power across the island. Mercader says that FEMA, in coordination with local authorities, is working to get electricity and communications back up as quickly as possible, but the process could still take weeks.

“We just spoke to someone on the ground from one of the agencies that has war experience, and he says [it’s like] a war zone, [similar to] when he served in Afghanistan,” Mercader says. “We are saying that the devastation is total. It’s complete devastation.”

New York Power Authority CEO Gil Quiniones also traveled to Puerto Rico with a 10-person team, including drone operators, to help assess the damage to the island’s main electricity provider, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), which was already reeling under billions in debt and years of deferred maintenance due to the inability to fund it. PREPA Executive Director Ricardo Ramos said Thursday that the company would not begin normal operations until at least Monday “in an effort to avoid jeopardizing the safety of its employees.”

PREPA already suffered $400 million in damages from Hurricane Irma in early September.

How will this impact the ongoing fiscal crisis?

Puerto Rico, in the midst of a 10-year economic downturn and dealing with structural colonial economic issues, was already reeling financially. With more than $120 billion in outstanding debt and pension obligations, the island sought to restructure debts under a law signed by President Obama in 2016. The 2016 law allowed the island’s government to seek a form of bankruptcy earlier this year, created a financial review board that would manage the island’s spending and, theoretically, work out debt repayment arrangements with the island’s creditors. So far, as Slate wrote Friday, the board has cut public spending by 30 percent, closed many schools, and lowered the minimum wage for younger workers.

Former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño told Politico that any plans made between the governor and the fiscal control board were based on assumptions that were “out the window now,” and that there was “no way” the governor was going to be able to hit the budget set by the board. The board did allow Rosselló to reallocate $1 billion for emergency response efforts, Politico notes, and told the governor that it would “expeditiously approve” additional budget issues that come up as a result of Hurricane Maria.

Members of Congress are already discussing aid packages for Puerto Rico. But there are also fears that hedge funds will use the crisis as a means to further push privatization on the island, and that unless Congress steps up with a package that truly helps, the island’s residents and union workers will lose out.

“Now the island will need massive infusions of captial to rebuild,” David Dayen writes in the American Prospect. “The hedge funds have the wealth to provide it, and have reaped more than enough profit from the picked carcass of Puerto Rico that they can easily afford to give something back … The hard-hearted business decsison to capitalize on suffering isn’t likely to soften now.”

“The catastrophe in Texas is a man-made disaster accomplished by the criminal negligence of this nation’s elected officials”

No More Houstons

The catastrophe in Texas is a man-made disaster accomplished by the criminal negligence of this nation’s elected officials, who have continued to support Wall Street’s speculative economy and imperial ambitions while arguing that the nation cannot afford to rebuild and replace its ancient and broken-down economic infrastructure. For the third time since 2005, major American cities have been flooded and their people devastated, because the plans for new infrastructure to protect the people, requiring tens of billions in investments, have been ignored and turned down. Hurricane Harvey now looms as the worst national disaster in our nation’s history and it is a disaster which did not have to happen.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people and wreaked $130 billion in economic losses. Only then, slowly, new flood-control and seagate infrastructure was built—at last—for New Orleans, at a fraction of the human and monetary costs of the damage inflicted by the storm. How many unnecessary deaths and suffering could this project have averted?

Four years later, the American Society of Civil Engineers met in Manhattan to discuss several storm surge barrier options for the New York City region. The estimate for the largest of these was $9 billion. The government decided to do nothing. Then, in 2012 Superstorm Sandy killed more than 100 people and caused $65 billion in economic losses. New York area residents now are going through a “Summer of Hell” as the 100-year-old regional transportation system, flooded and damaged five years ago, also was not repaired or replaced at the necessary pace.

The staggering economic and human suffering caused by Hurricane Harvey in the Texas and Louisiana Gulf region are not yet known, and will grow in magnitude as the water recedes; but, what has been known for many years, is that Texas Gulf cities are flood-prone, and have repeatedly flooded. Yet, no flood control or storm protection infrastructure has been built since the end of World War II. Plans for a new system for the Houston area had been drafted, but their $25 billion cost was deemed “too high” a price tag for our Wall Street–dominated agencies and elected officials. Now, hundreds of billions of dollars, and priceless human lives, are lost.

All of these disasters, and others in the recent period, could have been averted for a fraction of their eventual cost in lost wealth, let alone in lost lives. The media insist to Americans that each city’s disaster is caused by its particular economic habits, its choice of location, its squabbling jurisdictions, its ignoring of climate change, or its being close to water! This is nonsense. Wall Street, which has been bailed out repeatedly to the tune of trillions of dollars, with nothing but increased impoverishment of the American people to show for it, must no longer be allowed to dictate the economic policy of the United States of America.

“The nation calls for action, and action now!” in President Franklin Roosevelt’s words. During his presidency, and through the 1940s, the new infrastructure to prevent such “natural disasters”—such as the Tennessee Valley Authority—was funded by national credit, as through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Works Progress Authority.

Hurricane Harvey drowning cities in East Texas should be the national alarm which ends 70 years in which the country has been without any such national credit institutions.

Did climate change intensify Hurricane Harvey?

VIA

Every so often, the worst-case scenario comes to pass.

As of Sunday afternoon, the remnants of Hurricane Harvey seem likely to exceed the worst forecasts that preceded the storm. The entire Houston metropolitan region is flooding: Interstates are under feet of water, local authorities have asked boat owners to join rescue efforts, and most of the streams and rivers near the city are in flood stage.

Some models suggest that the storm will linger over the area until Wednesday night, dumping 50 inches of water in total on Houston and the surrounding area.

“Local rainfall amounts of 50 inches would exceed any previous Texas rainfall record. The breadth and intensity of this rainfall are beyond anything experienced before,” said a statement from the National Weather Service. “Catastrophic flooding is now underway and expected to continue for several days. ” (In years of weather reporting, I have never seen a statement this blunt and ominous.)

This means that thousands of people—and perhaps tens of thousands of people—are facing a terrifying and all-too-real struggle to survive right now. In an age when the climate is changing rapidly, a natural question to ask is: What role did human-caused global warming play in strengthening this storm?

Climate scientists, who specialize in thinking about the Earth system as a whole, are often reticent to link any one weather event to global climate change. But they say that aspects of the case of Hurricane Harvey—and the recent history of tropical cyclones worldwide—suggest global warming is making a bad situation worse.

It may not be obvious why global warming has anything to do with hurricane strength. Climate change is caused by the release of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. These gases prevent some of the sun’s rays from bouncing back into space, trapping heat in the planetary system and raising air temperatures all over the world.

This warmer air causes evaporation to happen faster, which can lead to more moisture in the atmosphere. But that phenomenon alone does not explain climate change’s effects on Harvey.

Storms like Harvey are helped by one of the consequences of climate change: As the air warms, some of that heat is absorbed by the ocean, which in turn raises the temperature of the sea’s upper layers.

Harvey benefitted from unusually toasty waters in the Gulf of Mexico. As the storm roared toward Houston last week, sea-surface waters near Texas rose to between 2.7 and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit above average. These waters were some of the hottest spots of ocean surface in the world. The tropical storm, feeding off this unusual warmth, was able to progress from a tropical depression to a category-four hurricane in roughly 48 hours.

“This is the main fuel for the storm,” says Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research. “Although these storms occur naturally, the storm is apt to be more intense, maybe a bit bigger, longer-lasting, and with much heavier rainfalls [because of that ocean heat].”

This also suggests an explanation for one of Harvey’s strangest and scariest behaviors. The storm intensified up until the moment of landfall, achieving category-four strength hours before it slammed into the Texas coast. This is not only rare for tropical cyclones in the western Gulf of Mexico: It may be unique. In the past 30 years of records, no storms west of Florida have intensified in the last 12 hours before landfall.

Why do storms normally weaken—and why didn’t Harvey? As mentioned above, hurricanes feed and grow on warm ocean surface waters. But as they grow, their strong winds often pick up seawater, churning the oceans and moving the warmest waters deep below the surface. The same winds also bring newer, colder water closer to the atmosphere, which usually serves to drain energy and weaken the storm.

That didn’t happen with Harvey. The hurricane churned up water 100 or even 200 meters below the surface, said Trenberth, but this water was still warm—meaning that the storm could keep growing and strengthening. “Harvey was not in a good position to intensify the way it did, because it was so close to land. It’s amazing it was able to do that,” he told me.

All of this said, a storm like Harvey could have happened even if there was no climate change. Planning experts have long fretted over the possibility of a major hurricane striking Houston. Harvey is also a powerful hurricane forming in one of the most hurricane-friendly regions of the world at the peak of hurricane season. Storms similar to it would form in any climate.

But Trenberth says that the extra heat could make the storm more costly and more powerful, overpowering and eventually breaking local drainage systems.

“The human contribution can be up to 30 percent or so up to the total rainfall coming out of the storm,” he said. “It may have been a strong storm, and it may have caused a lot of problems anyway—but [human-caused climate change] amplifies the damage considerably.”

More generally, it’s still unclear what effect climate change is having on hurricane formation across the greater Atlantic Ocean. A draft version of a major U.S. government review of climate science due out later this year says there is “medium confidence” that human activities “have contributed to the observed upward trend in North Atlantic hurricane activity since the 1970s.”

Houston has been ground zero for super-damaging storms lately. It has seen four 100-year flooding events since the spring of 2015, according to the meteorologist Eric Holthaus. The city also sees more than 156 percent more heavy downpours than it did in the 1950s. Meanwhile, only one-sixth of its residents have federal flood insurance, though that program has struggled to adjust to the increased flooding risk associated with climate change.

Yet even compared to recent storms, Harvey is unprecedented—just the kind of weird weather that scientists expect to see more of as the planet warms. Harvey has already dumped more water on Harris County than Tropical Storm Allison, the area’s previous worst-ever flooding disaster in 2001, though it has only lasted half the time of that earlier storm.

And it will keep raining. As of Sunday afternoon, Buffalo Bayou, a major river near downtown Houston, is one foot above flood stage. It is projected to rise as much as another 12 feet today alone.