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How climate change makes hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico more difficult

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Armando Perez and his 81-year-old mother survived Hurricane Maria when it hit Puerto Rico in 2017. Five years later, they have just witnessed Hurricane Fiona, a definitively less severe storm that has disrupted their lives nonetheless.

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

But since Fiona hit the island five days ago, she’s been without electricity or clean public water. Three-digit temperatures roast the concrete walls of their home, turning Carmen’s room into an afternoon “oven.”

“Although the storm wasn’t that bad, when the power goes out, there’s no water, it makes it very difficult,” Perez told CBS News on Friday.

It feels eerily similar to what life was like after Maria, Perez said.

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

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

Hurricanes become more frequent

When Hurricane Maria It hit Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm in 2017, knocking out power to the entire island, killing nearly 3,000 people and was named one of the The most dangerous natural disasters in the history of the United States. Almost five years later, Fiona leaves the island in disarray again.

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

David Kellings, a professor of geography at the University of Florida, studied the effects of Hurricane Maria. He found that the hurricane was “if not the most severe, then certainly very severe” in terms of rainfall, which he said was “much higher than anything that has occurred since 1956.”

When his research was published in 2019, he found that the likelihood of a storm similar to Storm Maria was “five times greater” due to climate change. That possibility could be even higher in 2022, Kellings said.

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

“Puerto Rico has had a lot of storms, but it seems that if we look at the data, things like Maria, things like Fiona, they’re more likely to happen,” Killings said. “…you will get more and more frequency of these kinds of storms.”

Major storms can be expected “every decade,” said Carlos Ramos-Sharon, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who is from Puerto Rico. His research also found an increased possibility of storms with record-breaking Maria rains.

“You’re going to have more really intense, high tornadoes, like a 4, 5 plus cat, and then they’re going to have the potential to get more extreme than they’ve been in the past,” he told CBS News. “You will be subjected to the harshest of events.”

Even weak storms can have devastating effects

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The researchers cautioned that hurricanes do not 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 severe storm.

Maria and Fiona are a good example of this. Puerto Rico experienced a slow recovery process in the five years between the two storms, hampered by the recession, the ouster of its governor and the coronavirus pandemic.

After Maria, the island committed $20 billion to modernize its power grid and worked to improve its infrastructure, rebuild homes and try to stabilize it. But it was still a work in progress when Fiona hit on. The power grid was cut again this week, and the island’s farming industry and infrastructure, although improved somewhat since Maria, are back up again.

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

In Ottowado this week, a metal bridge was installed one year after Maria was swept away by floodwaters. CBS News’ David Bignow reports that the bridge was supposed to be temporary until a permanent structure is built in 2024.

Ramos Sharon told CBS News that the bridge, like much of the island’s infrastructure, was sort of a first aid solution to a larger problem.

“Temporary things tend to stay forever in Puerto Rico,” Ramos Sharon told CBS News, adding that short-term fixes need better standards and be replaced sooner.

Also when I hit Fiona, over 3000 homes On the island she was still covered with the blue tarps of Maria.

“It’s not just about the weather, per se, all the other things create disruptions to the system that never subside,” Ramos Sharon said.

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

Perez hasn’t yet heard of when the power will be restored, and he only has enough bottled water to last a few more days.

If Puerto Rico were hit by another hurricane, no matter how big it was, he’s not sure how he and his mother would act.

“We’re going to face a massive storm. And if we can’t manage Fiona as Class 1, how are we going to handle 5?” He said. “It’s not catastrophic. It’s sad and messy. What’s going to happen is very catastrophic because they don’t learn from their lessons.”

He now says he is “surviving from day to day” – and hopes there will be plenty of time to recover before the next major storm hits.

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