This month, two devastating hurricanes, Hurricane Irma followed by Hurricane Maria, hit the Caribbean as well as Florida and Texas, resulting in environmental and infrastructural damages as well as significant economic consequences.
The National Hurricane Center began tracking Hurricane Irma on August 26th when it was classified as a tropical wave in western Africa. Within a mere 48 hours, due to thunderstorms, rain and other disturbances, the tropical wave increased in intensity to become Tropical Storm Irma. As it continued to move northwards, weather conditions caused Irma to rapidly increase in strength, raising it to a Category 4 hurricane on September 4th and a Category 5 hurricane the next day. Irma reached its peak strength on September 6th, sustaining 185 mph winds for nearly 37 hours.
Barbuda, an island in the Caribbean and a popular tourist destination for its pink beaches and turquoise oceans, was Irma’s first destination on land. The hurricane caused unprecedented damage to the island, forcing the government to declare it uninhabitable. Residents were evacuated to the neighboring island, Antigua, and Barbuda remained in a state of evacuation for 24 days. This meant that there was no permanent inhabitant on the island for the first time in 300 years.
Damage to the island includes: 95% of all buildings on the island destroyed, a shortage of clean water and power, debris in public spaces, as well as sanitation issues such as an influx of mosquitoes, and rodents. Health officials have yet to determine the island sufficiently safe for return of inhabitants despite the evacuation order lift. However, they along with waste management services are continuing their efforts of cleaning up the island and collaborating with disaster relief services to prepare for the return of the island’s residents.
Along with significant damage to other islands in the Caribbean, the hurricane also hit multiple states in the South. However, Jacksonville and the Florida Keys suffered the most damage from Irma, where it hit the Keys as a Category 4 hurricane, bringing 130 mph winds, and caused historical flooding in Jacksonville. It was advised that people evacuate their homes in the Keys prior to the arrival of Irma, but not all heeded the warning that officials gave. Irma caused destruction to houses and boats, taking down power lines and trees, which blocked roads as well as breaking pipes and gas station pumps. All of the hospitals on the Keys were closed and a curfew was put in place for all remaining residents. They were quickly evacuated to shelters while those who had left before the arrival of Irma were prohibited from returning due to the level of damage that Irma had created.
The hurricane also caused water levels in St. Johns River to rise to a degree not witnessed since 1845, when Florida became a state. Despite the fact that Hurricane Irma was lower in strength when it hit Jacksonville than Hurricane Matthew, which hit the city a few years ago, Irma coincided with high tides while low tides were present when Matthew landed in the city, thus creating higher damage to the city. Overall Irma left 62% if Florida residents without power, several flooded cities, and a shortage of clean water and gas.
While those affected by Irma were gradually recovering, things took a turn for the worse when Hurricane Maria arrived as a Category 5 hurricane within two weeks. Maria was first monitored by the National Hurricane Center on September 13th. It rose in intensity to a Category 5 hurricane on September 18th, with winds that were 160 mph. Though it weakened slightly after hitting the Dominican Republic, Maria quickly regained enough strength for it to be reclassified as a Category 5 hurricane, with winds that were 175 mph and a low enough pressure for it to be considered the tenth strongest hurricane ever in the Atlantic.
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane, sustaining 155 mile per hour winds, making it the strongest hurricane to ever hit the island. Maria created catastrophic damage to the territory, destroying its entire energy grid, leaving residents without electricity, as well as a shortage of gas, food, water, and shelter. Shipping to Puerto Rico is expensive, due to the Jones Act, which states that all products ferried through U.S. port must be carried on ships from the company that manufactured these products, slowing relief efforts.
Many have turned to collecting rainwater and water from streams for survival due to the limited supplies, and residents can be seen lined up at the gas station before sunrise every day with red tanks, waiting to buy fuel to power their generators or cars. The lack of power has already posed severe danger for the community as a few patients in the intensive care unit of a San Juan hospital have already died because the unit ran out of fuel.
Companies are offering aid to Puerto Rico. Tesla has already shipped thousands of Tesla Powerpacks to the island, which stores energy captured through solar panels, giving residents a more sustainable and efficient energy source. AT&T is bringing floating antennas so that residents will be able communicate again with the outside world. Last week, supplies that should sustain residents for another 20 days arrived to the island along with federal troops and employees. Nonetheless, damage to warehouses, the shutting down of companies, as well as the lack of available drivers have made it difficult for the transportation and distribution of these resources.
Maria has greatly threatened the already unstable economy of the island. Prior to Maria, Puerto Rico was struggling to repay their debts. As of May this year, the island filed for the largest bankruptcy ever in US history (70 billion dollars). Thus, the level of repair that needs to be initiated following Maria will further deplete the island of economic resources. Furthermore, due to the high rates of unemployment, more residents are moving to the U.S. mainland for better job opportunities, causing the population to decrease from 3.8 million in 2004 to 2.4 million this year. As a result, fewer skilled construction workers remain on the island.
The U.S. Virgin Islands also sustained heavy economic damage from Maria. Tourism, which accounts for ⅓ of The Islands’ GDP, will take time to recover, the largest two resorts on the islands predicted that they will not reopen until next year. The marine industry was also heavily impacted by the hurricanes. The Virgin Islands were in the process of repairing itself after being badly hit by Irma when Maria struck and destroyed their efforts as well as what had been preserved from Irma. Aid to the Virgin Islands following Irma was slow, and as soon as medical workers and troops arrived, they were ordered to leave due to the impending Hurricane Maria. St. Croix, which was used as a place of refuge for residents of St. John and St. Thomas, sustained great amounts of damage from Maria. Nonetheless, the Virgin Islands have received assistance from the federal government, receiving sufficient amounts of fuel and supplies to sustain its residents, and are again beginning the slow process of recovery. Curfews have been eased, and the St. Thomas Airport reopened on Thursday, September 28th, with St. Croix Airport planning on being reopened on October 5th. The government plans to have power restored in 90% of territory by Christmas.