Hurricane Fiona Is a Cautionary Tale For the Caribbean

Corruption, mismanagement, violence, and colonialism are making island nations more vulnerable to destructive storms.

Hurricane fiona Puerto Rico
Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico causing extensive damages including widespread power outages.

Jose Jimenez / Getty Images

In a clear case of déjà vu, Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 18, almost five years to the day Hurricane Maria hit the island, showing that, as researchers have long warned, tropical storms are now more frequent and destructive due to man-made climate change.

Back in 2017, Hurricane Maria killed thousands of people and left millions without power for days—some regained access to the grid weeks or months after the disaster. Recovery efforts after the hurricane have been marred by corruption, mismanagement, bureaucracy, and political missteps that left the island vulnerable to another tropical cyclone. 

A study released in 2019 found that the likelihood of extreme precipitation events like Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico is now almost five times higher due to the climate crisis. 

The storms were similar in many ways but had their own characteristics. Whereas Maria was a Category 4 hurricane that unleashed winds of up to 155 mph, Fiona, a Category 1 storm when it made landfall, was milder, with winds of up to 85 mph, which later increased to 115 mph as the storm progressed through the island. 

And yet, the torrential downpours caused by Fiona brought Puerto Rico to its knees. According to estimates by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the slow-moving tropical cyclone dumped 15.80 inches of rain over a five-day period, slightly more than Maria at 14.72 inches.

Despite contributing less than 1% of the greenhouse gases emitted since the start of the industrial revolution, small island nations with limited resources are particularly susceptible to the ravages of climate change, including sea level rise, destructive storms, and disruptive rain patterns.

This confirms another long-held prediction that, with climate change, destructive storms will not only become more common but also wetter. 

That’s because the increase in temperatures is leading to more oceanic evaporation and because warmer air can hold more water vapor. The global average temperature has already increased by nearly 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) due to the climate crisis and for each degree celsius of warming, the air’s ability to hold water is thought to increase by about 7%. The latest research suggests that the increase may be three times higher, at 21%.

These two factors can cause an increase in extreme precipitation. Since nearly 80% of precipitation occurs over the ocean, islands like Puerto Rico are especially vulnerable.

As well as killing 16 people, in Puerto Rico, Fiona triggered flooding that washed out roads, bridges, and power infrastructure, leaving 3.3 million people without electricity. As of yesterday, roughly 349,000 homes and businesses still didn't have power.

Puerto Rico’s electric grid was already in a weak position following a botched attempt to privatize the island’s power sector after Hurricane Maria, which sent electricity prices soaring and failed to prevent crippling blackouts. 

A fallen powerline on the road
Downed power lines on road PR-743 in Cayey, Puerto Rico as the island awoke to a general power outage in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Jose Jimenez / Getty Images

Mismanagement and Colonialism

Despite contributing less than 1% of the greenhouse gases emitted since the start of the industrial revolution, small island nations with limited resources are particularly susceptible to the ravages of climate change, including sea level rise, destructive storms, and disruptive rain patterns.

Millions of people in impoverished Caribbean nations and territories such as Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic have been left without power or running water for weeks or months in the wake of devastating tropical cyclones.

Haiti is still reeling after Tropical Storm Grace hit the island nation shortly after a major earthquake in August 2021—the back-to-back disasters killed nearly 2,000 people

Authorities there have been accused of squandering billions in aid. According to a New York Times report published last year, starting in 2010, some $13 billion in foreign aid provided a lifeline for millions of Haitians following natural disasters but “also allowed corruption, violence, and political paralysis to go unchecked.”

Only a week after Fiona devastated Puerto Rico, Hurricane Ian struck Cuba causing a nationwide blackout and destroying tobacco plantations, an important source of income for the island. Efforts to make the country more climate resilient continue to be undermined by the ongoing embargo.

In a blog post published last year, Juan Declet-Barreto, a Senior Social Scientist for Climate Vulnerability at the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted that “islands and their people are more vulnerable to climate impacts than continental jurisdictions. They are more unprotected from climate ravages that are becoming more ferocious.”

But their vulnerability is being exacerbated by “decades of mismanagement and colonialism.”

View Article Sources
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