Dark and Flooded — Puerto Rico Devastated by Maria’s Unprecedented Rains, Terrible Winds

“Once we’re able to go outside, we’re going to find our island destroyed.” — Puerto Rico Emergency Management Director Abner Gómez Cortés.

“There is no hurricane stronger than the people of Puerto Rico. And immediately after this is done, we will stand back up.” — Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló.

“The rain gauge near Caguas, PR also measured 14.31″ in one hour. That’s a candidate for the most ever, worldwide.” — Eric Holthaus.


At present, it is difficult to take account of the scale of the devastation that has been visited upon Puerto Rico. Electrical power has been knocked out for the entire U.S. island of 3.4 million people. Meanwhile, as of this morning, the whole island had been placed under a flash flood warning due to historic rainfall hitting as high as 14+ inches per hour in some places. As a result, communications are spotty at best. Furthermore, the hardest hit areas are still mostly inaccessible due to debris-choked roads, loss of electronic communication, and flooding.

That said, we are starting to get a hint of the vast and often unprecedented damages that have been inflicted.

Power Outages Could Last for 4-6 Months

After suffering a glancing blow from Irma, Puerto Rico’s ailing and under-funded grid was already ill-prepared to face down the strongest storm to make landfall on the island in more than a Century. Fragile hanging lines, ancient substations, and centralized fossil fuel based generation that resulted in flickering lights even during the best conditions were ill-prepared to deal with the might of Maria.

At present, the entire island is without grid-based power generation. And the damage is so severe that officials are saying that it could take up to 4-6 months to completely restore electricity. Since electricity is essential to both communications and a swath of basic disaster relief services, such a severe and extended loss could greatly hamper recovery efforts for this island commonwealth.

Winds Remove Roofs, Collapse Buildings, Knock Holes in Concrete Structures, and Threaten Wildlife

Maria’s winds, which at landfall were as strong as 155 miles per hour (sustained), not only knocked out the entire Puerto Rican grid, they inflicted major structural damage on buildings and littered roads with debris. Across the island, roofs were peeled off even as holes were knocked in some of the strongest concrete structures. Metal gates to affluent homes and communities were torn down even as electrical power poles were snapped like twigs.

In San Juan, reports were coming in that the concrete walls of some condominiums were blasted away, that metal traffic lights had been torn down, zinc roofed structures were destroyed, and windows and doors were knocked out. Some stadiums used for disaster shelters lost their roofs, windows and doors — forcing those inside to huddle under archways.

There is no word, as yet, of the fate of the hundreds of wild horses exposed to the worst winds of Maria as they raked the island of Vieques just south and east. A potential tragedy of innocents to add to all the woes inflicted upon the people of Puerto Rico.

World Record Rainfall

As Maria circulated over the hilly terrain of Puerto Rico, clouds more heavily laden with moisture in a warming atmosphere unburdened their historically extreme loads upon the countryside. More than 20 inches of rain fell in one day or less over most of Puerto Rico — with totals in rainfall hot-spots hitting close to 40 inches in one 24 hour period. Across the island, rivers rose to historically high levels as towns were turned into lakes and roads into churning rivers.

At Caguas, the rain gauge recorded an unprecedented 14.31 inches in just one hour. According to records provided by Christopher C. Burt at Weather Underground and statements by meteorologist-reporter Eric Holthaus, this total, if confirmed, is in the running for the highest hourly rainfall rate in the world on record. After this very extreme rainfall pulse, Caguas saw continued severe rains from Maria totaling 39.67 inches in one 24 hour period. This is more than the typically rainy city of Seattle gets in an entire year.

As a result of this incredibly unprecedented rainfall, rivers were exceeding record flood stages by leaps and bounds. With one river gauge on the Rio Grande de Manati hitting 42.9 feet or 17.7 feet higher than the previous record flood level ever recorded at that location. At another river — the Rio Grande de Loiza — river water volumes increased 200-fold to hit a record flow six times the previous record at that location.

The Climate Change Context

The combined extreme winds, record rains, and storm surge flooding of Maria have produced an unfolding human and natural tragedy that will reverberate across Puerto Rico for months and years to come. This extreme damage adds to Harvey’s record floods, Maria’s earlier devastation of Dominica and the Virgin Islands, and Irma’s own swath of destruction that ran from the Northern Leeward Islands to Florida and the Southeast U.S. Total damages in dollar estimates for the present hurricane season now exceed 160 billion — a number expected to climb and one that may top 300 billion before all is said and done. And nothing can replace the 210 souls lost or the homes, memories, and livelihoods that have been wrecked.

It’s a tough fact that we need to reiterate time and time again under the present cloud of politically-motivated climate change denial — the weather is getting worse and human-based fossil fuel burning is causing it. The peak potential intensity of the most extreme storms has been increased by a warming world. More atmospheric water vapor increases the highest potential record rainfall amounts even as all that added heat and moisture push the weather toward greater drought and downpour extremes. We can see this in the increasingly prevalent heavy rainfall events, wildfires and droughts across the globe. We see it in the larger, heavier and longer-lasting storms.

(During late 2016, billionaire Richard Branson — who has advocated for responses to climate change — appeared willing to give climate change denying Donald Trump a bit of a window to pivot away from his nonsensical and unethical positions. After having his Carribbean home wrecked by a climate-change-fueled Irma, Branson has since gone after Trump and climate change deniers with a vengeance.)

For the Atlantic, the long term trend has been for more category five hurricanes to form. Back during the late 19th Century no Category 5 storms were recorded for the North Atlantic in the entire 50 year period from 1851 to 1900. In the 27 year period from 1991 to 2017 we’ve had 13 — with some years featuring as many as 2 or more Category 5s in a single season. 2017 was the only year other than 2007 in all of the last 167 years to see two category 5 storms making landfall. So we can clearly state that the long term trend for the Atlantic is for more Category 5 storms and for more of these storms impacting land.

2017 was also the only year to see 3 category 4 hurricanes make landfall in the U.S. (Continental U.S. + Puerto Rico. 1915 saw 2). And according to the Weather Channel only 24 category 4 storms and 3 category 5 storms have made U.S. landfall in the entire 167 year period since 1851.

(Warm ocean surface waters are the primary fuel driving hurricane peak intensity and ability to form. The Atlantic Ocean surface is now warmer than at any time in the past 10,000 years [at least]. Sea surface temperature anomaly map shows variance outside the already warmer than normal 30 year average. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Recent out-of-season tropical cyclone formation appears to have also grown more frequent and intense. For example, 2016’s Hurricane Alex was only the second hurricane to ever form during January. Moreover, 2017 saw the April formation of Arlene — which was only the second named storm to ever form in that particular month.

Stepping back from these figures, we should be very clear that warmer ocean waters and moister atmospheres both provide more fuel for the tropical cyclones that do form and increase the ability of such storms to form in typically cooler months. The warmer ocean surface has loaded the climate dice for both out of season storm formation and higher peak intensity even as a hotter atmosphere more heavily laden with moisture provides a similar effect by enhancing atmospheric lift. So if we keep dumping prodigious volumes of carbon into the atmosphere, we can expect worse and worse storms to come as the world keeps heating up.


Maria Strikes and Puerto Rico Goes Dark

Maria Rips Caribbean

2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season

Earth Nullschool

NOAA Hurricane Data

List of U.S. Landfalling Hurricanes

Hat tip to Greg

Hat tip to Eleggua

Hat tip to Wili

Leave a comment


  1. bostonblorp

     /  September 21, 2017

    Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans are going to emigrate to the continental US after Maria. They are, to a significant extent, refugees of climate change.

    • A huge population throughout the Caribbean on the move as well. We can also add those displaced by Harvey in the U.S. and Irma in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

  2. eleggua

     /  September 21, 2017

    Thanks for the hat tip, Robert, and thank you so much for keeping in mind the horses of Vieques.

    This article about some of Vieques’ residents preparing for Maria was published the day before the hurricane arrived in there. Will keep an eye out for them and the horses.

    ‘Former Omahans living on island off Puerto Rico brace for Hurricane Maria
    Sep 19, 2017

    “…”It’s gorgeous here, that’s what got us here,” Betty Gilreath said. “The crystal blue waters, great people, beautiful people, a great place to live except during hurricane season.”…

    “We got lucky, but we are in the path this time. We could be on the news stories with us being evacuated or supplies brought in,” Gilreath said.

    Niki and Steve Kult made the move almost three years ago. They own the Vieques Guest House, which has 11 rooms.

    “If we weren’t here riding it out, we would lose our minds wondering what’s happening,” Niki Kult said.

    Kult said the island lost power for 10 days after Irma, but that was the worst of it. They are not sure what will happen when Maria hits around dawn Wednesday morning.

    “The building we are in the guest house survived Hurricane Hugo 30 years ago. It’s all concrete. The windows are all boarded up,” Kult said. “We can’t just leave our home behind and we have three dogs that are not easy to travel with them….

    They hope their little island survives. It depends on tourism.

    “That’s the bread and butter of this island, the guest houses, the rental properties restaurants and dozens of gorgeous buildings,” Kult said.”

  3. eleggua

     /  September 21, 2017

    A lot of photos and some videos, post-Maria. It’s very, very bad there. It’s very, very bad all over Puerto Rico.
    Washington Post’s Amy Gordon is on Vieques but no specific report from her yet.
    And no word yet on the horses.

    ‘Vieques Devastated By Hurricane Maria, New Pictures And Videos Reveal Wreckage’
    09/21/17 AT 2:15 PM

    “Hurricane Maria made landfall Wednesday on Vieques, a small Caribbean island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. The storm swept through as a Category 5 hurricane with winds exceeding 150 mph in certain areas. Initial images from the island showed extensive damage to homes and infrastructure after the storm finally moved on.

    A video posted by news outlet WAPA-TV showed the devastation left by the hurricane. Downed trees and debris littered the island as rough surf continued to pummel the coast even after the worst of the storm passed through. Power lines whipped in the wind as residents began to survey what was left of their surroundings. Many businesses “no longer existed”’ in the wake of the hurricane, WAPA reported, noting that many residents were “crying in dismay” after they saw the damage….”

  4. wili

     /  September 21, 2017

    Thanks for the hat tip, but I do wish it was for happier news.

    We are now inside the horror.

    • Loni

       /  September 21, 2017

      “We are now inside the horror”, well stated, Wili. The time of great sorrows is upon us.

    • eleggua

       /  September 21, 2017

      “All these are the beginning of birth pains.” – Book of Matthew

      “…let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that it may sing;
      And let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and like the phoenix rise above its own ashes…

      And when the storm comes, and the mighty wind shakes the forest, and thunder and lightning proclaim the majesty of the sky — then let your heart say in awe, “God moves in passion.”
      And since you are a breath in God’s sphere, and a leaf in God’s forest, you too should rest in reason and move in passion.” – Kahlil Gibran, from ‘The Prophet’

      Ozamu Tezuka, ‘Hi no Tori’ (‘The Phoenix’)

  5. eleggua

     /  September 22, 2017

    Maria at the same spot now where Irma was exactly two weeks ago. Different trajectory following on from here.

    ‘Hurricane Maria crossing paths with Irma’
    September 21st 2017

  6. Greg

     /  September 22, 2017

    Thanks for the constant updates (and the hat tip) Robert. This story isn’t over so catch your breath as Maria is restrengthening for now and is as of 15 minutes ago: 925mb 414m (1,358 ft) 150 knots (173 mph) for per weather underground trackers.

    This from Dominica:

    and further details with at least 15 deaths (en espanol):

  7. Greg

     /  September 22, 2017

    This is a thermal image captured by the MODIS on NASA’s Terra satellite. Colder clouds, which are generally higher in the atmosphere, are shown with white. Somewhat warmer, lower clouds appear purple. The image reveals a very well-defined eye surrounded by high clouds on all sides—an indication that the storm was very intense over Puerto Rico.

  8. Paul

     /  September 22, 2017

    Richard Branson, multi- billionaire who made his money burning jet fuel and who has greater ambitions of burning rocket fuel, berates Trump for doing nothing about climate change, from his tropical island mansion’s wine cellar.
    Keep up the good work Dickie.

    • I’m a bit cautious about Richard. Some of his suggestions have seemed ‘off’ to me when it comes to climate change. And I didn’t like the whole ‘just give Trump a chance’ messaging. All that said, it is helpful when these influential billionaires speak out about climate change. But it would be more helpful if Branson teamed up with others to actually develop alternative fuels for jets.

      Rocket fuel — if done right with electrolysis — can actually have a renewable energy basis. Again, a pathway of opportunity for Branson to put his research dollars where his mouth is.

      We should be clear that many billionaires have contributed greatly to the present problems. That too many have looked away from the problem of climate change for too long. That some have done everything they can to lock in the problem and create worse and worse harms. And that they have, as a class, contributed far more than anyone to the greenhouse gas nightmare we’re dealing with now. That said, they have the great opportunity to change the thrust of their speculative monetary interests. To shift vast pools of capital away from fossil fuel investments and toward renewables and other solutions/mitigation. And to the extent that that happens, we should support it and encourage it.

      Of course, not all billionaires are created equal. The Kochs are on the scale of most destructive, for example. Buffet, with his various investments and utility dominance games has been both somewhat helpful (investing in large renewables projects) and very hurtful (fighting to kill rooftop solar in various states while protecting legacy fossil fuel assets). Bloomberg and Musk are on the other side — putting huge efforts into financing the renewable transition or communicating to the public about it. Gates I often find to be disengenuous and off on helpful messaging — more a middle of the road type. I’d put Branson as more helpful than Gates (by a small margin) but another one who seems to talk more and act less.

      Where money is the primary motivator, there should always be concern as this often represents serious conflicts of interest with public goods. I think it’s important to try to both influence and hold to account these powerful individuals. But I think it’s unhelpful to look at them as saviors unless they’re really throwing all they have into more altruistic solutions. And I absolutely think we should hold bad actors (unintentional or no), and certainly the worst actors (Kochs, Trump etc) accountable for all the various and very serious harms they’re contributing to.

      A background note involves this whole philosophy of objectivism and hyper-capitalism and market fundamentalism which has fueled the ascendency of less accountable billionaires and oligarchs in the present day. And regardless of the morality of individual billionaires who may, on occasion, act well, we should be very clear that the philosophies which support their continued accumulation of power and the general cult of the individual should not be supported or celebrated. These individuals are fallable human beings enabled to accumulate vast wealth and power far beyond the norm with often serious consequences to the less wealthy or wide-reaching potential exploitation. In other words, the king or queen is not the savior. Just the person, at any level, who decides to do the right thing — to hold the well-being of others above their own petty individual desires. And this often becomes more and more difficult the more power one possesses.

      • eleggua

         /  September 22, 2017

        “Gates I often find to be disengenuous and off on helpful messaging — more a middle of the road type.”

        Control-Alt-Delete, his legacy big concern.

        ‘Bill Gates, any regrets? Ctrl-Alt-Delete should be a single button’
        September 21, 2017

      • eleggua

         /  September 22, 2017

        Nary a word re: the climate change factor i.e. the major factor.

        • That and a seeming hyper-focus on silver bullet solutions that will never get implemented while ignoring solutions now that are already capable of rapid deployment.

        • eleggua

           /  September 23, 2017

          Tunnel vision, prototypical of tech. Disconneted from everything but data, dancing the zero-one step.

      • eleggua

         /  September 22, 2017

        “we should be very clear that the philosophies which support their continued accumulation of power and the general cult of the individual should not be supported or celebrated. These individuals are fallable human beings enabled to accumulate vast wealth and power far beyond the norm with often serious consequences to the less wealthy or wide-reaching potential exploitation. In other words, the king or queen is not the savior. Just the person, at any level, who decides to do the right thing — to hold the well-being of others above their own petty individual desires. ”

        Great words, Robert; great work. We are the saviour, the regular ‘we’. ‘They’ are destined to become ‘we’, whether or not ‘they’ like it. No way to buy one’s way out of the future; the playing field is overdue for a leveling and that economic leveling is nigh. ‘We’ can hack it, literally and figuratively.

  9. Abel Adamski

     /  September 22, 2017

    An interesting item, will follow with link to paper

    Geologists have long been fascinated with past extinction events and now it appears we’re may be headed for another one by the end of the century. This finding is based on a mathematical analysis of the five mass extinction events occurring within the past 540 million years.

    What do all of these mass extinction events have in common? Unusually high increases in global carbon, leading to a destabilization of practically every ecosystem, with a punctuated impact on oceans. Dr. Daniel Rothman, a professor at MIT’s Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences department took a mathematical approach to investigate why some carbon anomalies in the past have led to minor disruptions while others have led to mass extinctions.
    The comparison found that most of the small carbon disturbances that did not trigger mass extinction events fell below the threshold. However, four of the five mass extinction events fell above the threshold. Dr. Rothman logically concluded that a mass extinction event is dependent both on the amount and speed in which carbon is added to the atmosphere and ocean.

    Therefore, a mass extinction event can be triggered by a rapid and extremely large input of carbon (similar to today) or a slow but much larger total amount of carbon added to the atmosphere.

    This allowed Dr. Rothman to compare the carbon rate (amount and speed) being emitted into the atmosphere today with the historical data in the figure above. One thing that makes a comparison difficult is even the fastest extinction events in the past saw carbon increasing over thousands to millions of years. Nothing is on the timescale of hundreds of years we see today.

    Nonetheless, he found that given the current rate of carbon being emitted into the atmosphere, we will likely reach a mass extinction threshold by the year 2100.

    This is based on a total increase of 310 gigatons of carbon, which at current rates is expected to fall right around 2100.

    The upside? The effects of this mass extinction event will take a while to be fully realized. While we have increased the amount of carbon at unprecedented rates, it takes the Earth some time to equilibrate to the new conditions. This means we have thousands of years (a blip in the geologic record) for the mass extinction to fully be in effect.

    The downside? The basis of how long extinction events take to fully realize is based on past extinction events. And just as we discussed above, none of those previous extinction events saw carbon increase on the order of hundreds of years. So, long story short, we can’t fully know what is in store for the future.

    • It’s more a CO2 emissions threshold — which is how this should be framed. If we’re going to avoid mass extinction, we need to avoid the 300 gigaton emissions threshold (approx) according to this research.

    • Apneaman

       /  September 22, 2017

      2100? That’s funny, because in 2015 in read an article and a paper by PhD biologists that said the 6th mass extinction has stared – no doubt about it. MIT not get the memo?

      “The study “shows without any significant doubt that we are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event,”……

      “And the study, which was published in the journal Science Advances on Friday and described by its authors as “conservative”, said humans were likely to be among the species lost.

      “If it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover and our species itself would likely disappear early on,” lead author Gerardo Ceballos of the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico said.”

      Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction

      Funny coincidence how soooooooo many things are just happening to converge in 2100, well after we all dead and gone.

      • Kassy

         /  September 22, 2017

        Rothman calculated a threshhold looking at the geological history of previous climate related extinction events. It is a rather simple concept to point out how little wigggle room we have left.

        Now in present time we can clearly see extinction events already but they were just not the scope of the geology paper.

      • A bit of a red herring, Apneaman. This paper focuses on mass extinction as triggered by hothouse warming. It was the major killer in the geological past. And setting one off in 100 years makes present rates of extinction look minor by comparison.

  10. Abel Adamski

     /  September 22, 2017
    Thresholds of catastrophe in the Earth system
    Daniel H. Rothman
    The history of the Earth system is a story of change. Some changes are gradual and benign, but others, especially those associated with catastrophic mass extinction, are relatively abrupt and destructive. What sets one group apart from the other? Here, I hypothesize that perturbations of Earth’s carbon cycle lead to mass extinction if they exceed either a critical rate at long time scales or a critical size at short time scales. By analyzing 31 carbon isotopic events during the past 542 million years, I identify the critical rate with a limit imposed by mass conservation. Identification of the crossover time scale separating fast from slow events then yields the critical size. The modern critical size for the marine carbon cycle is roughly similar to the mass of carbon that human activities will likely have added to the oceans by the year 2100.

    • Paul

       /  September 22, 2017

      I would add that it’s been underway since humans started deforestation and the hunting to virtual extinction of large mammals. Thus starting a cascade of interacting perturbations within ecosystems which have been unwinding slowly but surely over hundreds of years and are now being exacerbated by climate change.

  11. Spike

     /  September 22, 2017

    Crystal clear write up Robert, even by your high standards. Have shared this in the hope that others may read it and get this critical passage – so many in my own country do not:

    “It’s a tough fact that we need to reiterate time and time again under the present cloud of politically-motivated climate change denial — the weather is getting worse and human-based fossil fuel burning is causing it. The peak potential intensity of the most extreme storms has been increased by a warming world. More atmospheric water vapor increases the highest potential record rainfall amounts even as all that added heat and moisture push the weather toward greater drought and downpour extremes. We can see this in the increasingly prevalent heavy rainfall events, wildfires and droughts across the globe. We see it in the larger, heavier and longer-lasting storms”

    “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
    ― George Orwell

  12. Suzanne

     /  September 22, 2017

    At the Daily Beast…”Floridians saved from Irma’s Wrath by Obama’s solar panels”

    Hurricane Irma knocked out the power while residents of the Florida town of Titusville sought shelter inside Apollo Elementary School. But there remained a source of electricity in Classroom 408, thanks to an economic stimulus program set in motion by President Barack Obama in his first days in office.
    Each Election Day, the school serves as the polling place for Precinct 112, a district in Brevard County—where 65 percent of the voters chose Donald Trump. Some of those same people returned to Apollo as temporary refugees 10 months later and lined up at the classroom to charge their cellphones and pour themselves a cup of hot coffee.
    _______________ ___________________ __________________

    Don’t even get me started on how frustrating it is to live in the sunshine state but where, thanks to the all powerful can’t even go off grid, or get the solar panels you want.
    I will save that for another day…

    • An all-too-pertinent rant that I would certainly encourage in this space. Please feel free at any time 🙂

      Renewables are far more resilient to the kinds of disasters climate change is going to be throwing at us again and again. The irony of the entirely political suppression of these very helpful energy sources in a state like Florida runs thick and is multi-layered. But we should be clear that access to renewable energy is a very crucial kind of economic justice. Similar and entirely related to access to clean air and clean water. Clean air, clean water, clean, resilient power.

  13. The 6th greatest extinction has been promulgated directly by modern civilization’s land and sea destruction. Irrespective, and cotangent to AGW. Meaning it has begun decades ago, and will continue to fruition even w/o AGW. Extinction rates are over 1000 times greater than in the fossil record. 200 species or more are going extinct daily!
    Richard Leakey et all The 6th great extinction 1995.

    • Other human impacts certainly play a role. But the big killer in the geological past is hothouse based environmental change. Unfortunately, when you add in human forced warming by end century, it makes even present heightened extinction rates look like a minor blip by comparison.

  14. wili

     /  September 22, 2017

    Michael E. Mann: If U don’t believe unusually warm Sea Surface Temperatures meant more flooding from Harvey, you’re a physics denier:

    “What We Know about the Climate Change–Hurricane Connection
    Some links are indisputable; others are more subtle, but the science is improving all the time.

  15. Kassy

     /  September 22, 2017

    I am afraid there are plenty flat earthers in the deniers crowd. 😉

    • eleggua

       /  September 22, 2017

      ‘Climate change and a flat earth (I can’t believe we’re still dealing with this argument)’
      Posted on December 16, 2016

      “…anytime that a politician makes a statement about science, they enter my territory and I feel obliged to deal with their comments (by the same token, I only talk about religion when people use it to make claims about science). One of the most common and irritating ways that this occurs is when politicians try to compare modern science (usually climate research) to the idea that the earth is flat and/or we are the canter of the universe. This argument is used ad nauseum and I have dealt with it before. Nevertheless, it is once again featuring prominently in our political dialogue, so I feel the need to explain why it is utter nonsense yet again….”


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