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Denial’s Grim Fruits — Actual Puerto Rico Death Toll Probably Near 500; May Climb to Over a Thousand

Massive disruption which results in cascading failure of basic services such as food, water transport and power. That’s the primary catastrophic risk coming from human forced climate change. And we are now in the process of multiplying the potential for such extreme events by continuing to burn fossil fuels and to dump carbon into the atmosphere.

Maria’s recent landfall in Puerto Rico and resulting unprecedented disruption can be seen as a microcosm of the kind of damage that might ultimately be inflicted upon a whole region or nation. And the various failed responses by the Trump Administration and related denial-based attitudes within the Republican Party do little to inspire confidence in the ability of at least one major party to effectively respond to a rising danger it pretends does not exist at all.

Excess Death Toll

Weather forecasters are often quick to point out that the most dangerous direct impact from a major hurricane comes from either storm surge or flooding rains. However, for days, weeks, and, in the case of Puerto Rico, months following a disaster, the major cause of loss of life is disruption of food, water, power supplies and a related increased risk of exposure to infectious diseases.

Due to a sluggish and lackadaisical response to the worst storm to strike Puerto Rico in 85 years by the Trump Administration, it appears now that hundreds of lives have been lost. According to reports from the New York Times, 472 more people died during September of 2017 following Maria’s strike than during September of 2016. Such an abnormally high monthly death rate is an outlier in statistics that epidemiologists call an excess death toll. And the primary likely cause was damage to infrastructure, power, food and water by Maria followed by an inadequate emergency response effort.

Many of the 3.4 million people still living in Puerto Rico have been forced to go without reliable access to water, food, and power for 54 days now. Trump Administration failure to mobilize a major effort to respond to the largest power outage and infrastructure disruption in U.S. history has been coupled with the allowance of vulture capitalist firms like Whitefish to prey on Puerto Rico by charging excess fees for power restoration.

Digging into these glaring failures a bit more, it took more than two weeks for Trump to mobilize 5,000 troops to send to Puerto Rico to assist in aid efforts. And Maria was a disaster that required a force ten times this large to be pre-positioned and then sent in immediately following the disaster, according to emergency planners. Vulture firm Whitefish has been reportedly charging 4 to five times what it is paying power installers on an hourly basis. An obvious level of price gouging that has caused the firm’s contract to be canceled. But not before this company of two permanent employees bungled a power line repair that again resulted in much of Puerto Rico falling into darkness.

Incompetent Governance

Whitefish’s most recent failure resulted in total power availability for Puerto Rico again dropping below 20 percent last week. With PREPA stepping in after Whitefish dropped the ball, the line has been repaired. Yet 52 percent of Puerto Ricans are still without power.

(Climate Change amplifies hurricane impacts. What this means is that as the world warms, hurricanes produce more damage. If this is the case, then governments are going to have to step up and act responsibly to prevent loss of life. Republicans and the Trump Administration have done exactly the opposite in Puerto Rico. Images source: Climate Signals.)

Lack of power itself can be deadly. Such a loss results in a critical shortage for medical equipment necessary to save people’s lives even as it removes key infrastructures like street lights and communications. Incubators, defibrillators, respirators, pulse monitors and a hundred other life saving devices all go dark when the lights go out. Furthermore, lack of clean water and ready access to food increases instances of infection. And damage to roads prevents access by emergency personnel to people falling into harm’s way.

Vulture Capitalism + Climate Change Denial = Failed Responses and Profiteering in the Face of Rising Disasters

This is why Maria’s blow has now become so hurtful. Why the Trump Administration’s neglect is so glaring. And a thousand or more people may have perished as a result. The role of the U.S. Government as the first responder to major disasters was sidelined. The sacred trust to Citizens of the United States violated. But, outrageously, such a lackadaisical, laissez faire attitude is not simply limited to Trump. It is an unfortunately endemic feature of today’s republican party. A party that is now doing its best to cut taxes for the rich while cutting medical coverage for 13 million Americans.

A party that has also done far, far more than its fair share to deny and prevent responses to the human caused climate change from fossil fuel emissions that made Maria far, far worse. For the storm emerged from warmer than normal oceans that helped to pump up its peak intensity. It was one of many storms made worse by climate change — for studies now indicate that at least 63 percent of all extreme weather events have now been pumped up in a warming atmosphere or over a warming ocean. And with just 1.2 C worth of warming achieved, the worse is still to come.

With the republican party both causing these disasters to worsen and ensuring that their damaging impacts are amplified by delayed responses, irresponsible choices for firms contracted to bring infrastructure back up and running, and overall malfeasance, it’s pretty clear that only a numb-skull would vote for such mouth-breathers. But here we are.

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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.

Links:

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

Catastrophic Category 5 Maria Strengthens as it Tracks Toward Puerto Rico

As of the 9:00 PM advisory from the National Hurricane Center, Maria was located 145 miles southeast of San Juan Puerto Rico. The very dangerous storm was tracking toward the west-northwest at 10 miles per hour. Packing maximum sustained winds of 175 miles per hour and a minimum central pressure of 909 mb, the storm is now stronger than it was just prior to devastating Dominica yesterday evening and features a lower central pressure than Irma at maximum intensity. Furthermore, the storm is now one of the ten strongest ever to form in the Atlantic by measure of central pressure alone.

 

Along its present and projected path, the storm will reach the vicinity of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands a bit after midnight. Following a close encounter with St. Croix, the storm should approach Vieques and the Puerto Rican southeast coast by early morning on September 20th. Hurricane force winds should arrive about three to four hours prior to passage of the storm center. Tropical storm force winds are already affecting parts of the Virgin Islands and should begin to impact Puerto Rico soon.

In addition to catastrophic winds, the National Hurricane Center expects 7-11 foot storm surges in the Virgin Islands and 6-9 foot storm surges in Puerto Rico topped by powerful breaking waves. Rainfall totals are likewise expected to be quite extreme — totalling 10-20 inches in the Virgin Islands and 12-25 inches in Puerto Rico.

Some of the far outer bands of Maria are presently lashing Puerto Rico with rains and gusty winds. Meanwhile, St Croix in the Virgin Islands recently reported a wind gust of 72 mph.

Maria is passing over very warm sea surfaces in the range of 29 to 30 degrees Celsius. These abnormally warm ocean waters appear to be facilitating further intensification just prior to potential landfalls.

Maria is now a somewhat larger storm than it was when it approached Dominica. Hurricane force winds now extend upwards of 35 miles from the storm center and tropical storm force winds up to 140 miles. The storm appears to still be strengthening with the most recent report of 909 mb pressures near the storm center over the past hour 11 mb lower than a reading taken late Tuesday afternoon and 3-4 mb lower than a reading taken just one hour ago. Maximum sustained winds from this more recent pass were recorded at 175 mph. Maria is now stronger than Irma at peak intensity by measure of central pressure. A yet more powerful storm capable of producing more damage along a wider swath than during last night’s encounter with Dominica.

To say this is a dangerous situation is an understatement. Those in the path of this storm should heed any and all statements from emergency officials and do everything possible to seek shelter or flee the path of this terrible storm.

Conditions in Context

Climate change related factors like warming ocean surfaces, more intense Equatorial thunderstorms, and increasing atmospheric water vapor content have contributed to higher storm intensities during the present hurricane season. Natural factors, like La Nina-like conditions in the Equatorial Pacific, have also contributed. But we should be clear that the primary limiters to peak hurricane intensity — ocean surface temperature and atmospheric water vapor content — are now higher than they were in the past. So the storms of today can hit higher bars than before.

(Accumulated Cyclone Energy or ACE for 2017 so far is well above average. There are approximately 8 weeks left in this year’s hurricane season. Image source: Colorado State University.)

Overall, 2017 has been a well above average year for storms. One in which a number of records have already been broken.

One measure of tropical cyclone intensity — accumulated cyclone energy or ACE — has hit considerably higher than normal marks during 2017. So far, 2017 has outpaced all years since 2010 and appears to be on track for one of the highest ACE years on record. The record highest ACE for any given year was 2005 at approximately 250.

RELATED STATEMENTS AND INFORMATION:

(UPDATED– UPDATES TO FOLLOW)

Links:

The National Hurricane Center

Colorado State University

Hat tip to Eleggua

Hat tip to Bostonblorp

Hellish Intensification — Maria’s Winds Jump 50 mph to CAT 5 Strength in Just 12 Hours

A special statement from the National Hurricane Center reports that Maria has reached Category 5 intensity — with maximum sustained winds of 160 mph and a minimum central pressure of 924 mb. This is, perhaps, one of the most rapid intensifications the Atlantic basin has ever seen — with the storm seeing a 40 mb drop in pressure in approximately 6 hours and crossing the Category 4 threshold to Cat 5 intensity in even less time.

Maria is now a very dangerous hurricane — barreling into Dominica and the Leeward Islands before turning toward both the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico over the next 36 hours. It is also the second Category 5 storm to threaten the region in just two weeks time.

As of this morning, Maria was a strong Category 2 Hurricane featuring 110 mph maximum sustained winds. Forecasters noted a potential for rapid intensification as the storm began to move over warmer than normal surface waters in the range of 29 degrees Celsius (84 to 85 degrees F) and as the atmospheric conditions became more favorable for storm development.

By late morning, the storm had strengthened into a major hurricane with 120 mph maximum sustained winds. But Maria still had a few surprises in store. The storm swiftly developed a small, pinhole, eye. Such small eye structures enable storms to more rapidly wrap winds around a compact center. It’s the kind of structure that can result in very fast intensification.

After the pinhole eye structure formed, Maria jumped to category 4 strength with 130 mph winds by late afternoon. Then, by the 9 PM advisory from the National Hurricane Center, the storm made the considerable leap to Category 5 status with 160 mph maximum sustained winds.

The storm, at this time is now zeroing in on Dominica — which is presently seeing very rapidly deteriorating conditions.

Maria presently has a smaller hurricane force wind field than Irma — with hurricane strength winds only stretching about 15-20 miles from the storm’s center. Those winds, however, are very intense and capable of inflicting catastrophic damage. All within the path of this terrible storm should seek shelter in the strongest structures possible immediately and heed any warnings or advice from local disaster authorities.

Conditions in Context

Like Irma and Harvey, Maria is tapping warmer than normal sea surface temperatures which is helping it to reach a higher peak intensity. This year, thunderstorms in the Inter-Tropical-Convergence-Zone (ITCZ) have been unusually intense. Strong thunderstorms in this region are basically the seeds that can grow into powerful tropical cyclones. So the larger, more energetic, more moisture-rich, and more numerous these storms, the higher potential that a strong hurricane will ultimately form once such systems enter the Tropical Atlantic. Warmer ocean surface temperatures are a direct upshot of human-caused climate change and there is some evidence that climate change is also increasing the intensity of the world’s most powerful thunderstorms — particularly over the Equatorial regions.

In addition to these climate change related factors, La Nina-like conditions in the Equatorial Pacific are helping to reduce wind shear over the Tropical Atlantic. Reduced shear helps to allow the larger than normal storms emerging from Africa to tap the warmer than normal surface waters across the Atlantic. So in total, this is a pretty vicious combination of both natural and climate change related factors. A set that is enabling one of the worst hurricane seasons on record for the Atlantic.

(UPDATED: UPDATES TO FOLLOW)

RELATED STATEMENTS AND INFORMATION:

Links:

The National Hurricane Center

Hat tip to Bostonblorp

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