After the Wind and the Rain: Making Sense of a Record Hurricane Season

An aerial photograph shows beachfront damage caused by Hurricane Irma in South Florida.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria ravaged the Caribbean and southern United States these past two months, taking lives, causing horrific destruction, and costing billions of dollars in damage. It seemed there was barely time to catch our breath before the next one hit, causing people to wonder if this is the worst hurricane season ever. The scale of social and ecological trauma that is to persist in the days, weeks, and years ahead is difficult to predict.

The damage and recovery has been uneven across geography and across time, as hurricane after hurricane has made landfall. Understanding why we’ve seen different impacts for different places and groups of people is a good place to start for responding to today’s disasters and for preparing for the next to come. To help make sense of the causes and consequences of Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the Edge Effects editorial board recommends some of the best of recent reporting, grouped here by five essential themes.

You can’t understand the recent hurricanes without understanding:

How climate change is making hurricanes worse

Reading Recommendation: Is tropical storm Harvey linked to climate change?” Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, August 29, 2017.

For those who want to understand the relationship between climate change and the spate of recent hurricanes, this article is a helpful place to start. Watts explains that climate change, and more specifically global warming, makes tropical storms like hurricanes much worse by contributing to prolonged and intense rain, such as what accompanied the recent storms. Focusing on Hurricane Harvey’s effects on Texas, this article answers fundamental questions that help us understand the extent of current scientific insight into the linkage between climate change and intensifying hurricanes.

– Oindrila Chattopadhyay

A map of sea surface temperatures shows that very warm sea surface fueled Hurricane Irma

A map of sea surface temperatures on September 5, 2017, in the midst of Hurricane Irma. The midpoint on the scale, 27.8 degrees Celsius, is the threshold scientists generally believe to be warm enough to cause a hurricane. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Why certain people and places are more vulnerable to “natural” disasters

Reading Recommendation: “Adapting to Hurricanes. A Historical Perspective on New Orleans from its Foundation to Hurricane Katrina, 1718-2005,” Eleonora Rohland, 2017.

What might history teach us about responding to hurricanes? A recent article in WIREs Climate Change by historian Eleonora Rohland takes up this question by examining more than 250 years of adaptation to hurricanes in New Orleans—from the first cyclone to hit the newly founded city in 1722 to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She shows how vulnerability and people’s ability to adapt co-evolved along with shifting forms of imperial and state governance, knowledge about storms, economic strategies, and racial and class politics. What shapes adaptive capacity, she finds, is not so much the severity of storms themselves, but much longer histories that produce vulnerability.

– Elizabeth Hennessy

Reading Recommendation: “A Catastrophe for Houston’s Most Vulnerable People,” Tanvi Misra, The Atlantic, August 27, 2017. 

A Texas National Guardsman carries a woman from her flooded home in Houston, TX.

A Texas National Guardsman rescues a woman from her home in Houston, following Hurricane Harvey, August 27, 2017. Photo by Lt. Zachary West of the United States Air Force.

Written in the midst of Harvey flooding, this article predicts who would be most affected, based on social vulnerability factors such as being elderly or disabled, living in an immigrant or limited English-speaking community, or living in poverty. In Houston, incarcerated and undocumented people were especially at risk, as law enforcement prevented mobility for those already incarcerated or for those fearing deportation. The article also shows how social vulnerability maps onto geographic vulnerability; those most socially vulnerable not only have limited means to evacuate, they are likely to live in flood-prone areas. Reinforcing the idea that there is no such thing as a natural disaster, this article’s prediction of social catastrophe is not surprising, but it should not be inevitable either.

– Rebecca Summer

Listening Recommendation: “How Colonialism in the Caribbean Affects Hurricane Prep and Recovery,” The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC, September 14, 2017.

Can the recent spate of Caribbean hurricanes spark a wave of political transition in the region? This question drives Brian Lehrer’s interview with Yarimar Bonilla, associate professor of anthropology and Caribbean studies at Rutgers University and author of Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Throughout the course of this 25-minute episode, callers from affected islands explain what they believe their communities need in the wake of these disasters. Weaving between the lived experiences of these callers, the colonial history of the islands, and the contemporary conditions of “constrained sovereignty” experienced by Caribbean residents, this conversation critiques the persistence of power relations that shapes hurricane disaster and recovery, opening up possibilities for governance frameworks beyond post-colonial statehood.

– Stepha Velednitsky

Satellite images show severe power outages in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria

Satellite images show the power grid of Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands before and after Hurricane Maria. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

How hurricanes lead to long-term health effects

Reading Recommendation: “The 5 Biggest Health Impacts of Massive Hurricanes,” Alanna Shaikh, UN Dispatch, September 11, 2017.

Cardboard boxes of supplies are gathered in a warehouse in New York, waiting to be shipped to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.

Donations gathered by the National Guard and the New York Guard are prepared to be shipped to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, October 1, 2017. Photo by New York National Guard.

The spectacular flooding and infrastructural damage from hurricanes is easy to report; it almost speaks for itself. But there are many invisible or less reported health-related consequences of massive storms. This article from the United Nations Dispatch covers the top five. From waterborne illness (such as diarrhea), carbon monoxide poisoning, and environmental contaminants, to mosquito borne illnesses like Zika and Dengue, there will be many lingering effects of Harvey, Irma, and Maria. But the biggest impact of all will be the lack of access to health care.

How we will provide adequate care, respond to these new injuries, or even track and quantify them, are questions that demand our attention. This is true especially when many people have limited access to the health-care system and the long-term effects of this season’s hurricanes will stay with us. Already the Memorial Hermann Medical Group is reporting a rise in upper respiratory infections a month after Harvey.

– Sara Thomas

Why social dimensions of climate change are increasingly important

Reading Recommendation: “Call Climate Change What It Is: Violence,” Rebecca Solnit, The Guardian, April 7, 2014.

Written in the wake of “super storms” Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), Rebecca Solnit’s short article urges readers to rethink how we talk about anthropogenic climate change. Climate change, she argues, is violence with a global reach. Fueled by corporate interests and governmental policies, it manifests in increasingly powerful storms, floods, droughts, wildfires—all with devastating political and economic consequences. Solnit’s article, originally published in 2014, has recently reappeared in social media feeds as people search for the words to use to talk about the immediate and long-term effects of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

-Addie Hopes

An aerial photograph shows houses flooded up to the roof in Port Arthur, Texas

A view of flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in Port Arthur, Texas, August 31, 2017. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

What’s missing from the stories we read

Reading Recommendation: “Hurricane Harvey Info,” National Weather Service, Houston/Galveston Weather Forecast Office

When searching for the quantitative data by which a hurricane is measured, the best bet is to start with the National Weather Service. This summary of Hurricane Harvey from the Houston/Galveston Weather Forecast Office offers plenty of satellite and radar images, graphs charting storm surge, and maps of Harvey’s total rainfall accumulations. While technical summaries like these are a great place to start an analysis of a hurricane’s impact, they are merely a jumping-off point. Missing in the technical description is any attempt to understand how human decisions worsened the impact of the storm, nor does the reader get any feel for the personal devastation wrought by such violent environmental transformation. 

– Adam Behrman

Reading Recommendation: Everything That’s Been Reported about Deaths in Puerto Rico Is at Odds with the Official Count,” Eliza Barclay and Alexia Fernández Campbell, Vox, October 11, 2017.

An aerial view of homes missing roofs in Puerto Rico.

Homes in Puerto Rico are torn apart by Hurricane Maria. Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Death counts occupy a privileged place in hurricane coverage. They show up early in articles and are squeezed into the limited space of headlines and tweets. They are marshalled to compare storms across time and rate the efficacy of relief efforts. But they’re hardly objective. It’s very difficult to gather information in a disaster zone, for one thing. What’s more, a hurricane kills with so many weapons—water, wind, bacteria, privation, mere fear—that body counters must first decide which bodies count. This piece lays out the logistics and politics of tallying the dead, and then, through some heroic digging, concludes Hurricane Maria’s toll in Puerto Rico is likely an order of magnitude larger than the official number. And counting.  

– Brian Hamilton

Featured image: Damage caused by Hurricane Irma in South Florida, September 12, 2017. Photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Callaghan of the United States Air Force.

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