Can the Caribbean survive?

What will the islands and the Atlantic and Gulf coasts look like in a generation?

Hurricane Maria climateI’m not a climate expert, so I want to tread cautiously here. That said, our recent spate of catastrophic weather has raised some uneasy questions in my mind.

As I write this Hurricane Maria is lashing Puerto Rico. It is, in the estimate of some officials, the worst storm in the island’s modern history. Catastrophic devastation is certain. Death is likely.

This has been a hellish hurricane season. Harvey pounded the Caribbean and Texas to the tune of billions of dollars in damage, leaving at least 165 dead along the way. Irma “caused catastrophic damage in Barbuda, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Martin, Anguilla, and the Virgin Islands as a Category 5 hurricane. As of September 19, the hurricane has caused at least 101 deaths, including 44 in the Caribbean and 57 in the United States.” Jose mercifully veered north, although it was threatening the northeast for a while, and after Sandy we know for sure that major storms aren’t just a southeastern thing anymore.

Climate can be a capricious thing, of course – it had been several years since the US mainland had been hit by a hurricane – but there is reason to fear that 2017 is a harbinger of the new normal. There is now debate among scientists as to whether it’s too late to do anything about climate change (Neil deGrasse Tyson this week placed himself in the too late camp) and if this is the case, hurricanes are a likely manifestation of Climate 2.0. More of them, and more powerful.

Which has me looking at what the last few weeks have done to the Caribbean. The Leeward Islands have been crushed. Puerto Rico is having its day right now. And we know that the rest of the region is simply waiting its turn. Cuba. Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Bermuda. Jamaica. Central America and Mexico.

And of course, the US mainland. In the age of the new normal nothing within 50 miles of the coast from North Carolina to Texas can feel safe, can it?

What if the parade of devastation we’ve seen this year becomes the rule instead of the exception? What if, late each summer, one aspiring Category 5 after another forms off the west coast of Africa and marches this way? What if the region has to hunker down, then emerge to count its dead and asses the economic damages once or twice (or three times, or four, or five) annually?

How many times can you clean up and rebuild?

I find myself wondering if the Caribbean can survive. If I lived there I know I’d already be considering how I might get to safer ground, although, since many of these areas are comparatively poor, it may not be possible for a lot of these citizens to escape.

Beyond this, I wonder the same kinds of things about US coastal areas. I don’t know that I think people are going to abandon Houston and Miami, but we saw an interesting stat as Harvey approached Texas: 80% of homes in the Houston area had no flood insurance. Which made me ask another question: if I ran an insurance company, would I write storm and flood policies for people in these areas?

Would I live there if I couldn’t get insurance? Could I live there knowing that it’s not if, but when?

I don’t have a lot of answers. Just questions. And as I watch hurricane season 2017 throwing one haymaker after another, the questions grow more dire.

Categories: Environment/Nature