By Mark Stachowski
As the peak of hurricane season comes to a close, we must take time to understand what’s happened so far and why. The extent of damage wrought by recent hurricanes this year is historically unprecedented. The most significant, however, are Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma. Because of these Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, countless lives have been lost, and the time it will take to recover from damages can merely be a figure of imagination. As for now, people can only hope that their lives will be able to return to normal after the extensive damage as a result of these recent hurricanes.
Hurricane Harvey, the first major hurricane to make U.S. landfall this year, started out officially as a tropical wave off the coast of Africa on August 13th, 2017. A tropical wave is a storm system that starts out off the coasts of Africa, caused by a combination of temperature fluctuations and winds. As Harvey continued to alternate between tropical wave and tropical storm, August 23rd was when it looked to hit the state of Texas dead-on. The next day, the storm rapidly strengthened into a Category 3 hurricane, right as Texans were first learning about the storm. They had so little time to evacuate because of the extremely rapid progression of the storm. The storm first made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane in Texas on August 25th, and lingered over Texas for another day. The top wind gusts reported were 132 mph, and the highest recorded water levels were 9.33 feet above normal. AccuWeather estimates that the damages will cost a total of $190 billion. If so, this could be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Risk Management Solutions, one of the top companies dedicated to risk calculation of natural disasters, estimated economic losses could be between $70 billion and $90 billion. Death toll estimates are as high as 82 people, although it will take weeks, if not months, to determine the exact number. As the high water levels recede, it has been revealed that 200 million cubic yards of debris is left behind to be cleaned up. A $15 billion disaster relief package has been passed by Congress to aid Texas and its recovery.
Also starting out as a tropical storm off the coast of Africa was Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 hurricane that took a different path than that of Harvey. Irma’s progression as a storm was even quicker than Harvey. On August 30th, it was a tropical storm, and intensified into a hurricane in one day. Five days later, Irma became a Category 5 hurricane, the highest classification possible for hurricanes. Its path looked to hit the caribbean islands straight on. It first made landfall in Barbuda on September 6th. As it just nearly missed Puerto Rico, Haiti, and other countries in the Caribbean, Irma made sure to hit Cuba before making landfall in the U.S. When it first made landfall in Florida, it was a Category 4 hurricane, with winds reaching up to 115 mph. The highest wind speed recorded was 185 mph. Irma only degraded to a tropical storm as it was leaving through the panhandle of Florida and into Georgia. As a result of this historic hurricane, at least 72 people have died. Over 6 million have lost power, while other reports have that figure at 9 million. One estimate for the cost of cleanup for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma is between $150 and $200 billion, potentially making this hurricane season the highest in cleanup costs in U.S. history.
Hurricane Maria, although affecting fewer countries, was a storm of equal damage and power as Harvey and Irma. Maria hit southeast Caribbean Islands as a Category 5 hurricane, with islands such as Dominica and the Virgin Islands taking a direct hit. It then made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane, and as it raged straight through the island, it caused extensive damage. In this storm, the highest wind gusts were recorded at 155 mph, and the storm surge was reported to be five feet over average high-tide levels. Parts of Puerto Rico saw 30 inches of rain in one day, equivalent to the amount that Texas received from Harvey in three days. 6 days after landfall, 44% of all Puerto Ricans do not have access to clean drinking water, and only 15% of the nation’s hospitals are open. 4 days later, 55% of all Puerto Ricans do not have access to clean drinking water, a harsh increase from before. The storm has killed at least 34 people in Puerto Rico alone, with countless others in Caribbean Islands still needing to be accounted for.
Why? Many are asking why this hurricane season has been arguably the worst on record, and people have different explanations. Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says there are two main variables that have allowed for this hurricane season to be so active. He says that the wind variability is one big reason. Because the wind speeds between the air above the ocean and the air miles up in a hurricane is relatively the same, this allows the hurricane to maintain its strong wind gusts and keep it going. He also says that the warming of the atmosphere of the Atlantic Ocean creates better conditions for the formation of strong hurricanes. On the other hand, some argue that this is simply the result of the peak of hurricane season, which generally lasts from about mid-August to late October.
Whether one believes this catastrophic hurricane season is the result of global warming or just the regular peak of hurricane season, we all must realize that there are so many who are going through pain and suffering, having lost their home, their family, and so much more. The total amount of time and money it will take to fully clean up these hurricanes may be defined by a number, but the grief that people who have lost everything are going through is simply immeasurable.