With new storms surging, Puerto Ricans still feel lasting scars from Hurricane Maria

In Puerto Rico, blue tarps cover homes in the process of reconstruction.

By Valerie Nikolas
Medill Reports

In the aftermath of Michael, the most catastrophic hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland in 26 years, Americans are still healing from the destruction a year ago in Puerto Rico. NASA reports that warmer ocean temperatures due to global warming are a factor in adding energy to hurricanes and maintaining the power they pack.

After Michael’s devastating wrath last week disaster workers and state and national resources are pouring in to restore power and homes for hundreds of thousands of people in the Florida panhandle. Looking at how Puerto Rico is still rebuilding after Hurricane Maria last year can give insight into the effort and toll of rebuilding communities and lives.

In the six months after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, almost 3,000 people died as a direct or indirect result of the storm. It took 11 months to restore power throughout the island. During a recent reporting visit to the island, I witnessed  continued efforts to restore, rebuild, and raise awareness on how to mitigate disasters in the future and the larger need to address climate change.

When the hurricane hit in September 2017, Puerto Ricans were already grappling with a debt crisis and other environmental issues such as an eroding coastline and extreme drought in 2015.

“We are one of the first communities really experiencing this climate change,” said Valentina Garramuno, who works for Enlace Latino de Acción Climática, or Latino Link of Climate Action.

Roberto Garcia, the meteorologist in charge of the Puerto Rican National Weather Service (NWS), agrees. During the storm, Garcia and his team spent 72 hours at the NWS building, tracking it and trying to communicate their findings throughout the island, which proved difficult as communication lines were cut off.

As tropical storms move over warming ocean waters, they intensify and “provide the fuel,” Garcia said. “With a warmer ocean, we might get stronger hurricanes.”

Roberto Garcia, head of the National Weather Service in San Juan, Puerto Rico, outside an event commemorating the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria. (Valerie Nikolas/MEDILL)

After Maria had rocked the island, Garcia headed home only to find that it had been destroyed. He and his family remained displaced for six months.

“It’s that emotional pain that you never forget,” Garcia recalls.

Rebuilding efforts include a shift to solar energy. Tesla, the Red Cross and other organizations are working on solar panel installation across the island. Generators are still being installed to fill the gaps.

A Red Cross worker installs solar panels on Leoncio Meléndez Middle School in Las Piedras, Puerto Rico. (American Red Cross)

Extreme weather events are expensive—the U.S. spent more than $200 billion on hurricane rebuilding efforts in 2017—the most costly effort in U.S. history. Maria tallied up almost half of that, totaling an estimated $90 billion in damage. And the frequency of such events will increase as climate change continues.

The 2017 hurricane season that unleashed Maria on Puerto Rico and Harvey on Texas is already being matched this year. Hurricane Michael is the fourth-strongest hurricane to strike the United States and the strongest Category 4 storm ever recorded in the United States. Thirty-three deaths have been reported so far, as search and rescue efforts continue. Michael follows Florence last month, which killed at least 51 people and caused $13 billion in damage in the Carolinas and some of the same areas of Florida.

Michael took place amid the backdrop of the landmark U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released on Oct. 8 that revealed humans have just 12 years to reverse global warming or face unprecedented climate change.

“We are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes,” said Panmao Zhai, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group I, in a statement.

Through the devastation, loss of life, and impact on industry, Puerto Ricans are resilient.

On Sept. 20, 2018, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria, Old San Juan showed signs of renewal. The sound of footsteps on brick streets rang throughout the streets lined with vibrant, colorful homes and businesses. At a commemorative event held at the Fort San Cristóbal, Gov. Ricardo Rossello and other attendees clad in white sang and prayed to honor the lives lost.

“Hopefully we came out stronger and with more experience on how to deal with this in the future,” Garcia said. “Because I know, as a meteorologist, that we will have more hurricanes in the future. This is not it.”

Photo at top: In Puerto Rico, blue tarps cover homes still in the process of reconstruction. (Valerie Nikolas/MEDILL)