Dangerous Floods in Puerto Rico: Then and Now
With Hurricane Fiona making landfall on September 18th, Puerto Rico has been debilitated by severe flooding, resulting in damage to urban areas, the deaths of at least 21 people, and an island-wide power outage.
According to rain gauges from the US Meteorological Survey, over 32 inches (or 81 centimeters) of rain have hit Puerto Rico due to this hurricane.
This is the island’s worst encounter with a storm since Hurricane Maria back in 2017 and breaks Puerto Rico’s record for the highest amount of rainfall in 24 hours by almost ten inches.
Despite the hurricane only being recorded as Category One while passing over the island, this has not stopped the consequences from being severe and the people of Puerto Rico from being in dire need of support during these trying times.
History of Flooding
Unfortunately for Puerto Rico, this island nation has a history of taking the brunt of severe flooding and a less-than-happy story with hurricanes.
As far back as the 1960s, historical records show flooding across Eastern Puerto Rico that threatened to break records for the time, despite the levels of rainfall not being proportional to such destruction.
Similarly, in 1985, the Puerto Rico floods were caused by a wave from the West coast of Africa. It turned into a tropical cyclone that dumped 25 inches of water, resulting in over $125USD (1985 money) in damages.
As though this alone was not enough, things did not end here. Puerto Rico has since had floods in 1960, 1970, 1983, and 2010.
Multiple hurricanes, such as Hortense (1996), Georges (1998), and Maria, passed 100- and 500-year flood marks, with Hurricane Maria, in particular, making the leap and crossing 500-year levels.
Puerto Rico has a tumultuous history with hurricanes and flooding, suffering in a way that we in the Western world rarely experience and find easy to ignore. However, this does not mean that it is entirely unavoidable.
Why is this Happening Now?
Despite weather issues and damage being a normal part of Puerto Rico’s history, things have ramped up immensely in recent years due to a mixture of poor planning and the growing effects of climate change.
In Puerto Rico, the current system used to calculate rainfall amounts and flood risks rely on data that only goes up to 1994.
It completely disregards the island’s more recent history and does not account for Hortense, Georges, and Maria's hurricanes (and subsequent floods). These natural disasters broke the nation's flood records and caused extensive damage.
Without this vital information in its logs, the current system is thus extremely outdated. Its calculations simply do not accurately reflect the real-life conditions and risks that a modern Puerto Rico faces in an ever-changing climate. It is attempting to calculate potentially life-saving numbers on data almost thirty years behind the times.
However, it is not computer errors alone that are contributing to this stormy crisis.
Puerto Rico has always had a somewhat tempestuous relationship with the weather and has racked up multiple devastating floods and hurricanes under its belt.
In addition, things have escalated in a clear and deadly way in recent years, as evidenced by the hurricanes of Hortense and Georges (which tragically fell within just a couple of years of each other) and Maria, later on, all of which brought with them disastrous levels of flooding.
Climate change is all too real, and if we don’t do something soon, the world will heat up to unsustainable levels, causing debilitating effects on planet Earth and our survival as a result.
However, for countries in the Global South, such as Puerto Rico, there is no ‘soon’ — the effects of climate change have already begun for these nations, and they are showing no mercy.
According to a 2019 report, Puerto Rico is "affected by climate change more than anywhere else in the world.”
This island nation has warmed by more than one degree Fahrenheit since the mid-20th Century- whereas the rest of the world has warmed around 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since the early 1800s- and the seas around Puerto Rico rise by one inch every fifteen years.
As policymakers in the Global North stall on effective climate change action, convinced that they still have time, it is becoming increasingly clear that time has already run out for Puerto Rico.
What’s Being Done to Solve This?
To help Puerto Rico recover from this latest disaster, US President Joe Biden has announced an extra $60 million in additional funding. It is set to be put towards shoring up levees, strengthening flood walls, and, crucially, setting up a new flood warning system for this island nation.
Biden’s determination to help the people of Puerto Rico is a nod to his attempts to distance himself from his predecessor, Donald Trump, whose inaction- downplaying death tolls, denying his administration’s shortcomings, and even throwing paper towels at a crowd in Puerto Rico.
This may have cost the people valuable time that Puerto Ricans could have used to implement these new measures years ago.
As well as this, many non-profit organizations are raising funds for Puerto Rico- the links embedded in this article will allow you to donate directly to these groups and help from your home.
Proyecto Maria is a domestic violence organization raising money to protect vulnerable groups in the wake of the floods. HOPE (global health and humanitarian NGO) is raising funds to mobilize emergency responders in the wake of Fiona. Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico, a community kitchen fighting food insecurity, is raising funds.
These are just a few groups in Puerto Rico out supporting their local community. Still, sadly, until meaningful global climate action is enacted, it is likely that Puerto Rico will continue to suffer.
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References: (click the arrow to expand)
Jamie Martin is a Graduate Student of Politics, Social, and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. They are also a content writer at the International Youths Organization for Peace and Sustainability.
Inputs and Edits by Sovena Ngeth.