Saturday, October 21, 2017

What if our underlying prosperity is ripped out from underneath us?

“What if our underlying prosperity is ripped out from underneath us?” - Paolo Bacigalupi, science fiction author

The people of Puerto Rico are having to answer this question as I write this column. Several days after Hurricane Maria ripped their island apart with sustained winds equivalent to an EF-3 tornado, they have no electricity, no communications, no food, and no potable water. Many don’t even have their own roofs over their heads any longer. 

Even though Puerto Rico is part of the United States, supplies have to be shipped in, then distributed by land over a road network clogged with downed trees. In the meantime, people are getting water from springs created by landslides triggered by the storm. Unless something changes, waterborne diseases may not be far behind.

This is just Puerto Rico. Other Caribbean islands are now uninhabitable or are very close to it. For the first time in 300 years, there is no one living on Barbuda. A third of the buildings on St. Martins were destroyed. The British Virgin Islands lost all their infrastructure. St. Martins lost a third of its buildings, and in the US Virgin Islands almost half the population is still without power. 

The devastation of four hurricanes which exceeded Category 4 over the last few weeks is mind boggling. Estimated losses now exceed a combined $480 billion. Although that represents only about 3% of the 2016 GDP of the US economy, it also means untold suffering for hundreds of thousands of people as well. 

A few years ago, I posted a blog on the Westborough Patch which I titled “A Dope Slap Moment” about Hurricane Sandy. I hoped that the devastation would act as a wakeup call about the realities of climate change. I was criticized by one commenter as “an environmental wacko.” 

At the time, I told that person that the effects of climate change would be obvious within 30 years. I was wrong. The effects are obvious now.

Because I am a data nerd, I plotted up the number of North Atlantic Category 4 hurricanes per decade along with the average global temperature change per decade since the 1860s. The numbers track each other very closely. The number of Category 4 storms per decade before 1900 was less than 5. Since 2000, the number of storms per decade has exceeded 10. So far this decade we have had 13 and we still have 3 years to go.

Brings to mind the words from that old Buffalo Springfield song, “There’s something happening here...”

If you are thinking of retiring to South Florida, you might want to reconsider.

Given these trends, one has to wonder how many people will just pack it in, leave the Caribbean and essentially become climate refugees. Most of these island’s economies are dependent on tourism, which I doubt will recover any time in the near future.

The head of FEMA said on September26th that "We do not have a culture of preparedness in this country," which is absolutely true. We do need to plan for disasters, but we also need to plan for change.

We can no longer assume that the way things were are the way things will be. We can no longer have a flood insurance program that requires people to rebuild on the location where their home flooded. We can no longer encourage developers to build subdivisions in flood plains formerly reserved for flood water storage. We can no longer assume that what used to be low probability events, like a 500-year storm, will not happen again next year, or even the next month. 

If we plan, we can mitigate the threats to our underlying prosperity. We can prepare. But first, we have to recognize there is in fact, a problem. 

These days, that’s a problem all by itself, especially when the President feels the need to explain to reporters that Puerto Rico “is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean.”

Thank you Captain Obvious.

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