We need to be ready for more hurricanes, more floods
Maybe Puerto Rico should be permanently evacuated and all the residents resettled on the mainland. The entire island could then be reforested and left as a nature preserve.
Maybe scientists should figure out how to geo-engineer tropical depressions that threaten to morph into powerful hurricanes like Harvey, Irma and Maria.
A few years ago, these two suggestions would have seemed too outrageous to even be spoken aloud. Yet at a panel discussion about hurricanes and climate change on Sept. 21 organized by the Connecticut Institute for Resilience & Climate Adaptation at UConn Avery Point, the marine scientists and risk experts in the room took these statements from audience members seriously, as worthy of discussion as all the other comments. And while the still-fresh images from Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico were heartbreaking and disturbing enough, no one could escape being reminded of our own encounter just five years ago.
Just as Superstorm Sandy did on Oct. 29, 2012, the relentless charge of hurricane winds, flooding rains and storm surge in the past two months has stunned many of us into accepting that what climate scientists have been predicting for years about more frequent and severe storms looks to be coming true. As the air and oceans warm with the buildup of fossil fuel emissions, sea levels rise, the atmosphere holds more moisture and the forces that form hurricanes become more powerful.
Of course, the scientists on the panel were quick to emphasize that no one can draw a direct link and say unequivocally that climate change caused Hurricane Harvey or Maria. Hurricanes have happened throughout history. The difference now is that the human impact on the planet is fueling the fires of extreme weather. It’s a nuance that may be hard for non-experts to grasp and even self-defeating for those trying to inspire action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But scientific integrity demands accuracy.
“I cannot make a connection for a particular storm, but there is a higher probability,” said Manos Anagnostou, one of the panelists and a UConn professor of civil and environmental engineering.
As the anniversary of Sandy approaches, let’s take time to reflect on what we’ve learned and whether we’re better prepared for the next one. Since the storm, Connecticut Sea Grant has joined with counterparts in New York and New Jersey to understand what language and platforms emergency officials should use to convey more effective evacuation messages. Sea Grant researchers have also discovered that most coastal residents in Connecticut don’t know whether they live in an evacuation zone, or the route to take if an evacuation is warranted. Since that finding, Juliana Barrett, extension educator with Sea Grant, has been working with several coastal towns to map the evacuation zones and routes. But more communities and emergency managers need to start using this information for some public education campaigns.
“Many coastal communities have large weekend or tourist populations who may not know the best evacuation routes, where municipal shelters are located or what the shelters offer in terms of services,” said Barrett. “We are working with several pilot communities to provide this information in an easy to use, accessible format.”
She and others at Sea Grant have also been working with individual towns to identify roads and bridges and other infrastructure vulnerable to flooding, and figuring out how to fix them. Given the moving target of climate change, this is work that will probably never be finished.
“We are all so busy with day-to-day activities that it’s hard to think about and prepare for storms until one is looming on the horizon,” Barrett said. “Working with municipalities on adaptation that will help protect critical infrastructure now will help when the next storm hits.”
As Frank Bohlen, retired UConn marine sciences professor and panelist noted, we don’t need any more evidence to act. Complacency will only make things worse the next time a hurricane comes our way, and it’s not just hurricanes we need to be concerned about. As the floods of 2010 demonstrated, he said, a nor’easter can do a lot of damage, too, and these are also intensifying. No one should wait for an international consensus or the federal government to lead the way. Our own backyard is already at risk.
“All of this begins at home,” Bohlen said. “We’ve got things we can do right here. We’ve had all the events we need to know we need to act. So how can we better adapt? We’ve got to work right now, right here.”
Judy Benson is communications coordinator for Connecticut Sea Grant and a former health and environment reporter for The Day.
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