I don’t know how many people last year lived through both Hurricane Irma in Miami and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. I know I did. I had moved from Puerto Rico to Miami during the summer on contract with a magazine publisher. That was change-of-life #1. The one-two hurricane punch gave me change-of-life #2.
Irma and other natural disasters provoked the writing of a feature story, which I published in my Medium page 11 September 2017. A few days later, Maria smashed into Puerto Rico, and I rushed back home as soon as I could get on a plane. Suddenly, the story of the moment we’re all living became a lot more…personal.
So I went back to Medium and did some editing. The piece is reposted below.
Monday, 4 September — “Caught a cold?” I asked, unsuspecting, trying to be sensitive to her caughing. “No. It’s all these wildfires getting to me. It’s been tough driving to and from work every day.”
I called Kim Mangold to inquire about agriculture in Montana, for a special section we were doing in Cuba Trade Magazine.
“They’re eating up hundreds of thousands of acres in western Montana,” cried the state’s Agriculture Department Deputy Director — just under 500,000, to be precise, part of the 2,000,000 acres being scorched as I write these words by 123 forest wildfires across the great American West. Those are today’s fires, not counting the acres lost and lives hurt by previous ones.
“And there is nothing we can do about it.”
The words struck like a bolt of lightning. “And there is nothing we can do about it.” Gulp.
Three days later, we were shutting down our downtown Miami newsroom, stashing computers and paperwork in the back kitchen of our 24th floor bayfront office, as the by-then historic Hurricane Irma barrelled down on the Florida peninsula after destroying several Caribbean islands. It had already become the cyclone with the most 180+ mile-per-hour-wind days ever.
When Irma pummeled the north-central coast of Cuba on its way here, the connection with my Montana call became all too clear.
Because there is nothing anyone can any longer do about these monster hurricanes, either. Or the monster droughts that provoke the fires. Or the polar-vortex effect chilling our winters. Or the Arctic melting provoking the vortex, and kicking off the massive methane release that will accelerate global warming, and altering the ocean current that keeps North Atlantic weather in balance.
Tuesday, 26 September — As our flight descended along its north-coast approach toward the runway in San Juan, the 200-or-so passengers huddled around the small windows on either side to get a peak of the devastation we had only seen in news reports.
Eyes suddenly swelled, as cheekbones flooded with tears. What had been a conversational flight out of Miami, with folks sharing stories of how hard it had been to communicate with families since Hurricane Maria flattened Puerto Rico September 20th, became dead silent. The mood held the whole time we waited to file out, and as we zombied past the massive crowd waiting to fly out, the desperation and fear in their eyes provoked even more silence. And even more tears.
Nothing could have prepared me for the six days that followed, so much worse is disaster in person than in pictures. As with every Puerto Rican outside the island, I was desperate to join my family and neighbors and help any way I could — cleaning debris, putting in my time making serial 2-hour lines for food and supplies, hand-washing clothes, and most importantly, hugging, comforting, reflecting, just hanging out.
I lived in Puerto Rico from September 1988 until early July 2017. My wife, son and mom-in-law were due to join me in Miami before year end. They will now join me at month’s end. Most of the 500,000-or-so Puerto Ricans expected to leave the island as a result of Maria are a living testament to what climate change has wrought and will bring far more in today’s new normal: families displaced, lives and jobs lost, economies and entire societies disrupted. Or destroyed.
This time, it hit us, here in Puerto Rico and Dominica, in Houston and Montana, in the Maldives and Tuvalu, as in so many places already hurting from extreme weather and the unthinkable consequences of rising seas around the world. Tomorrow, it will no doubt be right there, where you live. No one will be exempt.
Entering a New Moment
Global temperatures are fast approaching the dreaded 1.5º C increase climate scientists guarantee will trigger irreversible extreme weather events at a terrifying clip. We will get there next decade. For sure. Yes, next decade. Read the science. Become climate literate. It is now a survival skill.
The terrifying pace and impact of the extreme weather we are now witnessing must serve, if nothing else, as a trigger to one thing and one thing only: rapid adoption not just of regular climate adaptation policies and measures in every city everywhere, but a new level the global resilience community has simply not turned to yet.
Extreme events like these, you see, overwhelm typical resilience. We’re seeing it here, as we saw it in Katrina, Sandy and similar phenoms around the world.
That makes this, truly, a New Moment. This is not like yesterday. You can feel the ground shifting today as we awaken to something different, because this is but a glimpse into the massive post-1.5ºC global disruption we will face.
The relevant estimates are in. Harvey and Irma alone will cost the U.S. economy upwards of $200 billion, wiping out much of the country’s expected growth this year. Maria will cost another $50 billion. Hurricane Nate, making landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi October 7 as I write these words (editing the story I originally published September 11), will add to the tally. As will others before we’re done with the season.
Repeat several times per year, every year, in every country, and you’ll see where we’re headed. Starting next decade.
I’ll be exploring the many dimensions of this dramatic juncture in upcoming columns. For now, let a new calling go out to everyone in the nascent resilience movement around the world.
This is our moment. It is now. Let’s seize it, both the opportunities for new products, services and solutions to deal with this existential menace, as well as for a new global conscience to help us face it with valor, intelligence and grace.
Those solutions span the entire 17 Sustainable Development Goals, for resilience can no longer be just about physical infrastructure, certainly not the kind overwhelmed by wildfire- and Maria-level climate disasters.
Next-level adaptation must include, at its very center, such human and social resilience as that offered by SDGs having to do with education, healthcare, partnerships, equality, justice, corruption and freedom — right up there with water, food, energy, urbanism and infrastructure.
The field is wide open. Leave no angle behind. There’s no other way to do this.
P.D. My wife and I decided to stay in Puerto Rico. The island needs all hands on deck, so for now, we won’t be joining the climate flight. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes from here.