Aurelio Mercado has had it. He gave up. Aurelio Mercado freaking gave up.
“I threw in the towel,” he told me in a candid call.
He recalls the call, early last year, from yet another local senator, who asked him to come to the Capitol in San Juan to share some findings, for the upteenth time, to see if, perhaps, maybe, something could, who knows, be done about restricting coastal construction.
“That’s when I realized it was over. It has been so many years, so many presentations, and now we’ve run out of time. Climate change is kicking in too rapidly. By the time these politicians and business leaders take this seriously…”
An unusual pause, coming from him. I had interviewed Puerto Rico’s leading climate scientist several times, joined him in a climate-resilience committee, heard him speak at numerous conferences. This time, the voice was different.
On the 20th of September, a few months after that Capitol visit, Puerto Rico was destroyed by Hurricane Maria, and Mercado was called again.
“Maybe now, I thought. Maybe this is what it will take.”
Not so. Not even close.
“This is nothing short of disgusting, criminal even. For these people to know, to have had all the information they needed, and not react. We warned them what would happen if Puerto Rico was hit by a category 4 or 5 hurricane. We warned them, and it sickens me to say it happened exactly as we said. Those deaths are on them. The migration and job loss is on them.”
Between Maria and its aftermath to year end, an estimated 5,000 lives were lost, likely closer to 6,000, according to this Harvard University excess-death analysis. A later review commissioned by the government of Puerto Rico counted just under 3,000. It was the biggest loss of life on American soil by a single disaster, natural or not, in more than a century. Roughly 300,000 people fled to the states, just under 10% of the population. Thousands of businesses shut down. Power, water, communication and other essential services were out for months.
Like most island residents, Mercado was left with one hope, that the billions of dollars in federal recovery funding promised by Congress would not just accelerate the recovery, but more importantly build sufficient resilience to outlast whatever the climate might throw Puerto Rico’s way for decades to come.
But that hope, too, was dashed, on August 8.
That’s the day the local Central Office for Recovery Reconstruction and Resilience (COR3) submitted the island’s 530-page funding request to Congress, a mammoth $139 billion bucket, 75% in federal funds and the rest in insurance claims and other sources. Only Katrina has commanded a similar federal spend, provided Congress goes along.
The money would fortify and in some cases rebuild critical lifelines and infrastructure, and the government is stretching its pitch, and surely Congress’ generosity, by throwing in a wish list of community and economic-development needs it says are related.
“If those investments are made, and let’s hope they are, we’ll be readier for another storm,” Mercado surmised. “But the report does nowhere near enough, and in some areas nothing at all, to counter other climate events — droughts, extreme heat, sea level rise — that will make Puerto Rico uninhabitable.”
Funny he should say that, because the more I dug into this story, the more Puerto Rico became a possible case study right out of The Uninhabitable Earth, the landmark article that carries deeply uncomfortable lessons for every place on Earth.
Mercado, you might say, is Puerto Rico’s James Hansen. Imagine what it would mean for the United States if Hansen, the country’s foremost climate scientist, the one who continues setting research bars at Columbia University, always a driver of public opinion, whose 1988 congressional testimony sparked a movement, and who remains its conscience to this day — imagine if he were to suddenly declare the struggle lost, the country doomed to nature’s merciless wrath, and chose instead to retire, defeated, into obscurity.
It would signal, truly, game over for America, and by extension for the world, exactly what Mercado’s exit might mean for Puerto Rico today, because from his chair at the University of Puerto Rico, Mercado’s voice and research has equally set the bar on the island since he broke with the scientists-shall-remain-silent tradition and began sounding the alarm in the early 2000s.
His message is jarring precisely because it is based as much on hard science as on hard politics and sociology. In post-María Puerto Rico, there can be no bigger question than: is Mercado’s conclusion inescapable? It is this:
Barring an immediate political, cultural, leadership, business and bureaucratic transformation he and others on the island would consider a veritable miracle, Puerto Rico is in for a 20-or-so-year existential reckoning, starting in the 2030s, less than 15 years away.
Come 2050, it is anyone’s guess how many of the island’s 3.2 million residents would have joined the ranks of the world’s climate refugees. Destination: the United States of America, of which Puerto Ricans are citizens by birth, and where Maria’s refugees relocated.
But it is a really good guess to say we’ll be looking at the bulk. Most? And at what point does a society and economy shrink so much it essentially dies?
If we follow his logic, it would be at about that point.
As he and others described the messy unfolding, I thought it would help to place it in a neat four-variable formula. Call it [C plus T] divided by [i minus p]. The first two are fixed, since the science of climate change (C) can no longer be altered, and the progressively worse extreme weather impacts will hit during a time frame (T) that at this point enjoys remarkable scientific consensus.
The other two are in the hands of people, who can either choose to build resilience to C in the T available, or squander the opportunity. The $139 billion represent the i, the slice of that investment that would go toward adaptation. It will only be spent if allowed by p, the politics, defined as the interplay, currently toxic, among local government, federal fiscal oversight board, business, grassroots groups, the media and other social actors.
“I don’t see anything on the horizon that would suggest that,” Mercado lamented.
Which way out?
So, barring that miracle, this is how it would play out, based on interviews with numerous local and federal experts. The final nail will be sea-level rise, which Mercado, who does the local estimates for NOAA and the UN IPCC, places at 1.5 feet higher during the 2030s, creeping up to 2.5 ft by 2050 and a full meter by 2060.
That is, admittedly, mainstream. Worse is possible, others say likely. In this game-changing peer-reviewed 2016 study often cited by Mercado, Hansen projected as much as five meters by 2100, which would mean 1.5 m, not 1.5 ft, by 2050.
A foot and a half, coincidentally, is the level the Department of Defense considers critical enough to relocate military bases on vulnerable coasts around the world, because of the debilitating effect of chronic tidal flooding and storm surges, plus intrusion of ocean water in aquifers, water tables, and sewer systems. This recent DoD study also estimates a 1.5 ft rise during the 2030s, as does this separate NOAA report.
Given this degree of scientific agreement, “it is outright suicidal for our leaders to keep their heads in the sand and choose not to prepare, and for many even in the scientific community itself not to speak out and be clearer about what this means,” Mercado asserted.
In Puerto Rico, as the rise approaches and surpasses two feet — his prediction for the 2040s — all eyes will turn, if not before, to Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport and the regional airports around the island.
“Between the frequent coastal flooding and the water seeping through the water table — it will be like springs sprouting from the ground — the operation of [LMM] will be seriously compromised,” assured Mercado.
Former Navy base Roosevelt Roads includes a higher-elevation airport that would be a sound transitional replacement under normal conditions, but it will be swallowed by the ocean, as well. Later, yes, but gone nonetheless.
Another former military base in the northwestern town of Aguadilla, Rafael Hernández Airport, is set on a high coastal cliff and would survive sea level rise, but with all access roads out of commission and no likelihood of rebuilding on time for LMM’s demise, it is a moot choice.
Puerto Rico is, of course, an island. You can’t just hop in a car and drive to a neighboring state. So when news breaks, leading up to that point, that all airport options will soon be lost and it will be another 20 years or so before an inland replacement is developed, what will most people do? (Yup. You got that right.)
And besides, what will they have to look forward to during and beyond those next 20 years? By then, climate’s effects will be far clearer and evident than today, for those still remaining on the island come 2050. The airport conundrum will be but one.
Breaking point looming
The same flooding, water-spring, aquifer and sewer impacts from seal level rise will also hit most power plants on the island, which are located along the coast. And there will go the power. The Recovery Plan aims to strengthen the grid, but offers no answer to this.
Nor for the Port of San Juan, entry point for 85%-90% of all food consumed and goods used on the island. With local harvests lost for months with each storm and threatened by reduced rainfall and severe droughts sure to come, food security will be as critical an issue as any.
Entire communities, hundreds of thousands of people, will be forced to retreat from the coasts, their streets, schools, hospitals, stores, parks, restaurants and other facilities equally affected by the same ocean onslaught to hit ports and airports. Where are they likely to move? The central valley of Caguas? Or the central plains of Texas and Florida?
Coastal communities and a growing number of islands around the world are awakening to this inevitability and preparing managed-retreat plans, including creative funding. The Puerto Rico Recovery Plan doesn’t even mention the practice.
Did somebody say water? According to Carl Soderberg — call him the Mercado of Puerto Rico’s water system, advisor to the island’s water authority and former director of the local EPA office — “Puerto Rico will receive 20% less rain water as early as 2030, probably 30% less by 2050,” he told me in a phone interview.
For a water authority that draws the bulk of its liquid from rain-fed surface reservoirs, and with the latter in desperate need of dredging to fit more rain, that should have been high on the recovery and resilience agenda, he added. “It is not,” said Soderberg.
Aquifers, for their part, “supply 20% of all water consumed on the island,” he revealed. “They’re already being hurt by salt water intrusion from sea level rise, and that will only get worse.” Result: even less water available for residential, agricultural and business use.
The strongest solution contemplated by the plan, he said, is to fix the water authority’s leakage crisis that wastes nearly half the system’s water.
“It’ll be huge if they bring that down to the normal 20% loss range,” Soderberg added, “but that will still not compensate for the rain and aquifer loss.”
The sizzling planet, in fact, has become every continent’s most alarming climate story this year. Yet, the Recovery Plan will not prepare Puerto Rico for extreme heat events, either.
That according to the University of Puerto Rico’s Pablo Méndez, the island’s leading heat scientist, who has spent years warning about unsustainable urban temperatures by mid-century and suggesting solutions for properties and cities.
There’s even a dark cloud hanging over the one resilience priority addressed by COR3: storms.
“You know how long it will take for that money to be spent and for the island to be more protected?” asked one source who preferred anonymity. “I don’t either. Judging from Katrina and Sandy, it will be years, and no one knows how many devastating hurricanes will strike between now and then. But with each one, we’ll lose an awful lot of jobs and people and set the whole recovery process back.”
All of which will in turn make it more difficult to solve the crushing fiscal and debt crisis, hurting government services and infrastructure-maintenance further, and making it even more likely that migration will become an unstoppable wave as the island spirals into its final clash with the rising oceans.
Lessons for all
I interviewed COR3 Executive Director Omar Marrero for this story in June. He confessed to not taking these future risks into account up to that point, pledged to look into it, and promised a second interview, which after constant follow-ups, he has yet to grant.
The lessons for others in America from Puerto Rico’s increasingly apparent blind march to vanishment are vast. No square mile in the country is exempt from one or a combination of these climate changes at any time, less so as these become more frequent and intense. Coasts hit by hurricanes and sea level. Drier areas by wildfires, droughts and dust bowlification. Every area by extreme temperatures, hot or cold, and deadly plagues. Ditto for nearly every corner of the planet.
“You have to realize: this is exponential,” warned Mercado, as if speaking to the entire world. “We’re headed for an inflection point that will accelerate those impacts tremendously.” Indeed, we are at the very cusp today.
On a continent, the options are far greater. Where to live and run a business. Cities and states that prepare better, or are simply less vulnerable, than others. Places where nature offers privileges. You’re not stuck on an island, as it were.
But neither need you allow your “island” to become unprepared. Cities today compete to attract and retain people and companies by offering incentives and quality of life.
If the tragedy of Puerto Rico exactly one year ago, and its aftermath, teaches anything, it is that resilience must now be inserted into that equation. If your jurisdiction is salvageable at all, it won’t happen by accident.
How will it? Start with these five ways, though there are more, so may the conversation begin:
- Avoid what the authors of this January 2017 study, published in El Sevier Journal, call “the political-legislative disconnect from the reality of nature,” when politicians and agencies receive scientific advice from the likes of Mercado, Méndez and Soderberg and must enact solutions. Authorities must wake up and not remain paralyzed by smallness.
- Most of Puerto Rico’s, and Katrina’s, Sandy’s, Harvey’s, Irma’s and Florence’s victims were/are poor, an obsession and life mission to former San Juan Chief Resilience Officer Alejandra Castrodad. “I used to think this was about programs and money. I am now convinced it is a matter of power.” Give everyone a seat at the table. A real seat.
The next three come from an email sent by Beth Gibbons in reply to the question of learnings. If this resilience surge falls on anyone, it is on adaptation professionals everywhere, from city planners to bankers, social workers, contractors and educators, and Gibbons is the Executive Director of the largest association that supports and empowers that community in the USA: the American Society of Adaptation Professionals. (The Resilience Journal is a content and publishing partner of ASAP.)
“The gaps in Puerto Rico’s Recovery Plan are symptoms of a much larger problem that covers the U.S. and beyond,” she said.
- Starting with risk awareness. “Preparedness begins with scenarios delivered by the IPCC. [But] these scenarios are not reflecting the potential risks, essentially diluting risk perception and leading to an under-investment in the social and physical changes needed in our communities.” So, go beyond the IPCC. Be truly realistic.
- “Just as scientists hate being accused of over-exaggeration, engineers hate being asked to know the future. But engineering standards rely on static, observed data. We need standards that apply forward-looking climate data. We don’t need engineers to be wizards, but we do need them to get wise to the climate of the future.” The Puerto Rico lesson: make sure this happens such that the right investments are made on time.
- Given high public debt (Puerto Rico being the worst offender in the USA), “it is very scary for a planner, specialist or [other] adaptation professional to walk into a mayor’s office and say we need to be paying attention to the high end of the climate projection, when we’re not even paying for what we’ve already experienced.” Gibbons calls this a crisis of the public good.
That final point merits elaboration. “The fear of being laughed out of the room,” Gibbons continued, “is what keeps the actual risks from being expressed. The climate community has been so cowed that we want to only offer the absolutely most certain, most palatable futures. But the fact is, the future is and will remain uncertain. We are unprepared and need to massively invest in educating engineers, decision makers, and the public at large about the scale of the risk we face and the cost they will bear if we don’t act now. Otherwise, I fear that our fear of failure will only lead us to fail.”
Case in point: Puerto Rico. “This is no longer postponable,” concludes Mercado. “This has to happen today, and this funding may have been our last chance.”
Photos by yours truly during a recent stroll through San Juan.