Puerto Ricans Face Uneasy Future After Hurricane Maria
By Wendy Becktold
As Hurricane Maria approached Puerto Rico on Tuesday, Sept. 19, Adriana Gonzalez prepared as well as she could. She readied her campstove, a supply of canned food and two seven-gallon jugs of water. By late afternoon, she and two friends hunkered down in her apartment in San Juan.
They had a restless night. At 11 p.m. the power went out. At around 1 a.m., they woke up to a roaring wind, followed by the sound of trees breaking. "They make a really specific sound, like thunder," Gonzalez told Sierra by phone on Monday. A large branch fell from the mahogany tree in front of her house.
By 6 a.m., it was raining hard. "It looked as if someone was dumping buckets of water from the sky," Gonzalez said. Despite the aluminum-shuttered windows and the precautions she had taken to keep them tight, water started pouring into the apartment. "It was like someone was hosing down my windows from the outside," she said. They used all the towels and sheets they could find to sop up the water.
Later on Wednesday, the storm had tapered down enough for Gonzalez to step outside. She emerged to see a world upended—debris-filled, flooded streets and damaged buildings. Overall, she counts herself lucky to have made it relatively unscathed through the worst hurricane to make landfall in Puerto Rico since 1932.
Now, like many other residents in the capital, Gonzalez is waiting to see what happens next. "Today we have better cellphone service," she said. "Tomorrow we might get water back." Much remains uncertain. With a curfew in place from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., the overall mood of the city is tense.
Most of the island's 3.5 million residents are without electricity and could be for months, though Puerto Rico's aging electrical system is so unreliable that many people, especially business owners, have their own generators—a perverse kind of bright side to the current predicament. On the radio, stores and restaurants in the capital are announcing that they are open for business.
But all of those generators run on gasoline, which is scarce. "Gas is on everyone's minds," Gonzalez said. "Yesterday, I saw one gas station that had a hundred cars. People were there with their chairs, playing dominoes."
According to government officials, there is no actual gas shortage. The problem has been transporting the fuel to stations. But the long lines feed people's anxieties: "You see all these people waiting for gas," Gonzalez said, "and you think that there is a crisis and you need to go get some."
The lack of communication with the rest of the island is also producing widespread anxiety. Cellphone service is still extremely limited. "People are starting to get desperate to hear from their family members," Gonzalez said. The news reports are grim: Entire towns along the coast destroyed; towns on the interior suffering major landslides; people running out of food and water as they wait for aid that has yet to arrive. "We know that there are supplies, but people are not seeing them because distribution is very slow," Gonzalez said.
After the storm subsided, the rain continued for two more days, dumping up to 40 inches on some parts of Puerto Rico. Some of the worst flooding was in Toa Baja, where officials opened the gates of a nearby dam while the city was also experiencing a storm surge. At least eight people died.
As an environmental justice organizer with the Sierra Club, Gonzalez is worried about other problems as well. "What happened in Toa Baja is terrible, but the town also has a huge oil refinery. There has been no conversation about that plant—did it flood? There is a total lack of information about possible contamination."
Another concern is a mountain of coal ash at a landfill in Guayama. The secretary of the Environmental Quality Board released an official statement saying that the site had not flooded and that the coal ash had not blown away in the heavy winds, but Gonzalez is skeptical. She's been texting contacts in both Toa Baja and Guayama but has yet to hear back from anyone.
Questions about the long-term recovery effort loom. FEMA normally requires localities to pay 25 percent of the emergency funding it provides, but Puerto Rico was in an economic crisis before the hurricane season started and will not be able to afford it.
Agriculture on the island was devastated, which means Puerto Rico will become even more dependent on imports. Gonzalez is already thinking about ways that she and the local chapter of the Sierra Club can help farmers recover.
She's also thinking about how to rebuild communities so that they are more resilient in future hurricanes. "We're not just looking at rebuilding but also at transforming what we had," she said, "because it's the only way that we're going to be able to move forward."
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Between 2000 and 2013, Earth lost an area of undisturbed ecosystems roughly the size of Mexico.
- Planting Projects, Backyard Habitats Can Re-Create Livable Natural ... ›
- Humans Are Destroying Wildlife at an Unprecedented Rate, New ... ›
- UN Biodiversity Chief: Humans Risk Living in an 'Empty World' With ... ›
- Scientists Warn Worse Pandemics Are on the Way if We Don't ... ›
- Coronavirus Pandemic Linked to Destruction of Wildlife and World's ... ›
By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
- The Vicious Climate-Wildfire Cycle - EcoWatch ›
- How Climate Change Ignites Wildfires From California to South Africa ›
- 31 Dead, 250,000 Evacuated in California Fires as Governor ... ›
World's Richest One Percent Are Producing More Than Double the Carbon Emissions as the Bottom 50 Percent
A new report from Oxfam found that the wealthiest one percent of the world produced a carbon footprint that was more than double that of the bottom 50 percent of the world, The Guardian reported. The study examined 25 years of carbon dioxide emissions and wealth inequality from 1990 to 2015.
If you are taking medication for an underactive thyroid, check your prescription.