We Don’t Know for Sure, and the Death Toll is Still Climbing
by Anne Polansky
Sr. Climate Policy Analyst
The 2018 hurricane season is now upon us, even while millions of people residing in hurricane alley – the large swath of ocean stretching from Africa to North America – are still recovering from the hyperactive, catastrophic 2017 hurricane season. Last year we saw Hurricanes Franklin, Gert, Harvey, Irma, Jose, Katia, Lee, Maria, Nate, and Ophelia – 10 hurricanes in all – swoop through the Atlantic and Caribbean Oceans, some wreaking a path of major destruction and devastation. Six of these were considered to be major hurricanes, reaching Category 3 and above. In addition, there were seven named tropical storms. 2017 was the fifth most active hurricane season in recorded history, and featured the highest total accumulated cyclone energy (ACE), or the cumulative wind energy for all hurricanes and storms over a season. To many, this is proof-positive of the deleterious effects of climate change: a warmer atmosphere and warmer waters pump energy and water into tropical storms, creating “hurricanes on steroids,” as the preeminent climate scientist Stephen Schneider would often quip. (See CSPW related posts on hurricanes as climate change impacts: for example, here, here, and here, also listed below.)
For Puerto Rico, Hurricanes Irma and Maria packed a harsh one-two punch that brought the island nation to its knees last September, wiping out the entire electricity grid, toppling buildings, downing trees, flooding large areas, and rendering parts of Puerto Rico uninhabitable. The island is still heavily crippled: many are still without power and the entire electricity grid is prone to crashing every few weeks; many lack potable water, sufficient food, and safe shelter. Hundreds of thousands have fled and are still fleeing to the U.S. mainland and elsewhere. Well over one thousand Puerto Ricans have lost their lives as the direct result of Hurricane Maria, and the true mortality rate is still climbing. Yet, we do not have in place methods for accurately counting the death toll following such disasters. Worse, we vastly underestimate the mortality rate by counting only those who die in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. This needs to change if we are to accurately assess the number of human lives lost following extreme weather events associated with climate change.