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Super Storm Waves & Disaster Return Interval

Hurricane Irma gained Category 5 status on Sept. 5. An instrument aboard the Suomi NPP satellite flew over Irma when it was classified as a Category 3 hurricane on Sept. 4, 2017, at 12:32 a.m. EDT. Credit: UWM/SSEC/CIMSS, William Straka III

Storm Waves & Disasters seem have a higher return interval these days, increasing in frequency and intensity.Hurricane Irma was the biggest storm on record to make landfall in Florida. As these super storm systems continue to be generated in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico, it is important for us to remember that mother nature has her own schedule and cycles for producing such devastating storms.

The Disaster Return Interval (DRI) for ecosystems, is an indication for the frequency at which disasters such as floods, wildfires, droughts, and storm waves will return to certain areas.

As we witnessed in Houston during Hurricane Harvey, we had never seen a storm so devastating on the Texas coast until now. Houston was built on a delta, a place where rivers meet the ocean, and with flood prevention in the form of levies, canals, and dams the city was not prepared for a storm would linger and drop as much rain as Harvey did. These human interventions into the prevention of the natural cycles of the ecosystem create greater risks on a longer time scale.

The thing about the DRI in any ecosystem is that the longer a disaster has been prevented from returning, the greater the disaster will be when it finally does return, which is why we saw such massive flooding and devastating circumstances hitting the Texas coast. The same is true for the wildfires we’ve seen out west, with the accumulation of dead and dying debris collected in the ecosystem, creating larger and hotter burns when the fire does return.

In Miami, thus far the greatest impact of the storm on the ecosystem was the amount of downed trees we saw. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a storm with winds as strong as Irma, and although we will be able to clear the debris from our streets, yards, and sidewalks, there are a lot of natural areas where those downed trees will remain and eventually turn into fuel for the next wild fire. In the coming year we will likely see larger wildfires due to this cascading side effect from wind damage during the storm.

The other greatest impact we faced from this storm was the flooding and sea level rise during the storm surge. Biscayne Blvd went from a ghost town to a river during the storm, while in Brickell we could barely differentiate between the sea wall and the height of flooding in the streets along Brickell Avenue. In assessing the damage after the storm, there were several beach boats along Key Biscayne with other debris from the sea being washed up along the beaches and streets all along the coastline. Farmers are also reporting elevated levels of the presence in salt in their nurseries and fields, creating complications for certain species of trees and crops as elevated salt levels could be terminal for plant life.

As for the devastation seen across the Caribbean, it is a stark reminder that these more impoverished areas have a long way to go before the islands are back to what they had been. For example, in Puerto Rico, the infrastructure, building codes, and power grid are all outdated, with up to 40 years since the last update to grid power and distribution systems. The natural areas on these islands suffered the same consequences as we did on the mainland, but the human development has been set back, with many saying that the Puerto Rico, and other islands, that we knew before this storm, will never be the same.

Our greatest opportunity in the Caribbean at large is creating a culture of resilience and sustainability in the face of these super storms that we see in this present moment and going into the future.

This new generation of storms we are experiencing require all islands to evaluate their infrastructure and building codes to adapt to the new era of the Anthropocene. Small beach communities have all been but wiped out, with mountain and other remote communities suffering the greatest tolls of these storms. With central power distribution models, and weak building codes essentially allowing wood walls with tins roofs have made the cleanup efforts and loss of personal property some of the greatest challenges faced during this storm. All of the islands effected by these storms must re-evaluate how resilient they were in the face of these storms and rebuild with a sense of preparedness not only for the coming storms but to elevate the quality of life for its residents.


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