Armando Pérez and his 81-year-old mother survived Hurricane Maria when it hit Puerto Rico in 2017. Five years later, they witnessed Hurricane Fiona, a storm that was categorically less intense but nonetheless disrupted their lives.
Pérez’s mother, Carmen, has advanced Parkinson’s disease and dementia and has been bedridden since June. The two live together in the town of Dorado, and Pérez bathes and feeds her mother and changes her diapers.
But since Fiona arrived on the island five days ago, they have had no electricity or running water. And triple-digit temperatures are baking the concrete walls of her house, turning Carmen’s room into “an oven” in the afternoon.
“Even though the storm wasn’t that bad, when the power goes out, there’s no water, it just gets really rough,” Perez told CBS News on Friday.
It’s a feeling eerily similar to what life was like after Maria, Perez said.
“It’s hell right now. Maria was the closest thing to experiencing the end of the world,” he said. “It looked like a nuclear bomb passed by… I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”
Climate change and Puerto Rico’s struggle to keep up with recovery efforts have experts and residents concerned about future storms.
Hurricanes are becoming more frequent
Whenslammed into Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm in 2017, knocking out power to the entire island, killing about 3,000 people and being named one of the in US history. And almost exactly five years later, Fiona left the island in ruins once again.
Experts say that hurricanes and storms are becoming more intense and frequent due to global warming.
David Keellings, a geography professor at the University of Florida, studied the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. He found that the hurricane was “if not the most extreme, certainly very extreme” in terms of rainfall, which he said was “significantly higher than anything that has happened since 1956.”
When his research was published in 2019, he found that a Maria-like storm was “five times more likely” due to climate change. In 2022, that chance could be even higher, Keellings said.
The planet’s temperature has risen 0.14 degrees Fahrenheit every decade since 1880, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Keellings explained that as temperatures rise, so does the atmosphere’s ability to retain moisture. That moisture is essentially a fuel tank, ready to be used by storms as they develop.
“Puerto Rico gets hit by a lot of storms, but it seems if you look at the data, things like Maria, things like Fiona, are more and more likely to happen,” Keellings said. “…You’re going to get more and more of these kinds of storms.”
Carlos Ramos-Scharrón, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and originally from Puerto Rico, said big storms can be expected “every decade.” His research also found a higher chance of storms with Maria’s record rainfall.
“You’re going to have more really high extreme cyclones, like cat 4, 5 more, and then they have the potential to become more extreme than they have in the past,” he told CBS News. “You’re going to be exposed to the most extreme events.”
Even weak storms can have devastating effects
Both researchers cautioned that hurricanes don’t have to be more than a Category 1 storm to cause damage. Why? Because, as Keellings explained, it takes “years” to get back to normal after a big storm.
Maria and Fiona are the perfect example. Puerto Rico had a slow recovery in the five years between the two storms, hampered by a recession, the removal of its governor and the coronavirus pandemic.
After Maria, the island spent $20 billion to modernize its power grid and has worked to improve its infrastructure, rebuild homes and try to stabilize itself. But it was still a work in progress when she hit Fiona. The power grid failed again this week, and the island’s agricultural industry and infrastructure, although somewhat improved since Maria, have now regressed once again.
For example, the island’s flood maps, which are used for urban and strategic planning, are still based on data from before the 1990s, Ramos-Scharrón said.
In Utuado this week, a metal bridge that was installed a year after Maria was washed away by floods. The bridge was intended to be temporary until a more permanent structure could be built in 2024, David Begnaud of CBS News reported.
Ramos-Scharrón told CBS News that the bridge, like much of the rest of the island’s infrastructure, was something of a patch for a larger problem.
“Provisional things tend to stay forever in Puerto Rico,” Ramos-Scharrón told CBS News, adding that short-term solutions need better standards and be replaced sooner.
Also when Fiona hit, more thanon the island they were still covered with blue tarps from Maria.
“It’s not just climate related, per se, it’s all the other things that create disturbances in the system that never balance out,” Ramos-Scharrón said.
These problems affect everyone on the island, but the elderly, like Pérez’s mother, are the ones who feel them the most.
Perez still doesn’t know when the power will be restored and only has enough bottled water for a few more days.
If Puerto Rico is hit by another hurricane, regardless of its size, he’s not sure how he and his mother will fare.
“We’re going to be hit by a massive storm. And if we can’t handle a Fiona as a Category 1, how are we going to handle a 5?” he said. “This is not catastrophic. This is sad and messy. What’s going to happen is super catastrophic because they don’t learn their lessons.”
He says he is now “just surviving day to day” and hopes there will be time to recover before the next big storm hits.