Hurricane Season 2018 Has a Lot to Learn From Last Year

Today is the first day of the rest of your (storm-tossed, wind-swept, blacked-out, hot, humid) life. Which is to say, June 1 is the official start of the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season. According to most forecasts—at least 26 groups issue them, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Colorado State University—it’s going to be pretty average. Maybe a dozen named storms, plus or minus, with half of them turning into hurricanes, and half of those getting major.

But when it comes to hurricanes, “average” does not mean “meh.” Not anymore. Thanks to human-caused climate change, the storms that come will be more severe, and rising sea levels will make their effects worse by rising sea levels. Last year, 2017, was the worst Atlantic season on record, and the costliest. And it has lessons to teach.

Here’s how bad 2017 was: 17 named storms, 10 hurricanes, six with wind speeds greater than 110 mph. Harvey dumped 33 trillion gallons of water and nearly drowned Houston, damaging 100,000 homes and becoming either the most expensive or second-most expensive US disaster ever. Irma’s winds topped 180 miles per hour for more than 37 hours and, as one researcher wrote, rendered the island of Barbuda uninhabitable. Maria essentially deactivated civilization on Puerto Rico and nearby islands, and caused the deaths of at least 4,635 people—a national failure of readiness and aid that killed more US citizens than the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, or the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The calamity on Puerto Rico, which included the near-total destruction of the island’s power grid, exposed the vulnerabilities of the small island developing states of the Atlantic. In an interview before the release of the updated death toll, Puerto Rico’s governor Ricardo Rosselló said his territory was getting ready for next time. “We’re taking additional precautions for the energy grid. On the housing side, some houses still need to be rebuilt. We are making sure we have shelters ready and available,” Rosselló said. “On the response side, we have a vast array of distribution sites, and we’re going to have some simulations or practice rounds.”

It’s admirable, but Puerto Rico still has thousands of people without power and houses with blue tarps for roofs. Puerto Rico’s aging power grid, with old, carbon-spewing generators tenuously connected to population centers via cables running through rough, hard-to-access mountains, wasn’t reliable even before Maria. The hurricanes of 2017 exposed that vulnerability on islands throughout the Caribbean. While there’s wide agreement that solar microgrids would be a better option for Puerto Rico than rickety diesel generators, by law the Federal Emergency Management Agency rebuilds infrastructure back to existing code; it can’t replace electric power lines with neighborhood solar. “We are building back the infrastructure in a way that meets code,” says Daniel Kaniewski, FEMA’s deputy administrator for resilience. “Even if there isn’t a code on the island, we are going to build it back to an agreed-upon building code. That alone ,I assure you, will build back the infrastructure better than it was before.” Kaniewski says some of the damaged system was so old, he didn’t even think parts for it still existed.

And while prepositioning emergency materials is standard in disaster logistics, it’s tough to pull off for islands, say disaster experts. “They tried to do that before, too, but it was hard to get to the stuff,” says James Kossin, a hurricane expert at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. “The small island developing states, they’re very vulnerable and they’re going to continue to be vulnerable.”

As Kossin co-wrote in a paper earlier this year, the Caribbean islands overlap with the Atlantic hurricanes’ main development region, where warmer water and low shear are normal. It’s a chain of islands with low elevations prone to floods or steep mountains prone to landslides. They’re remote and disconnected, many with limited economic resources and aging or nonexistent infrastructure. And they’re all in the Atlantic’s hurricane nursery.

Yet you don’t have to be surrounded by water to get the worst of hurricanes. A warmer climate means an atmosphere that can hold more moisture … until it all precipitates back out, as it did over Houston. Harvey showed that water can be as much a hazard as wind in a hurricane, but buildings aren’t necessarily prepared. “What we’ve learned over the past 15, 20 years, since I’ve been involved in the reinsurance industry as a meteorologist, is that we as a nation do not build our structures to withstand most of the weather we see today, let alone what we might see in a future changing climate,” says Mark Bove, senior research meteorologist for Munich Reinsurance America.

Bove says about two-thirds of the losses due to Hurricane Harvey were because people didn’t have flood insurance. No one thinks they need it, and basically everyone now does. “We did see an uptick in the take-up rates in Texas for the National Flood Insurance Program [after Hurricane Ike in 2012], but five years later it had gone down to pre-Ike levels,” Bove says.

Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency is working to get away from the idea of 100-year floodplains and insurance tied only to mortgages in those areas. “Any home can flood,” says Kaniewski.1 “There is no bright line between these floodplains.”

That kind of widespread inland flooding isn’t a result of hurricanes alone. The real problem is where people build. Construction—laying down impermeable surfaces like concrete where there was once dirt or wetland—makes floods worse. Rising sea levels make storm surges worse and keep storm drains from being able move water off of land. Insurers and re-insurers are only now starting to include all that in their risk models. “We have events like Maria in our tools,” Bove says, “but most of these tools do not include inland flooding yet. That’s coming online this year and next, as we speak.”

According to everything hurricane researchers are learning, if 2017 was an anomaly, it was the kind of anomaly people should get used to. A warmer planet means a warmer ocean, and heat in oceans is sort of the fuel tank for a hurricane. In 2017 that warm water extended to greater depths than usual, so when a storm churned up the water, it exposed more of that fuel instead of colder stuff. And vertical wind shear was low, which means hurricanes could get stronger. All this is well within the parameters for hurricanes without the added boost of climate change, but as the MIT climatologist Kerry Emanuel predicted three decades ago, a warmer planet increases hurricanes’ “potential intensity,” a sort of speed limit.

This is the planet now. Of the seven major storm regions on Earth, five had their strongest storms on record since 2013. And any of them, or any other storm, could be worse depending on if or where it comes ashore. “Irma, we had a chance of having a $500 billion disaster, had it taken the eastern track along the Florida coastline,” says Shane Hubbard, a disaster researcher at the Space Science and Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Generally we plan for the 1-percent annual chance flood, and in Houston we had an event that was so far from that, how do we plan and prepare? Should we? Did they just flip a coin and win a $500 billion jackpot?”

It’s not impossible to learn these kind of lessons. After Hurricane Andrew’s winds devastated Florida in 1992, the state instituted stringent rules about building strength and windows. Katrina and Rita inspired similar changes. And they worked “Post 2004 and 2005, we noticed a marked improvement in structures’ performance build under the new building code,” Bove says. “With Irma, what we saw is that all the buildings built in large part post-Andrew fared really well, and this is truly a great success story.”

People did it for wind. They can do it for water, post-Harvey—building higher, and building differently, in different places. A more organized response to islands like Puerto Rico could save thousands of lives; rebuilding the infrastructure there to use more solar could, too. Some of the lessons of 2017 are matters of luck. But some are matters of money, policy, and will.

1 UPDATE 6/2/18 10:50 AM Fixed spelling of last name

More Great WIRED Stories

Read more: