The impact of Hurricane Maria was like “the end of the world experience” and Fiona unleashed “hell”.  We only expect to get worse.

The impact of Hurricane Maria was like “the end of the world experience” and Fiona unleashed “hell”. We only expect to get worse.

Armando Perez and his 81-year-old mother survived Hurricane Maria when it hit Puerto Rico in 2017. Five years later, they just witnessed Hurricane Fiona, a decidedly less severe storm that nevertheless disrupted their lives.

Perez’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 Perez bathes and feeds his mother and changes his diapers.

But since Fiona arrived on the island five days ago, they have been without electricity or clean water. And triple-digit temperatures bake the concrete walls of their home, turning Carmen’s room into a “furnace” in the afternoon.

“Even though the storm wasn’t as severe, when the power goes out, no water, it makes things super tough,” Perez told CBS News on Friday.

It’s an eerily similar feeling to what life was like after Maria, Perez said.

“It’s hell now. Maria was the closest thing to the end of the world,” he said. “It looked like a nuclear bomb had gone through there. … 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

When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm in 2017, knocked out power to the entire island, killed around 3,000 people and was named one of deadliest natural disasters in the history of the United States. And almost exactly five years later, Fiona left the ruined island again.

Experts say hurricanes and storms are becoming more intense and more frequent due to global warming.

David Keellings, professor of geography at the University of Florida, studied the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. He found the hurricane to be “if not the most extreme, certainly very extreme” in terms of rainfall, which he said was “significantly higher than anything since 1956”.

When his research was published in 2019, he found that a Maria-like storm was about “five times more likely” due to climate change. In 2022, that probability 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, the atmosphere’s ability to hold moisture also increases. This moisture is essentially a reservoir of fuel, ready for use by storms as they develop.

“Puerto Rico is hit with a lot of storms, but it just appears, if we look at the data, that things like Maria, things like Fiona, are becoming more and more likely to happen,” Keellings said. “…You’re going to have more and more frequencies of these kinds of storms.”

Carlos Ramos-Scharrón, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, originally from Puerto Rico, said major storms can be expected “every decade”. His research also revealed an increased likelihood of storms with Maria’s record rainfall.

“You’re going to have more very high extreme cyclones, like a cat 4, 5 plus, and then they have the potential to get more extreme than they have in the past,” he told CBS News. “You are going to be exposed to the most extreme events.”

Even weak storms can have devastating effects

The two researchers cautioned that hurricanes need not 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 major storm.

Maria and Fiona are the perfect example. Puerto Rico had a slow recovery process in the five years between the two storms, and it was hampered by a recession, the ousting of its governor and the coronavirus pandemic.

After Maria, the island spent $20 billion upgrading its power grid and worked to improve infrastructure, rebuild homes and try to stabilize. But it remained a work in progress when Fiona struck. The power grid went down again this week, and the island’s agricultural industry and infrastructure, although somewhat improved since Maria, was once again slowed down.

For example, the island’s flood maps, 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 floodwaters. The bridge was meant to be temporary until a more permanent structure could be built in 2024, CBS News’ David Begnaud reported.

Ramos-Scharrón told CBS News that the bridge, like most other infrastructure on the island, was kind of a band-aid solution to a bigger problem.

“Interim items tend to stay forever in Puerto Rico,” Ramos-Scharrón told CBS News, adding that short-term fixes require better standards and need to be replaced sooner.

Also when Fiona hit, over 3,000 households on the island were still covered with Maria’s blue tarps.

“It’s not just related to the weather per se, it’s all the other things that create disturbances in the system that never balanced out,” Ramos-Scharrón said.

These issues affect everyone on the island, but the elderly, like Perez’s mother, feel them the most.

Perez has yet to hear when the power will be restored, and he only has enough bottled water to last a few more days.

If Puerto Rico is hit by another hurricane, no matter how big, he doesn’t know how he and his mother will fare.

“We’re going to be hit by a huge storm. And if we can’t handle a Category 1 Fiona, how are we going to handle a 5?” he said. “It’s not catastrophic. It’s sad and messed up. What’s going to happen is super catastrophic because they don’t learn anything from their lessons.”

He now says he’s “just surviving day to day” – and hopes he’ll have time to recover before the next major storm hits.

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