The US was caught in the crosshairs of both the Atlantic hurricane and Pacific typhoon seasons over the weekend, which saw storms deal heavy blows to communities across both Puerto Rico and Alaska.
More than 1.3 million customers are still without power in Puerto Rico today after Hurricane Fiona tore through the island on Sunday. Fiona’s heavy rains are forecast to bring more “life-threatening and catastrophic flooding,” mudslides, and landslides to Puerto Rico today before the storm moves on to batter other parts of the Caribbean.
Much of Alaska’s western coastline, meanwhile, is reeling from the damage wrought by an unusual Northern Pacific storm that barreled through the state on Saturday. The storm, remnants of Typhoon Merbok, swept entire homes off their foundations. The National Weather Service described it as the “strongest storm in over a decade” to move over the Bering Sea.
September marks the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, which officially lasts from June through November, so the Caribbean, Gulf Coast, and Eastern US are right in the thick of it. Typhoon season in the western North Pacific usually lasts from May to November. The US doesn’t usually have to worry so much about storms churning so far away in the Pacific, but this time, it did.
Of course, it’s not just the US enduring these brutal storm seasons. Millions of people were forced to evacuate Sunday as Typhoon Nanmadol pounded western Japan. The storm weakened Monday but still hit the nation with damaging winds and heavy rainfall.
With climate change, storms worldwide are becoming more unpredictable. At the same time, that lack of predictability is getting all too familiar. It’s too soon still for studies that can pinpoint exactly what role climate change played in either of the two storms that hit opposite areas of the US. But climate scientists already know that warmer ocean waters are fueling more dangerous storms when it comes to their strength and their ability to catch communities off guard.
Typhoon Merbok took shape in an area of the Pacific that’s typically too cold to churn up a typhoon, according to Alaska climate specialist Rick Thoman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The storm happened to travel through waters warmer than they have been for about the past century, Thoman writes in The Conversation.
“There’s a strong likelihood that Merbok was able to form where it did because of the warming ocean,” Thoman wrote in The Conversation. “Had the ocean been a temperature more typical of 1960, there wouldn’t have been as much moisture in the storm.”
When it comes to lessons learned from this storm for Alaska, Thoman writes, “As bad as this storm was, and it was very bad, others will be coming.” The storm targeted more isolated communities in rural parts of the state, Thoman notes, that officials need to get better at reaching.
Whether or not the lights come back on in Puerto Rico in the coming hours and days will show what kinds of lessons officials have learned since Hurricane Maria plunged the island into darkness in 2017. This week’s blackouts are a painful reminder of the catastrophe that unfolded there after the hurricane made landfall almost 5 years ago to the day on September 20th. Power outages lingered for 11 awful months, making it the longest blackout in US history. At the time, local leaders and emergency response experts criticized federal agencies for a bungled response to a crisis that took place in a US territory, compared to responses to similar disasters on the mainland.
“What we’re seeing is tragedy unravel once again,” San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said in a Democracy Now! interview today. “We’re seeing it again in front of our eyes.”