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GOES-16 satellite image released by NOAA taken on September 8, 2017 shows Hurricane Irma passing the eastern end of Cuba at about on September 8, 2017.
This GOES-16 satellite image shows Hurricane Irma passing the eastern end of Cuba 08/09/2017. Photo by NOAA/UPI. Credit: Newscom/Alamy Live News.
12 September 2017 17:40

Media reaction: Hurricane Irma and climate change

Multiple Authors

Media analysisMedia reaction: Hurricane Irma and climate change

Two weeks after Hurricane Harvey brought “unprecedented” flooding to Houston, Hurricane Irma has ploughed through the Caribbean and into the southeast US.

Irma spent three consecutive days as a category 5 storm – a new record in the satellite era – and its maximum wind speeds of 185mph put it joint-second for the strongest hurricane winds in recorded history.

Irma reignited the media discussion sparked by Harvey about the role of climate change in such intense storms. Carbon Brief looks back at how the media covered the destruction that Irma caused, where climate change fits in, and the political fallout on both sides of the Atlantic.

What has happened?

Hurricane Irma began almost two weeks ago as a low-pressure tropical storm in the eastern Atlantic, intensifying into a category 3 hurricane on Thursday, 31 August.

Forecasters quickly warned that Irma could be “extremely dangerous”, as it crossed the tropical mid-Atlantic over the next few days with its strength fluctuating. By Tuesday, 5 September, Irma was labelled as a category 5 storm, with maximum winds of 175mph and stronger gusts.

The following day it tore through several Caribbean islands on its route towards the US mainland, initially striking the dual-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda. Irma then passed through St Martin, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands, before reaching Puerto Rico late on Wednesday, where it caused waves of up to 30ft (9m) off the capital San Juan.

The BBC charted Irma’s “path of destruction”, while USA Today has a timeline of Irma’s progress through the Caribbean towards the US mainland.

As the hurricane continued on its approach to the US mainland, Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, urged residents last Thursday along both coasts to heed evacuation orders, reported the New York Post.

By Friday, Irma had passed over Puerto Rico, knocking out its fragile power grid, and torn through Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where around 20,000 people were evacuated before it struck. It then hit the Turks and Caicos islands with sustained winds of 175mph, killing at least 14 people.

Late in the day it made landfall in Cuba, where around a million people, including tens of thousands of tourists, were evacuated ahead of the storm. Irma was the first category 5 hurricane to hit the country for almost a century, with sustained winds of 160mph. Huge waves and storm surge from the hurricane pounded Havana’s landmark Malecon sea-wall, and caused widespread flooding in the capital.

Irma was downgraded to a category 4 storm on Saturday. By this time, 5.6 million Floridians had been told to evacuate.

As Florida began to see the first signs of Irma’s winds and rain, Rick Scott again urged residents in evacuation zones to leave their homes immediately, saying: “Once the storm starts, law enforcement cannot save you.”

The now 400-mile-wide Irma hit the US on Sunday morning, with its centre making landfall at Cudjoe Key in the lower Florida Keys, a string of tropical islands stretching off the southern tip of Florida. It was the first category 4 landfall in Florida since 2004.

In one of the largest evacuations in US history, nearly 7 million people across southeastern states were warned to seek shelter elsewhere, including 6.4 million in Florida alone, Axios reported.

Irma then travelled northwards, hitting Miami as a category 4 storm with 130mph winds. It caused flooding along long stretches of coast, with parts of Miami underwater.

In a press conference the next day, Miami’s Republican mayor, Tomas Regalado, said that 72% of the city has lost power. At least four deaths were linked to the storm, while several areas brought in curfews to keep people away from the streets as the cleanup began.

Marco Island, a US barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, was also hit with 120mph winds on Sunday, hitting telecommunication towers and uprooting trees. However, a predicted 10-15ft (3-4.6m) storm surge did not materialise, instead reaching 3-4ft (0.9-1.2m).

On Monday morning, Irma weakened to a tropical storm, ending 12 days of hurricane strength.

Across coastal Florida, the storm surge from Irma was not as bad as forecast. People in the heavily populated Tampa-St. Petersburg area were relieved as Irma’s intensity faded as it approached. Democrat and Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn said the situation was not as bad as it could have been, but warned residents that dangerous storm surge continued.

Similarly, the Southeast cities of Fort Myers and Naples both saw less flooding than early warnings had suggested. This was the product of “meteorological luck”, the New York Times explained, as Irma unexpectedly veered inland just before arriving in Naples.

Leaving Florida, the storm then passed into Georgia, and brought bringing storm surges and flooding along the coast and into South Carolina.

Climate change and other factors

With Hurricane Irma following so soon after the devastating impacts of Hurricane Harvey, much of the media has continued to seek input from scientists on the potential role of climate change.

You can read Carbon Brief’s roundup of the reaction after Harvey for more details on the science of climate change and Atlantic hurricanes. But, as three climate specialists – including Prof Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University – summarise in the Washington Post: “the strongest hurricanes have gotten stronger because of global warming”. This is, ultimately, a result of global greenhouse gas emissions, they note:

“Hurricanes get their energy from warm ocean waters, and the oceans are warming because of the human-caused buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.”

In addition, Sky News has its own explainer on whether “Irma is a sign of things to come?”, while the Daily Telegraph asks a number of scientists what role climate change plays in the recent run of destructive hurricanes.

BBC2’s Newsnight began its programme last Thursday night with a feature about climate change and hurricanes. It carried interviews with two UK-based climate scientists, Dr Friederike Otto and Prof Joanna Haigh. Puerto Rican newspaper Primera Hora also has a piece on “global warming and extreme weather”.

The hurricanes of recent weeks led to the Washington Post carrying a lengthy explainer by Chris Mooney on the “sudden end” to the US’s “strange hurricane drought” that has seen no “major” (category 3 or higher) hurricanes making landfall on the US since 2005.

The number of storms in a hurricane season ebbs and flows from one year to the next, Mooney says. The formation of hurricanes is shaped by many factors, explains Dr Jim Kossin, a hurricane scientist with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Wisconsin, including large-scale ocean currents, air pollution – which tends to cool the ocean down – and climate change, which does the opposite.

“Pollution over the Atlantic increased for a few decades and then decreased after the Clean Air Acts and Amendments in the 1970s,” Kossin tells Mooney. “Finally, added to all of this up-and-down behaviour is the slow trend in ocean temperatures from increasing greenhouse gases.”

Chris Canipe at Axios published an interactive chart showing that last 30 years of Atlantic hurricanes and how they rate in terms of intensity and duration. “The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season is shaping up to be the busiest in a decade,” Canipe concludes.

And another piece by Chris Mooney in the Post looks at “four underappreciated ways that climate change could make hurricanes even worse”. These include making hurricane seasons longer and an increase in the number of storms that intensify rapidly just before landfall.

As with Hurricane Harvey’s impact on Houston, the media has also picked up on the specific vulnerabilities of Florida to Irma. In Bloomberg, Eric Roston examines Miami’s struggles to defend itself from rising seas levels and erosion caused by huge storms.

In the New York Times, Brad Plumer explains how rapid development has put a lot more valuable property in harm’s way:

“Central and South Florida have grown at a breathtaking pace since 1990, adding more than six million people. Glittering high-rises and condominiums keep sprouting up along Miami Beach and other coastal areas.”

And Prof Ed Hawkins from the University of Reading tweeted a spiral animation of how sea levels around Florida have risen over the past century:

Much of Florida actually escaped the very worst impacts of Irma, says another piece in the New York Times. Sheer luck meant that the storm surge and flooding were not as bad as forecast, the article explains:

“That bit of good fortune was the product of some meteorological luck. Because a hurricane’s winds blow counterclockwise, the precise path of the storm matters greatly for determining storm surge. Had Irma lingered far enough off Florida’s Gulf Coast, its eastern wall, where the strongest winds occur, could have shoved six to nine feet [1.8-2.7m] of water into parts of Fort Myers and Naples, while swamping Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg as well.”

Nevertheless, the combined damages of Harvey and Irma may “cost taxpayers more than they spent on relief and recovery in any previous year”, says InsideClimateNews. (According to the New York Times, the costs of Harvey alone are second only to Hurricane Katrina in terms of natural disasters hitting the US since 1980.)

Editorials and commentary

As with the aftermath of Harvey, newspaper editorials and commentators have been quick to voice their opinions on the storm, climate change, and the damage caused.

The destruction brought by Hurricane Irma shows that the UK government cannot afford to take a backseat in international efforts to battle climate change any longer, argues an editorial in the Independent:

“To accept that if we are to reduce the number and suffering of future victims, we must recognise the signs of global warming for what they really are in the here and now.”

Eric Holthaus, the meteorologist and writer, says succinctly in Grist:

“Harvey and Irma aren’t natural disasters. They’re climate change disasters.”

In a similar vein, the Irish edition of the Times says “there is little doubt that the increased occurrence of extreme weather, be they heatwaves or storms, can be attributed to global warming”. We need to “accept this evidence and act accordingly”, its editorial urges:

“It is also long past time that we started following through on our commitments to reduce CO2 emissions…Ireland’s record of reducing emissions is among the worst in Europe.”

A Guardian editorial argues that recent extreme weather events show the pressing need for fossil fuel companies to be held accountable for their role in causing climate change in the courts:

“Climate litigation is the inevitable result of a failure of two decades of talks. But it is also an important way of reframing the climate crisis as a human rights emergency.”

In a commentary for CNBC, former US deputy undersecretary of defense Sherri Goodman writes that hurricanes Irma and Harvey reveal “massive national security risks” for the US:

“As a nation we have not even begun to adequately prepare for storms like Hurricane Harvey and Irma, and that leaves our citizens vulnerable.”

A number of commentators take aim at President Trump for pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. In the Observer, Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, says the “president’s dismissal of scientific research is doing nothing to protect the livelihoods of ordinary Americans”:

“The president’s luxurious Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida may escape Irma’s wrath, but with the deaths of so many Americans, and billions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses, the costs of climate change denial are beginning to pile up at the door of the White House.”

Writing in the Miami Herald, commentator Andres Oppenheimer describes Trump’s decision to withdraw from Paris as “reckless”:

“As a Miami Beach resident who is writing this surrounded by sandbags in preparation for Hurricane Irma, only a week after Hurricane Harvey ravaged Texas, I have an urgent question for President Donald Trump and his fellow climate change deniers: how many natural disasters will it take for you to listen to the world’s most prestigious scientists?”

In a piece for CNN, USA Today columnist David A. Andelman writes that Trump “should rethink his approach to climate change” and go to the gathering being organised by French President Emmanuel Macron in December to mark the two-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement:

“There could be no greater tribute to those who lost their lives, homes or property in Harvey and Irma, than for Trump to join Macron in this crusade and accept the fact that climate change is a dangerous and real phenomenon.”

Writing in the Huffington Post, Democrat and Governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, says “we can no longer look at climate change as a second-tier issue”:

“It means that when we run for office, defeating climate change should be an absolute top priority. It means that we will call out the climate denial of our rivals, not as some peripheral and modest comment but a fundamental flaw that should disqualify candidates from public office.”

Carl Hiassen, the Miami Herald columnist, points out that Trump is aiming to cut the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), whose National Weather Service provides the closely-watched updates of hurricane paths:

“Without its planes, satellites, and experts, we’d still be following killer storms with pencils and paper hurricane maps. Instead, we can turn on the TV or go online to watch Irma’s approach hour by hour, complete with graphics showing expected storm surges, rainfall potential, and wind speed probabilities. The science is literally phenomenal.”

Trump’s proposed budget would cut NOAA’s funding by 17%, Hiassen says, where “the satellite data division alone would lose $513m”:

“Satellite data is what makes it possible for us to watch Irma right now. There’s no doubt Trump himself is watching.”

On the topic of science, Joe Romm in ThinkProgress points out that a successful rebuilding effort depends on knowing “what types of sea level rise, storm surges, stalled weather patterns, and deluges we face”. He adds:

“In reality, now is the time we need to hear from climate scientists the most, since now is the time we are going to have to spend tens of billions of dollars rebuilding low-lying areas devastated by superhurricanes Harvey and Irma.”

Meanwhile, in the New Statesman, environmental writer India Bourke writes that people should be wary of calling Hurricane Irma a “perfect storm”. Using the phrase “risks normalising the storm as part of a historically continuous narrative of extreme weather events”, she says:

“Perfect storms are tragedies, certainly, but ones with clear beginnings, middles and ends, and which are followed by periods of recovery and re-growth and where the good guys will eventually save the day.”

And in the Guardian, US veteran environmental campaigner and writer Bill McKibben argues that the recent hurricanes – as well as flash fires and droughts in North America – should be motivation to “dramatically reorient ourselves”:

“Global warming is the first crisis that comes with a limit – solve it soon or don’t solve it. Winning slowly is just a different way of losing.”

Not everyone agrees, however. The Wall Street Journal gives space on its opinion pages to Bjorn Lomborg, the prominent climate sceptic, who repeats his familiar argument:

“To respond properly we need to stick to the facts and maintain a sense of perspective, avoiding tenuous connections and ineffective solutions that ultimately divert resources away from fixing the real problems.”

Elsewhere, Matt Ridley, the hereditary Conservative peer and adviser to the climate sceptic lobby group, Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), argues in his weekly Times column that “whether or not tropical storms are becoming fiercer, our growing wealth and ingenuity helps us to survive them”. Residents of countries with sufficient prosperity and technology to warn, defend and protect from storms are far less likely to die, he says:

“Indeed, the death rate from droughts, floods and storms globally is about 98% lower than it was a century ago. Wealth is the best defence against storms.”

(A similar argument was proffered by other rightwing commentators, such as Robert Darwall and Fraser Nelson in the Spectator and op-ed contributor Bret Stephens in the New York Times in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.)

Damage done

Overall, 38 deaths have so far been confirmed in the Caribbean. The hurricane also caused widespread destruction to houses and other buildings, with thousands left homeless across the region.

Antigua passed relatively unscathed from the hurricane, with most Barbuda’s residents – around 1,600 – evacuated to Antigua. However 95% of Barbuda’s buildings were reportedly damaged. Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, told the BBC on Monday that around 50% of the Barbuda population – of a few thousand – was now homeless, with the island “literally under water” and “barely habitable”.

On the Dutch side of St Martin, an estimated 70% of all homes were badly damaged or destroyed, with many of the 40,000 residents reliant on public shelters. France’s main electricity provider, EDF, said on Thursday it had flown 140 tonnes of generators, pumps and other equipment to help St Martin and St Barts. Overall, seven were killed in French St Martin and four in Dutch St Martin.

Anguilla, a British overseas territory, also saw extensive damage, and one person was killed, while five lost their lives on the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Richard Branson, the British billionaire entrepreneur, emerged from the concrete wine cellar of his home on Necker island in the BVI on Friday where he had sheltered as Irma passed overhead, saying on Twitter that Necker and the whole area was “completely devastated”.

In a blog post published on Sunday, Branson called for a “disaster recovery Marshall plan” for the Caribbean. “This will have to include building resilience against what is likely to be a higher intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, as the effects of climate change continue to grow,” he wrote.

K4YM7F Philipsburg, St Maarten. 06th Sep, 2017. Storm serge and waves lash a resort on the Dutch Island of St. Maarten following a direct hit by Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm lashing the Caribbean September 6, 2017 in Philipsburg, St. Maarten. Imra is packing winds of 185-mph making it the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. (Gerben Van Es/Netherlands Defence Ministry via Planetpix)

Storm surge and waves lash a resort in Philipsburg on the Dutch Island of St Maarten following a direct hit by Hurricane Irma, 06/09/2017. Credit: Gerben Van Es/Netherlands Defence Ministry via Planetpix.

The worst of the storm passed by Puerto Rico, although at least three were killed. Ricardo Rosselló, the island’s governor, said more than a million people were left without power, with the capital San Juan, seeing waves of up to 30ft (9m).

Several islands saw significant deaths, with fatalities numbering at least 10 in Cuba and 14 in the Turks and Caicos islands. Irma has also caused at least $10bn in damage, according to the Germany-based Center for Disaster Management and Risk Reduction Technology. This makes it the Caribbean’s most expensive storm ever, James Daniell, a senior risk analyst at the center, told Bloomberg.

To date, 11 fatalities have been confirmed in the US, with six in Florida, three in Georgia and one in South Carolina. An estimated 10,000 people who rode out the storm in the Florida Keys, where the storm hit, may require evacuation, the Defense Department said on Tuesday.

Catastrophe modelling firm AIR Worldwide has estimated that the storm caused $20bn to $40bn of damage to insured property as it tore through Florida. Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler for Enki Research, initially predicted total damages as high as $150bn to $200bn, but later downgraded this to $50bn, the New York Times reported. This would still make Irma one of the five costliest hurricanes on record in the country, however.

Another early estimate by Accuweather put the economic cost of Hurricane Harvey and Irma together at $290bn. This is the first time in the history of record keeping that two category 4 or higher hurricanes have struck the US mainland in the same year, the website notes.

Political reaction

As the intensity of the storm diminished over Monday and Tuesday, officials were left to assess the damage of an event which has affected an estimated 1.2 million people.

Evacuations had been made ahead of the storm in several locations, including around a million in Cuba, 20,000 from the Dominican Republic

10,000 people who rode out the storm in Florida Keys may still require evacuation, CNN reported on Monday.

President Donald Trump, who described the hurricane as a “big monster”, approved a major disaster declaration and emergency federal aid for Florida, according to the BBC.

Emmanuel Macron arrived on Tuesday to St Martin CNN reported, where he defended criticism that France was well enough prepared for the hurricane.

More than 1,000 tonnes of water and 85 tonnes of food have been shipped to the French Caribbean territories of St Martin and St Barts, and additional deliveries are expected, according to government officials in the nearby island of Guadeloupe, Bloomberg reports.

On Sunday, British defence secretary Michael Fallon also defended the UK’s response to the impact of the hurricane on UK overseas territories.

“We weren’t late,” he said on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, arguing that his government’s response “has been as good as anybody else‘s.”

Residents on Tortola and Anguilla, both British overseas territories, had complained help been slow to arrive, with some residents criticising the government’s response as “pathetic and slow”, the BBC reports.

After insisting Britain is doing all it can to help Britons stranded by the hurricane, Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary, bowed to political pressure on Tuesday  to fly to the Caribbean, the Guardian reports.

More than 700 British troops and 50 police officers have been sent to the British Virgin Islands, while government has also released £32m in aid.

However the damage done by Hurricane Irma has also sparked criticisms over the failure of some politicians to acknowledge the links between climate change and extreme weather events. The New York Times notes.

“That will put island nations on a collision course with the United States and other rich countries during United Nations climate talks in Bonn, Germany, in November.”

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), among others, has called such claims an attempt to “politicise” natural disasters.

The MailOnline has been among a number of publications reporting that the Trump administration officials has refused to be drawn on such links. “Causality is something outside my ability to analyse right now,” said homeland security advisor Tom Bossert.

Miami mayor Tomás Regalado criticised Trump and his administration for refusing to acknowledge the connection between climate change and more intense and destructive storms.

“This is the time to talk about climate change,” Regalado told the Miami Herald on Friday:

“This is the time that the president and the EPA and whoever makes decisions needs to talk about climate change. If this isn’t climate change, I don’t know what is. This is a truly, truly poster child for what is to come.”

Regalado was also interviewed on BBC2’s Newsnight on Monday night, along with the veteran climate sceptic and former Trump transition team member Myron Ebell.  When asked if President Trump might be receptive to public pressure on climate change, Ebell replied: “I hope not, but I can’t tell you which way he may fall in terms of the public debate.”

Meanwhile, with several small island states devastated by Hurricane Irma, representatives of some of those countries spoke out over their demands to cope with the damage caused by climate change.

”If ever there was a case for loss and damage, this is it,” Ronny Jumeau, the UN ambassador from the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, told Reuters, referring to Irma and other recent storms.

Gaston Browne, prime minister of Barbuda and Antigua, blamed the impact of the storm on global warming and criticised world leaders who deny climate change, the Guardian reports. Barbuda is now “barely habitable” he said.

In the UK, when Green Party leader Caroline Lucas asked Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan whether government  would have to wait for a hurricane to hit it before implementing policies needed to tackle climate breakdown, he replied by telling her to “show a bit more urgent and immediate humanity”, the New Statesman reports.

On Monday, Pope Francis also weighed in on the political reaction to the recent storms as he flew near Caribbean islands devastated by Hurricane Irma, saying the effects of climate change could be seen “with your own eyes”, the BBC reports. He said:

“If we don’t go back we will go down. That is true. You can see the effects of climate change with your own eyes and scientists tell us clearly the way forward.”

Jose and Katia

As a dissipating Irma continues its path into the southern US, two more named storms have already made their presence felt.

Hurricane Katia hit Mexico as a category 1 storm early on Saturday morning, leaving at least two people dead in a mudslide caused by heavy rains. The hurricane quickly lost strength after hitting land and was downgraded to a tropical storm, reports the LA Times.

And Hurricane Jose – which was as strong as a category 4 storm, but has weakened to category 1 – is currently lingering in the Atlantic, around 450 miles north of the Turks and Caicos islands. It is expected to “make a small clockwise loop over the open waters of the Atlantic for the next three days”, reports USA Today. Jose will likely be downgraded to a tropical storm today, but could strengthen to a hurricane again later in the week.

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