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Irma highlights Puerto Rico’s vulnerability to climate change

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The arrival of Hurricane Irma couldn’t have come at a worse time for Puerto Rico. The island filed for bankruptcy in the spring after years of growing economic problems and a failure to recover from the 2008 recession.

As an island, Puerto Rico is already experiencing the growing dangers of climate change. But investing in long-term measures to address climate change became a low priority as Puerto Rico tried ways to reduce its debt. On the outskirts of Puerto Rico’s capital city of San Juan, for example, sections of communities have fallen into the water due to rising sea levels.

With sea levels rising and beach erosion worsening, residents in flood-prone areas have resorted to short-term measures like putting furniture on milk crates or moving belongings to the second floor. Similar to Houston’s inability to handle Hurricane Harvey’s massive rainfall, Puerto Rico does not have the infrastructure in place to prevent flooding associated with intense hurricanes similar to Irma — although there’s little the island could have done to prepare for the storm’s severe winds.

Irma, a Category 5 hurricane with sustained winds of 185 miles per hour, left a path of terrible destruction on small islands in the Caribbean. Although Puerto Rico was not directly hit, Irma brought heavy rains and winds overnight when it passed north of the island. The storm left a large portion of residents of Puerto Rico in darkness and tens of thousands without water.

On Thursday morning, Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello said officials were beginning the long task of assessing damage to the island and bringing back electricity to its hardest hit areas, NBC News reported. President Donald Trump approved an emergency declaration for Puerto Rico, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies to help with recovery efforts that will largely be paid for by the U.S. government.

It is likely to take days or weeks to assess Irma’s damage to the island. Puerto Rico and other islands in the Caribbean are “like a canary in the coal mine,” environmental engineer Ernesto Diaz told Medill News Service last year, pointing to intensifying coastal erosion and sea level rise.

“Puerto Rico is one of the most vulnerable places on Earth to the impacts of climate change. In Puerto Rico, approximately 419,000 people live within the coastal zone, and 2.3 million live within the island’s 44 coastal municipalities,” Becky Hammer, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s water program, said in a 2016 blog post. “Nearly all of Puerto Rico’s essential infrastructure is located on the coast, including the main international airport and all its thermoelectric plants.”

Prior to 2010, Puerto Rico was experiencing sea level rise at the rate of 0.04 to 0.08 inches per year. But since 2010, the nation has seen sea levels rise 0.4 inches, an increase by a factor of 10, according to scientists in Puerto Rico.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that sea levels could rise by 22 inches by 2060. The Puerto Rico Climate Change Council (PRCCC), created in late 2010, explains “it is no longer a question of whether the coasts of Puerto Rico and many port cities in the Caribbean will be inundated, but rather it is a question of when and by how much.”

In May, Puerto Rico filed for bankruptcy, listing $74 billion in debt, and another $50 billion in pension obligations on the books. The island’s population has dropped by 10 percent since 2007 due in large part to a lack of jobs. Devastation from Irma could lead to greater migration to the U.S. mainland as residents flee greater economic woes caused by the storm.

Puerto Rico has taken small steps to consider the impacts of climate change. The PRCCC, a project of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, has developed reports assessing the projected effects of climate change on the island. The government also signed a land-use plan for the island that could help prepare for the effects of climate change through conservation and regulation of development.

Natural coral reefs are not growing fast enough to keep up with rising sea levels, so the coasts are losing that natural protective barrier. Some officials are proposing creation of artificial reefs along Puerto Rico’s beaches that have been greatly eroded.

“Sea level rise is a big problem since it is putting a lot of communities in danger and the tourism industry because if we lose our beaches, then we won’t have a tourism industry,” Ruperto Chaparro, director of the Sea Grant Program for Puerto Rico, told Medill News Service.

Instead of taking up to six months to get electricity restored, as officials predicted earlier in the week, it may take only weeks to get electricity back on for many residents —  although recovery for residents in more rural areas may take longer — after Puerto Rico did not face the worst-case scenario from Irma.

Still, the major work ahead for Puerto Rico — repairing infrastructure damaged from Irma and then turning to projects that will fortify the island against the next storm — is expected to take months or even years. By the time the island has picked up from Irma and made any progress on climate change adaptation, sea levels will likely have risen another inch or two.

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