Homenews

With Irma, Florida got lucky — but it had help from scientists

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As of Monday morning, five deaths related to Hurricane Irma have been reported in Florida. It could have been much worse — and not just because several Florida cities “dodged a bullet” with Irma sliding past.

In the days leading up to the storm’s landfall in the continental United States — Irma had already killed 26 people in the Caribbean and devastated the islands of Barbuda and St. Martin — the Florida Keys were evacuated, much of Miami was evacuated, and storm surge warnings were issued along the coast.

The combined efforts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including its National Hurricane Center, along with the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and countless other agencies, were able to warn people early, and often. When the storm shifted west, the public knew.

Irma’s point of landfall was within the so-called “cone” of probability for a full five days in advance of the storm. In the Florida Keys, a local state of emergency was declared Tuesday. Schools were closed starting Wednesday, and buses ran evacuations through Friday. Irma landed Saturday. One man has been reported dead on the islands due to the storm, but as the Washington Post put it: “Hurricane Irma would have killed vastly more people in the past.”

Partly, that’s because scientists have gotten much better at predicting where and when storms will hit. “There is a vast improvement in the track prediction, five and seven days out, and especially as you get closer in,” Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told ThinkProgress.

“It allows local leaders to make more precise evacuation decisions,” she said. NOAA’s forecasting ability now also includes lightning predictions and better tornado predictions, she said, potentially dangerous side-effects of major tropical storms. Rainfall predictions, too, are important — which is why the Army Corps of Engineers reassured people Friday that the “high risk” dike around Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest lake, would remain intact (it has). 

“When we have storms like this, we need the best science available,” Ekwurzel said. 

The current administration, though, has been stupefying in its efforts to deny science, defund scientific investigation, and spread misinformation. In the midst of Irma’s assault on Florida on Sunday, the White House communications director tweeted a video of a Mexican airport, claiming that it was Miami and also saying he was sharing information from social media with President Trump. Fake news, indeed.

But while social media snafus such as that might be amusing (or troubling, depending on your point of view), the Trump administration’s policies on science and fact will have longer-lasting impacts on the way the country is managed.

The EPA is in the process of culling hundreds of workers. Many of the employees are late-career agency staff who are eligible for buy-outs — and with them will go the expertise they have spent years developing. Ekwurzel suggested that the federal government is also cutting back on internships and investment in new staff.

“If you have both going on at the same time, that is very corrosive,” she said. 

Beyond staff, agencies are also facing cuts to their scientific instruments and research capabilities. NOAA, which runs the nation’s weather satellites and was responsible for much of the information that kept Floridians relatively safe, is facing a budgetary cutback of 17 percent under the White House proposal. Under that plan, NOAA would lose more than a half billion dollars for satellite programs. Because satellites take a long time to develop and test, research now is about “saving lives a decade from now,” Ekwurzel said. 

It is as though the administration is just cutting anything that had to do with climate from the budget, “which is ironic,” she said, because many things that contribute to climate research also help us track weather patterns. In Harvey’s case, warmer waters told scientists that Harvey could have a higher moisture content, meaning more rain. 

In the meantime, the president has decided that future federal projects — including infrastructure — don’t need to plan for flood risks. In August, Trump rolled back a 2015 directive known as the Federal Flood Risk Mitigation Standard, which was intended to prevent wasting taxpayer dollars on projects that wouldn’t withstand flooding.

As Irma now brings flooding to Charleston, South Carolina; Atlanta gets its first-ever tropical storm warning; and millions of Floridians are left without power, it’s important to note that the danger is not all over. Authorities in the Florida Keys expect more people have died. Climate change help fuels extreme weather, but hurricanes have always been a fact of life for the Gulf Coast and the Southeast.

Addressing climate change will not remove the need to address infrastructure, toxic waste sites, or substandard building. But cutting the nation’s scientific eyes and ears will only make things worse.

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