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The U.S. could have avoided Puerto Rico’s water crisis

The numbers associated with the current situation in Puerto Rico, one month after Hurricane Maria struck the U.S. territory, are baffling.

More than 2.5 million residents are still without power. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is able to offer 200,000 meals to Puerto Ricans daily — but it needs to feed 2 million people. Perhaps most baffling, or at least exasperating, President Donald Trump gives himself a perfect 10 for his response to the storm’s aftermath.

One of the most pressing issues on the island is access to clean water. Officials estimate that more than 1 in 3 residents in Puerto Rico doesn’t have it. Aid agencies on the ground say the number is closer to 1 in 2. Families are drinking water contaminated with sewage and dead animals. Others are drawing from toxic Superfund sites. There have been at least 10 cases of leptospirosis from drinking contaminated water — and officials are investigating four deaths which may have been caused by waterborne bacteria.

Simply put, this is an ongoing public health crisis.

Puerto Rico was in a tough spot before Maria tore through the Caribbean island. Economic and political factors complicated disaster response: The territory was already facing a debt crisis. And limited local resources and poor roads made it difficult to get supplies to storm survivors.

But aid agencies and relief experts believe the current predicament could have been avoided. There are international standards and a clear blueprint for how to get safe water to people after a disaster. But so far, the federal response has failed in providing both immediate help and longer-term solutions — and part of the reason for that could boil down to discrimination.

“We’re a very capable nation, yet we don’t seem to have deployed our capabilities in this instance,” says John Mutter, a Columbia University professor and international disaster relief expert. “This isn’t rocket science. We know what we’re supposed to do. The fact that we’re not doing it needs explanation.”

According to the relief organization Oxfam, the minimum standards for disaster response have not been met. The aid group follows Sphere minimum standards — a set of universal benchmarks for humanitarian responses established in 1997 — which require, for instance, four gallons of water to be provided per day per person for bathing, cooking, and drinking. The water should be delivered in safe containers through water trucks, water bladders, or filters. And initial assistance is supposed to arrive within three to five days after a disaster.

In this case, there has not been enough overall coordination of relief, according to Martha Thompson, Oxfam America’s program coordinator for disaster response in Puerto Rico. Truck deliveries of bottled water are sporadic, and she says that the military has sent water trucks to several sites without providing clean containers to safeguard the water.

U.S. Northern Command, which is coordinating the military’s aid efforts in Puerto Rico, confirmed reports that people are using potentially contaminated containers — often washed out detergent bottles — to collect water. In response, it’s distributing five-gallon collapsable buckets to residents to avoid the possibility of clean water being contaminated by dirty receptacles.

“The military is focused on delivering safe and drinkable water,” says Navy Lieutenant Sean McNevin. “We are very concerned about the safety of Puerto Ricans affected by the hurricane and we’ll make those recommendations and adjustments to what we deliver based on what we know on the ground.”

According to Peter Gleick, a climate and water scientist with the Bay Area public policy nonprofit the Pacific Institute, the U.S. government could have taken steps prior to or immediately after Maria hit Puerto Rico to speed up recovery. Within days of the storm’s landfall, Gleick recommended that the United States quickly move military assets, like desalination units that pull salt out of ocean water, to the islands.

He adds that there should be more aggressive water testing to assure residents that they are using safe water sources. “The idea that there are communities forced to take water from wells on Superfund sites is completely inexcusable,” Gleick says.

On Thursday, CNN reported that Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech environmental engineer who ran tests on the contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, had concluded that samples taken from wells at the Dorado Groundwater Contamination Superfund Site, near Puerto Rico’s capital of San Juan, were safe to drink.

Still, residents searching for water on toxic sites or relying on bottled water are the sort of problems the aid community says should have been dealt with long before the one-month mark. Recovery efforts should be transitioning into more sustainable long-term solutions.

“It’s unacceptable that people are still depending on water bottle deliveries for day-to-day survival,” says Oxfam’s Thompson, adding that people continue to fear that future shipments won’t arrive.

By now, what’s needed are water filters and solar-powered generators that communities can use to run pumps to access wells. There also needs to be significant improvement to the territory’s municipal water system, which wasn’t in great shape before the storm hit.

Earlier this year, the Natural Resources Defense Council published a report that found that Puerto Rico had the highest rate of drinking water violations of any state or territory in the United States.

“There’s a question as to whether or not the population was receiving safe drinking water before the storm,” says Adrianna Quintero, NRDC’s director of partner engagement. “So we can only expect that it’s going to be worse post-storm.”

The island’s current safe water shortage is closely tied to power outages, says Peter Gleick. With more than 70 percent of the island lacking power, he says, wastewater treatment and water delivery systems have stalled out.

“This isn’t just a water problem,” Gleick says. “It’s an energy problem.”

Ultimately, Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory might be behind its slow recovery. As part of the United States, the island hasn’t seen the type of international aid that an independent developing country might receive. And yet Puerto Ricans have had to assert their U.S. citizenship to a federal government that allocates them no say in the electoral college or a Congress representative who can vote on legislation.

“There’s this idea that these are not American citizens who are going through this, which is blatantly false,” Quintero says. “I think there’s an element of discrimination there.”

According to Columbia’s Mutter, FEMA’s response to hurricanes Harvey in Houston and Irma in Florida seemed to show that it had learned its lessons from Hurricane Katrina. Critics attributed the agency’s slow response to the 2005 storm and the resulting humanitarian emergency in part to the fact that they affected a primarily black and poor population.

“Now it just seems like they’ve forgotten their lessons,” Mutter says about FEMA. “It seems callous, but it looks like maybe they don’t care as much about Puerto Rico.”

FEMA did not respond to requests for comment.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló seemed to agree with Mutter when he met with President Trump in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. “Give the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico the adequate resources,” Rosselló pleaded. “Treat us the same as citizens in Texas and Florida and elsewhere.”

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The U.S. could have avoided Puerto Rico’s water crisis

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New Mexico: OK, fine, we’ll put science back in science standards.

The mayor of the coastal town of Rockport, Texas, said on Tuesday that the community will likely suffer permanent damage from the Category 4 storm.

It’s been nearly two months since Hurricane Harvey tore through Texas, leaving behind decimated buildings, torn-up infrastructure, and thousands of displaced people. While most national media attention focused on Houston, Rockport, population 10,645, suffered some of the hurricane’s worst wind and storm surge damage.

During a panel discussion in Victoria, Texas, Mayor Charles Wax said that approximately one-third of the town was destroyed in the hurricane, and a significant portion of that will be impossible to rebuild.

Only 300 of Rockport’s 1,300 businesses have reopened since the storm, 856 of Rockport’s 2,400 students have left the school district, and the town lost most of its trees in the storm. Disaster relief crews have cleared almost 800,000 cubic yards of vegetation felled by hurricane winds and rain. 

Wax, along with three other coastal Texas mayors coping with staggering devastation from the hurricane, said he has received more help from the state government than from FEMA. The agency is definitely spread a bit thin, it seems.

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New Mexico: OK, fine, we’ll put science back in science standards.

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Photos show Portugal and Spain in flames.

In parts of the United Kingdom Monday morning, people woke up to a blood-red sun — a phenomenon seen around the globe this year.

The color was caused by smoke that blew in from wildfires across Portugal and Spain. Hurricane Ophelia deepened the reddish hue by dragging up dust from the Sahara.

Red skies have haunted the western U.S. recently as wildfires burned in Montana and ash rained down in Seattle. This month in Northern California, 20,000 people evacuated from massive wildfires under a red-orange sky.

Anadolu Agency / Contributor / Getty Images

On the other side of the world, wildfires burned in Siberia all summer long, covering the sun with enormous clouds of smoke and ash.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

To understand why this happens, you need to know a bit of optics. Sun rays contain light from the whole visible spectrum. As the sun’s white light beams into the atmosphere, it collides with molecules that diffuse some of the wavelengths. On a normal day, short wavelength colors, like purple and blue, are filtered out, making the sun look yellow.

But high concentrations of light-scattering molecules in the air (like smoke particles from a wildfire) crowd out more of those short-wavelength colors, leaving behind that hellish red color.

Since climate change makes wildfires worse, we’ll be seeing a lot more of it.

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Photos show Portugal and Spain in flames.

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Hurricane Maria has crushed Puerto Rican farmers.

The devastation wiped out 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s agricultural production, according to Puerto Rico’s agriculture secretary, Carlos Flores Ortega. The New York Times visited farmer José A. Rivera after the winds flattened his plantain, yam, and pepper fields.

“There will be no food in Puerto Rico,” Rivera, told the Times. “There is no more agriculture in Puerto Rico. And there won’t be any for a year or longer.”

Food prices will surely rise on the island, although the loss of crops will not necessarily mean people will starve. Puerto Rico imports about 85 percent of its food. Even so, the storm damaged the infrastructure used to distribute imported food, like ports, roads, and stores.

On CNN, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló pleaded for aid from Congress. “We need to prevent a humanitarian crisis occurring in America,” he said. FEMA and the Coast Guard are working in the territory.

Flores, the agriculture secretary, appeared to be looking for a silver lining. This may be a chance to rebuild the island’s agriculture so that it is more efficient and sustainable, he told the Times.

As climate change accelerates, we can expect the rate of disasters like this to accelerate as well.

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Hurricane Maria has crushed Puerto Rican farmers.

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Hurricanes keep bringing blackouts. Clean energy could keep the lights on.

When Hurricane Irma scraped its way up the Florida peninsula, it left the state’s electrical grid in pieces. Between 7 million and 10 million people lost power during the storm — as much as half of the state — and some vulnerable residents lost their lives in the sweltering days that followed. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of electrical workers from around the country rushed to the Sunshine State to repair damaged substations, utility poles, and transmission lines.

But in Palm Coast, on Florida’s eastern seaboard, midway between Daytona and St. Augustine, Jim Walden never lost power. As he and his wife listened to debris clattering off their roof, 24 solar panels and 10 kilowatt hours of battery storage kept their lights on and their refrigerator cool. Over the ensuing days, as electric utilities struggled to return power to Florida’s storm-wracked communities, the only thing Walden and his wife missed was their air conditioner (which would have drained their batteries too quickly).

“It worked flawlessly,” Walden says of his solar-plus-storage system. “We had plenty of power for the fans to keep us cool and the lights when you walk into the bathroom at night. The wife would even run her hairdryer off of it.”

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Walden’s setup — which draws power from the sun during the day and dispenses it at night, with or without the help of the grid — is an illustration of how we might reimagine our electrical system to be more modular, resilient, and renewable-powered. We’ve already been struggling with the question of how to build (or rebuild) our grids to better accommodate solar- and wind-generated energy. But this month’s run of record-making Atlantic hurricanes has made finding an answer — one that will help us better weather the storms of the coming century — even more urgent.

Questions about reliability have dogged renewable energy from the beginning. Simply put, when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, you’re not getting any energy from those sources. Our grid, by contrast, is set up to provide constant, unwavering power around the clock. We’re only just starting to address the challenge of reconciling these two basic facts in one functional system. (Hint: The solution involves batteries). But according to a Department of Energy report, wind and solar power have not made the U.S. power grid less reliable, even as the amount of renewable energy loaded onto it has shot up.

But the grid is getting less reliable overall. Thanks to perpetual delays in updating old infrastructure, the United States sees more power outages per year than any other developed country — costing an annual $150 billion in lost productivity.

And it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Even as Florida’s lights turn back on, the Atlantic keeps serving up hurricanes like Maria, which left all of Puerto Rico in darkness that could last as long as six months. Overall, the average number of annual weather-related power outages doubled from 2003 to 2012, a Climate Central report found.

One basic improvement the United States could make to its power grid is moving power lines from above-ground utility poles to protected underground conduits. This is how Germany rebuilt its grid after World War II, and now it suffers very few outages, says Blake Richetta, the U.S. VP for German clean-energy company sonnenBatterie. The country has fewer than 12 minutes of blackout per customer per year, compared to the 244 minutes that plague Americans.

But moving America’s 300,000 miles of transmission lines underground would be an epic investment of time and labor — just the sort of massive infrastructure project we’ve been putting off.

Florida utilities did invest in some storm-hardening of their power infrastructure in the past decade, replacing wooden poles with concrete ones and placing them closer together as a response to hurricane damage in 2004 and 2005. The state’s largest investor-owned utility, Florida Power & Light, spent $3 billion on improvements over the last decade, including an $800-million smart-grid project completed in 2013 with backing from the Department of Energy. The initiative involved deploying more than 4.5 million smart meters, sensors, and flood monitors, all networked together to give the utility real-time information on how power is moving around the grid.

Those moves helped lessen the damage Irma caused, according to Florida Power & Light CEO Eric Silagy. During the hurricane, several power substations were able to shut down when flooding monitors indicated equipment was at risk, saving the utility several days of work and possibly millions in equipment repair.

Still, Silagy’s company had to deploy around 20,000 workers in camps across the state to patch power plants and transmission lines in the days after the storm. And a utility spokesperson told ABC News that parts of the electrical grid on Florida’s west coast will require a “wholesale rebuild.”

“This is going to be a very, very lengthy restoration, arguably the longest and most complex in U.S. history,” VP of Communication Rob Gould said.

Clearly, Florida — and the rest of the country — still needs to do much more. And according to Jim Walden, it’s going to require a change in attitude for many Americans.

“It’s amazing to me that we live in the Sunshine State, and it’s hard to get people interested in solar power whatsoever,” he explains.

Walden himself got interested because he wanted to save money on his electric bill. Later, with the help of a $7,500 federal tax incentive, he installed his own battery storage to become more self-sufficient, especially during power outages.

The solutions to our collective energy troubles, however, will also need to be collective. One way that could look is scaling up from individual battery-powered homes to networked storage hubs that could act as regional power sources, flexibly responding to the changing demands of the grid.

As one urban resilience expert, Thaddeus Miller, told ProPublica, increasing the defenses of our cities and systems will require deeper changes than any we’ve embraced so far. “Fundamentally, we must abandon the idea that there is a specific standard to which we can control nature,” he said.

That means, for instance, changing the way we think about resilient infrastructure. Rather than working to prevent flooding at all times with high-investment levees and reservoirs, we could work to build facilities that are better at weathering flooding without being totally compromised. These “safe-to-fail” approaches would leave less of a mess after a storm blows through.

Because storms are going to blow through places like Florida, and they’re likely going to get stronger.

“We lose electricity quite often here, believe it or not — there are thunderstorms that can come up and knock power out,” Walden says. “Just to have electricity during those times is a great comfort.”

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Hurricanes keep bringing blackouts. Clean energy could keep the lights on.

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Hurricane Maria poses a catastrophic threat to the Caribbean

This post has been updated to reflect Maria’s upgrade to Category 5.

The already miserable hurricane season is about to get worse, as Hurricane Maria barrels toward a storm-weary Caribbean.

Maria rapidly strengthened to a Category 5 hurricane on Monday, packing winds of at least 160 mph as it neared the eastern Caribbean island country of Dominica — one of the fastest intensifying hurricanes in history. Meteorologists with the National Hurricane Center warned that the storm would likely keep growing stronger as it moves closer to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, home to more than 3.5 million people. Ocean waters on its path are much warmer than normal, and atmospheric conditions are nearly ideal for a storm to intensify.

The latest forecast takes Maria ashore in Puerto Rico early Wednesday as a Category 5 — a worst-case scenario. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló declared a state of emergency to help the island prepare and speed the flow of disaster aid.

All this comes less than two weeks after Irma struck the Caribbean as one of the strongest hurricanes in history. The damage from Irma in the U.S. Virgin Islands was so severe that local officials, whose economy depends on tourism, have told visitors to stay away. Cruise ships have been put into service as rescue vessels. In some of the hardest hit islands, like Barbuda, Anguilla, and St. Martin, recovery could take years.

Even though the wounds of Irma are still fresh, it’s important to remember that a hurricane as strong as Maria is exceedingly rare in the Caribbean. According to weather records dating back to 1851, no Category 5 hurricane has ever struck Dominica. Hurricane David, in 1979, was the only Category 4 to do so. That storm ruined the local economy and left roughly three-quarters of the population homeless.

Irma was a powerful Category 5, but its center moved past Puerto Rico without a direct landfall, so although the island experienced massive power outages, Irma could have been much worse.

Maria will likely be much worse.

Weather models show Maria crossing the center of Puerto Rico at peak strength, becoming the first Category 5 to do so since 1928, and only the second in recorded history. The result could be catastrophic, with heavy rainfall leading to inland flooding and landslides, winds in excess of 170 mph battering coastal cities, and storm surge of six to nine feet inundating homes and businesses along the shoreline.

It’s impossible to overstate how serious a storm like Maria is. The U.S. Virgin Islands’ Governor Kenneth Mapp warned of high winds and torrential rain and called on islanders to prepare, even as relief supplies for Irma continued to pour in. “If your home is damaged,” he said, “do not ride out this storm in your home.”

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Hurricane Maria poses a catastrophic threat to the Caribbean

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Hurricane Jose may be headed toward New England.

“Clearly, our environment changes all the time,” the Republican leader said after touring Irma’s devastation. “And whether that’s cycles we’re going through or whether that’s man-made, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which one it is.”

It’s good to see Scott pondering those wacky ideas we’ve all heard floating around: Human-caused climate changemore intense hurricanesrising sea levels, etc. Coming to terms with climate change is a journey we all must pursue at our own pace! It’s not urgent or anything.

So what is Scott feeling sure about? Let’s hear it:

This is a catastrophic storm our state has never seen,” he warned on Saturday before Irma hit Florida.

“We ought to go solve problems. I know we have beach renourishment issues. I know we have flood-mitigation issues,” he said in the wake of Irma.

“I’m worried about another hurricane,” he shared with reporters while touring the Florida Keys this week. We feel ya, Scott.

Big ideas! Perhaps a fellow Florida Republican could illuminate their common thread.

“[I]t’s certainly not irresponsible to highlight how this storm was probably fueled — in part — by conditions that were caused by human-induced climate change,” Florida congressman and Grist 50er Carlos Curbelo said this week.

In fact, it just might be necessary.

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Hurricane Jose may be headed toward New England.

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Florida’s best defense against natural disasters is nature

The highest point in all of Florida is a hill that tops out at 345 feet above sea level, just south of the Alabama border. Much of the rest of the state lies far, far below that — like, 340 feet below — a peninsula jutting into the Caribbean around the same height as the Caribbean. It’s the last place you’d pick to ride out a hurricane, given the choice.

But that’s the choice Florida’s 20 million residents had to reckon with last week, as Hurricane Irma barrelled toward the state, breaking records and flattening towns across the Caribbean. Many expected it to be the costliest disaster in U.S. history — not just because of the Irma’s towering strength.

Florida is seemingly made for disaster. Its sprawling cities have been built up quickly and extensively, at the expense of the ecosystems that act as a natural defense against the worst of a hurricane’s blow. There’s nothing to stop a hurricane like Irma from wreaking havoc wherever it goes, but dunes, wetlands, mangroves, and coral reefs can all play an important role in absorbing some of the destructive energy of a storm. Unfortunately, over the past century, the Sunshine State has lost the majority of all these natural shock absorbers, trading them for arable land and new developments.

As Florida and Texas start to rebuild from the blows dealt by Irma and Harvey, many are weighing how best to fortify vulnerable coastal cities, even as rising sea level brings the threat of flooding closer and closer.

“If you live near the water, the difference between a crashing wave and a slowly moving chop against the walls of your home can be everything,” says Rob Nowicki, a post-doctoral researcher at Florida’s Mote Marine Lab.

Houston’s mayor made a plea for funding to construct a massive sea wall, or “coastal spine,” to protect the region from dangerous storm surges in the future. “We cannot talk about rebuilding” he said, “if we do not build the coastal spine.”

This bunker-building approach to natural disaster — which Nathanael Johnson wrote about in Houston’s struggle to control floodwater — is prone to occasional, catastrophic failure, especially as climate change continues to shift the baseline on our expectations of what a storm can do. The problem is, for Florida, these kinds of concrete-heavy projects aren’t really an option.

“What distinguishes all of South Florida is that it’s got this porous limestone base,” says Ashley Dawson, author of Extreme Cities. No matter what barriers you put between yourself and the sea, water will be able to seep around it. In Miami Beach, king tides regularly flood up through the city’s storm drains, hurricane or no. At the most dire moments before Irma made landfall, Miami — with an average elevation of 6 feet above sea level — was predicted to see as much as 10 feet of storm surge.

When Irma made a last minute swerve inland, pushing the storm surge away from populated coastal cities, much of the predicted damage was avoided. Still, Miami and Jacksonville saw several feet of flooding, power outages, and overwhelmed infrastructure.

Other cities, like Tampa and Sarasota, remain especially vulnerable because they sit on the on the edge of very shallow seas, Dawson says. That means when storms sweep in from deeper ocean they pile up some extremely high, extremely powerful waves ahead of them. Although Tampa only ended up with a couple of feet of storm surge from Irma, initial forecasts were chilling; if the storm had veered a different way, nine to 15 feet of surge might have slammed into the city.

Shoreline habitats like dunes and wetlands can block storm surge, usually the deadliest part of a major hurricane, because they slow down dangerous waves and prevent water from moving as far inland as it would without them.

A recent study in Nature’s online journal calculated that wetlands saved New York $625 million in flooding damage during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, by absorbing both storm surge and rain.

“As a rule of thumb, you can expect larger and more prominent ecosystems to provide more protection,” says Nowicki.

The same swamps and mangroves that would help protect Florida from storms are also what helped keep people and development out of the sparsely populated state until the 20th century.

To make South Florida habitable, the Army Corps of Engineers dug 2,000 miles of canals and levees starting in the 1930s. Beaches were bulwarked, channels were dredged, subdivisions snaked their way into former marshland, and Disney World appeared in a puff of pink smoke (I assume). Along the way, Florida’s natural wetlands receded and its once-stunning coral reefs all but disappeared. Florida is now the third most populous state, behind California and Texas.

In the last few years, Florida Governor Rick Scott has overseen large budget cuts to the department in charge of researching and preserving these ecosystems, enabling the kind of risky coastal development that puts people too close to dangerous storms. And President Donald Trump recently reversed an Obama-era mandate that federally funded construction projects abide by a higher flooding standard to take sea level rise into consideration. All of this leaves Florida in a poor position to weather future storms.

Then there’s the question of Florida’s coral reefs. Offshore reefs can’t stop surge from coming inland the way dunes and wetlands can, but they sap energy from the waves washing over them. Coral cover in the Caribbean, including in Florida, has decreased by 80 percent, leaving low-lying shorelines less protected than ever.

Mote Marine Laboratory, where Robert Nowicki works, is focused on research into how to restore Florida’s degraded reefs by growing and planting new coral colonies onto former reef sites.

“While much of our living coral is gone, the skeletons remain,” Nowicki explains. The structure of a reef, even a dead one, will continue to act as a brake on waves for a while, but over time the skeletons break down and, without live coral to rebuild them, turn into rubble.

This kind of outplanting project is based on the way foresters restore damaged forests by raising trees in nurseries and then distributing them into the wild. It’s labor-intensive and slow, yet Nowicki says it’s the best bet for rebuilding these damaged reefs, and their storm-buffering services, before they’re gone for good.

“Getting living coral back on the old skeletons,” he says, “is a kind of race against time.”

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Florida’s best defense against natural disasters is nature

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Toxic water flooded Houston homes after Harvey, tests show

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Last month, Hurricane Harvey dropped an unprecedented 50 inches of rain in Houston and across southeast Texas causing deadly floods and environmental disasters, such as chemical plant explosions and flooded toxic sites. Now, residents have another problem to worry about.

According to tests organized by the New York Times and conducted by a team from Baylor Medical College and Rice University, the floodwaters in two Houston neighborhoods have been contaminated with toxins and bacteria that can make people sick. It’s unclear where else these toxins might have spread, but 40 of 1,219 waste treatment plants are not functioning:

The results of The Times’s testing were troubling. Water flowing down Briarhills Parkway in the Houston Energy Corridor contained Escherichia coli, a measure of fecal contamination, at a level more than four times that considered safe.

In the Clayton Homes public housing development downtown, along the Buffalo Bayou, scientists found what they considered astonishingly high levels of E. coli in standing water in one family’s living room — levels 135 times those considered safe — as well as elevated levels of lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals in sediment from the floodwaters in the kitchen.

“There’s pretty clearly sewage contamination, and it’s more concentrated inside the home than outside the home,” said Lauren Stadler, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University who participated in The Times’s research.

Houston residents who have returned to survey their homes and salvage belongings reported a stench in the air and feeling sick afterwards:

Brad Greer, 49, developed two scabby infections on each of his legs where rain boots had irritated his skin. He took antibiotics, but on Saturday, he said, he started feeling light-headed and weak as he and his brother-in-law tried to move possessions from Mr. Greer’s flooded home.

He went to the emergency room at Houston Methodist, where he was put on an intravenous drip and given another antibiotic prescription. Mr. Greer said swimming pools around his neighborhood are rank.

“All the pools are just giant toilets you’re unable to flush,” he said.

The medical team that tested the water is concerned about residents wading through the toxic waters. “If people have bad headaches, respiratory problems, swelling of a limb, or a bad rash, go see a doctor right away,” Winifred Hamilton, the environmental health service director at Baylor College of Medicine, told the New York Times. “Don’t assume it will go away on its own.”

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Toxic water flooded Houston homes after Harvey, tests show

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Hurricane Irma’s power leaves Florida powerless

One of the most powerful hurricanes ever to make U.S. landfall has left millions of people across Florida without power.

As of Monday morning, nearly 60 percent of the entire state — close to 6 million customers — had lost electricity. That’s the largest outage in Florida history and one of the country’s biggest ever.

Restoring power could take weeks, or longer. A spokesperson for Florida Power & Light, the state’s biggest utility, said recovery from the storm would require a “wholesale rebuild” of the electrical grid.

The damage to the state’s electrical infrastructure was just one form of devastation left in Irma’s wake, as the United States faces its second hurricane catastrophe in as many weeks.

An unusually large hurricane, Irma left an exceptional swath of damage on both Florida coasts and nearly everywhere in between. By one metric, this single storm packed an entire season’s worth of destructive power.

Some of Irma’s worst impacts were well-removed from the center: Miami looked like “a watery war zone” at the height of the storm, with residents warily eyeing rising floodwaters in the heart of downtown.

In Jacksonville, at the far northeast corner of Florida, Irma set a new coastal flood record, beating the one set during 1964’s Hurricane Dora.

In Naples, near where Irma made its second landfall in southwest Florida after initially striking the Keys, winds reached as high as 142 mph. The city set an odd mark: The ocean rose nearly 10 feet in eight hours, the quickest rise ever recorded there.

As Irma’s center passed close by, strong winds blew the ocean away from land, exposing the seabed, and then the water quickly rushed back in as winds changed direction and the storm moved north. The effect led to surreal scenes and even prompted a special warning from the National Weather Service to gawkers along the shore.

As is so often the case with these storms, Irma could have been worse: A last-second 50-mile jog inland likely prevented higher storm surge across cities on Florida’s western coast, including Tampa.

Still, the combination of damage from Harvey and Irma will probably total in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

And it’s still peak hurricane season. Hurricane Jose skirted the northeast corner of the Caribbean over the weekend, prompting a full-scale evacuation of the tiny island of Barbuda — which Irma almost totally destroyed just four days earlier.

The latest weather models show that Jose could make a loop in the central Atlantic this week, and then possibly head toward the East Coast. One thing’s for sure: In a year when it’s become clear that “natural” disasters aren’t natural any more, we can’t say we weren’t warned.

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Hurricane Irma’s power leaves Florida powerless

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