Armando Perez and his 81-year-old mother survived Hurricane Maria when it hit Puerto Rico in 2017. Five years later, they witnessed Hurricane Fiona, a decidedly less intense storm that nevertheless ended their lives.
Perez’s mother, Carmen, has advanced Parkinson’s disease and dementia and has been bedridden since June. The two live together in the town of Dorado, and Perez bathes and feeds his mother and changes her diapers.
But since Fiona hit the island five days ago, they have been without power or clean public water. And triple-digit temperatures bake the concrete walls of their home, turning Carmen’s room into an “oven” in the afternoon.
“Even though the storm wasn’t that bad, when the power goes out, there’s no water, it just makes it extremely difficult,” Perez told CBS News on Friday.
It’s an eerily similar feeling to what life was like after Maria, Perez said.
“It’s hell now. Maria was the closest thing to experiencing the end of the world,” he said. “It looked like a nuclear bomb had gone through there… I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”
Climate change and Puerto Rico’s struggle to keep up with recovery efforts has experts and residents worried about future storms.
Hurricanes are becoming more frequent
Neverhit Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm in 2017, knocking out power to the entire island, killing about 3,000 people and being named one of the in US history. And almost exactly five years later, Fiona left the island in ruins once again.
Experts say hurricanes and storms are becoming stronger and more frequent due to global warming.
David Keellings, a geography professor at the University of Florida, studied the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. He found the hurricane to be “if not the most extreme, certainly very extreme” in terms of rainfall, which he said was “significantly higher than anything that has occurred since 1956”.
When his research was published in 2019, he found that a storm like Maria was about “five times more likely” due to climate change. In 2022, that chance could be even higher, Keellings said.
The planet’s temperature has risen by 0.14 degrees Fahrenheit every decade since 1880, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Keellings explained that as temperatures rise, so does the atmosphere’s ability to hold moisture. This moisture is essentially a fuel tank, ready to be tapped by storms when they develop.
“Puerto Rico gets hit by a lot of storms, but it just seems if you look at the data, things like Maria, things like Fiona, are becoming more and more likely to happen,” Kellings said. “…You’re going to have an increasing frequency of these kinds of storms.”
Carlos Ramos-Scharrón, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who is originally from Puerto Rico, said major storms can be expected “every decade.” His research also found an increased chance of storms with Maria’s record-breaking rainfall.
“You’re going to have more of the very tall, extreme cyclones, like a 4, 5 plus cat, and then they have the potential to become more extreme than they have in the past,” he told CBS News. “You will be exposed to the most extreme events.”
Even weak storms can have devastating effects
Both researchers cautioned that hurricanes don’t need to be more than a Category 1 storm to cause damage. Why; Because, as Keellings explained, it takes “years” to get back to normal after a big storm.
Maria and Fiona are the perfect example. Puerto Rico had a slow recovery in the five years between the two storms, hampered by the recession, the ouster of its governor and the coronavirus pandemic.
After Maria, the island dedicated $20 billion to modernize its power grid and has worked to improve its infrastructure, rebuild housing and stabilize the island. But it remained a work in progress when Fiona knocked. The power grid went out again this week and the island’s agricultural industry and infrastructure, although somewhat improved by Maria, have now been delayed once again.
For example, the island’s flood maps, used for city and strategic planning, are still based on data from before the 1990s, Ramos-Scharrón said.
In Utuado this week, a metal bridge was installed a year after Maria was washed away by floodwaters. The bridge was to be temporary until a more permanent structure is built in 2024, CBS News’ David Begnaud reported.
Ramos-Scharrón told CBS News that the bridge, like much of the rest of the island’s infrastructure, was a kind of Band-Aid solution to a bigger problem.
“Temporary things tend to stay forever in Puerto Rico,” Ramos-Scharrón told CBS News, adding that short-term fixes need better standards and replaced sooner.
Also when Fiona hit, more thanon the island they were still covered with blue tarpaulins from Maria.
“It’s not just related to the weather, per se, it’s all the other things that create disturbances in the system that were never balanced,” Ramos-Scharrón said.
These problems affect everyone on the island — but the elderly, like Perez’s mother, feel it the most.
Perez has yet to hear when power will be restored and has only enough bottled water to last a few more days.
If Puerto Rico gets hit by another hurricane, no matter how big, he’s not sure how he and his mom will manage.
“We’re going to get hit by a massive storm. And if we can’t handle a Fiona as a category 1, how are we going to handle a 5?” he said. “This is not catastrophic. This is sad and confusing. What is going to happen is extremely catastrophic because they are not learning their lessons.”
He says he’s now “just surviving day to day” – and hopes there’s time to recover before the next big storm hits.