By the time you’re reading this we’re well clear of Storm Ophelia, and should be clear of her brother Brian as well. I was out of the county when Ophelia struck, but was still shocked at the sight of trees split and power lines felled when I came back. Hurricane Ophelia, as it’s known everywhere outside of Ireland and the UK, was the worst storm to hit Ireland in 50 years, and holds several records, including having the biggest ever wave recorded off the coast of Ireland. Sadly Ophelia didn’t leave it at big waves and driving winds, as fifty-one people lost their lives to the storm, including three direct deaths caused in Ireland.
For such a small island it was strange to see how different the storm affected different parts of it. I was crashing in a friend’s flat in Rathmines, and the worst thing we saw was someone’s window get opened by the wind. Sure, I think it was now broken & stuck open, but still fixable. Even in Cork it depended on where you were, as I found out when I received a press-release while writing this article – Oliver Moran, a rep from the Green Party, spoke about a young family in the North side who are now homeless because of the storm: “It’s heartbreaking. A couple who did everything right, saved to buy a home, however modest to many people, to make a loving environment for themselves and their child, lose everything… Here in Montenotte, I lost a slate. A mile or so away in Spring Lane, a young family are made homeless. It isn’t good enough to expect the poorest to bear the cost of climate change like this.”
Ophelia may have been the strongest storm to reach Ireland in 50 years, but it’s only the sixth worst storm this hurricane season. In fact, in this Atlantic hurricane season we’ve seen four massive storms, two of which have been ‘once in a lifetime’ storms. These four are, in chronological order, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria. While most Atlantic storms hit the Southern/South Western US and the Caribbean islands, Irma and Maria in particular waged war just beyond the Gulf of Mexico, battering the islands in their path. While all of the places that were unfortunate enough to get a visit from Irma, Maria and pals were ravaged, the island of Puerto Rico seems to have suffered the most.
Puerto Rico, population approx. 3.41m, is an unincorporated territory of the United States of America, which means the US Constitution applies there, all Puerto Ricans are also American citizens, but they do not have any Senators, and their delegate in the House of Representatives has extremely limited voting rights. Puerto Ricans also have no say in the election of the President of the USA, though they still do vote for who each party’s candidate will be. It is for these reasons that Puerto Rico is considered “essentially the 51st State.”
Irma left around a third of Puerto Rico’s people without power, and destroyed rural communities and coastal areas. When Maria hit the island two weeks later, Puerto Rico had yet to recover. Its power infrastructure was already vastly out of date and in massive debt, and being hit with the worst hurricane since 1928 certainly didn’t help. Roads, homes and buildings were destroyed; hospitals had to turn sick & injured people away, directing them to mainland America for healthcare; power outages led to people being unable to access their bank accounts, causing people to be unable to afford food and the increasingly valuable clean drinking water sold in what shops remained. It’s been a month since Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria, and only now are things like schools reopening, partly due to its relatively stagnant economy, but mainly due to the inaction of the Federal government. If you want to help the situation in PR, go to unidosporpuertorico.com/en/. But could what happened to Puerto Rico happen here?
Dr. Reindert Haarsma, of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, writing for RTÉ in an article entitled “The future will bring more hurricanes to Europe,” talked about how changes in our climate and global warming will only make these storms worse for us in the future: “damaging hurricanes are familiar along the US east coast, with hurricane Sandy a dramatic example. In Europe we are unused to such dramatic weather and the widespread destruction that hurricanes can, and do, cause. However, our new research suggests that this is likely to change as Earth’s climate warms over the next centuries. Hurricanes are powered by warm sea water and characterised by heavy rainfall. The energy that is released during this rainfall is the thriving force of hurricanes.” Hurricanes generally now pull towards the polls as they move. Hurricanes, to put it one way, get power from warmer water – in the past the cold water in the Atlantic means that the storms lost steam before they meet Western Europe. Dr. Haarsma put it better when he said “Another important change is that the region where the sea water is sufficiently warm for the generation of hurricanes will extend eastward. Whereas in the present climate hurricanes only form in the western part of the tropical Atlantic, this area would shift eastward in a warmer climate. This makes their travel distance to Europe shorter, with a larger possibility of retaining their structure and strength when arriving there.”
So prepare for more ‘Ophelias’ in our future, and maybe become conscious of your impact of the environment so we can, collectively, slow down or even stop the ever-worsening effects of global warming.