A Perfect Storm

Linda Rodriguez Flecha/AP Images
Hurricane Maria, Juncos, Puerto Rico, September 20, 2017

In the Caribbean, hurricanes—it was this region’s native people who coined the word “hurakan”—have always been a fact of life. On islands like the one they called Borikén and that we know today as Puerto Rico, the indigenous Taíno knew better than to live by the sea. But the Spanish who colonized the Antilles and then the nearby mainland were less wise. Their coastal settlements were repeatedly leveled by storms “of the four winds” unknown in Europe, and they wrote home to their king that “we suffer many travails when these winds and the furies of Nature occur.” Few who have inhabited these islands since would disagree, or fail to attest to how hurricanes, thrashing their homes with biblical rains and palm-felling winds, have shaped their history.

This October, Columbus Day found not a few of the “Indies” into which Columbus bumped devastated by the most damaging hurricane season on record. From tiny Barbuda to most of the Virgin Islands to populous Puerto Rico, people may henceforth hesitate to call their kids Maria or Irma, the names of this year’s two fiercest storms. People across the region know the feeling. There’s no island here—as you’ll learn from speaking to a Jamaican inn owner who still recalls the income lost because of Gilbert in 1988 or a nutmeg farmer in Grenada lamenting how Ivan ravaged his crop in 2004—where the names of past storms don’t resonate, as if they were evil spirits who come to crush livelihoods and force those lucky enough to start over to do so in New York, Orlando, or Montreal. But the hurricane season of 2017 has been especially awful, in both the number and the sheer intensity of storms.

When Maria bespoiled the lush Windward Island of Dominica with 160-mile-an-hour winds before rushing on to Puerto Rico, it was only the second time in a century that two Category 5 storms had made landfall in the same year. And these storms, heavily affecting not just the islands but also the US mainland, have also fed a larger conversation about the causes and effects of “extreme weather events” on our warming planet. In the two months since Hurricane Harvey crawled off the Gulf of Mexico in August to dump fifty-plus inches of rain on Texas, we’ve had a few lifetimes worth of catastrophes to wrestle with.

The succession of storms has been staggering. In early September, Irma, whirling westward from Africa like a continent of wind, became one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes ever and laid flat the Leeward Islands before turning for Florida and prompting the largest evacuation in US history; by sheer luck it spared the state’s major cities. Jose, next in line, grew to Category 4 strength but thankfully stayed offshore. Maria didn’t. Forming with terrifying speed and barreling…

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