Lessons learned from Puerto Rico

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I’ve written before about how humans are good at adapting and figuring out ways to mitigate risk with respect to climate change and weather extremes. That theme echoed throughout my days at the National Meeting of the American Meteorological Society in Phoenix earlier this month.

While some of the talks focused just on the latest research studies of what is changing and where with respect to climate, there were many about the lessons learned so far from specific case studies and extreme storms. I attended many of those presentations.

One in particular explained how Puerto Rico is still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Ada Monzon is one of my new heroes. Until I attended the conference, I had never heard of this passionate and brilliant broadcast meteorologist. She lives and works in Puerto Rico, and she told us what the island has learned from Maria’s devastating landfall.

A few of her key points:

  • Nearly everyone on the island has post-traumatic stress disorder from the storm.
  • Homes and roads still need a lot of work. Many homes are not safe, especially with respect to weathering another hurricane.
  • Energy and communications have been restored, but the energy grid is still fragile and the energy infrastructure needs to be completely rethought.
  • Of the almost 3,000 deaths blamed on the storm, less than 10% were directly caused by Maria; the rest were due to the loss of electricity – especially in hospitals – and access to care.
  • Puerto Rico can’t handle another hurricane right now. Landslides and coastal erosion are still to this day ongoing problems.

Since the storm hit in 2017, Monzon has changed the way she presents the forecast during the news broadcasts because she has to be careful about the tone and terms she uses because the people respond emotionally now. So, she focuses on hope and education, and she makes sure that she gives information that is as specific and useful as possible.

Her personal goal is to teach the people of the island to be self-sufficient. Monzon talks to them about sustainability, health, and well-being. To that end, she founded a pop-up science museum that she says will soon have a permanent location. She has developed the Resilient School Program that uses STEM activities to build resilience and empower kids. She has introduced Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training for teens, and her group has built a network of weather stations with 4K cameras.

Many of the inspired ideas Monzon has implemented are things we on the mainland could – and probably should – copy. She stated emphatically, “Kids are resilient!” and she’s right. Teach them what they need to know to help themselves, their families and their neighbors survive a natural disaster. Educate them about the basics of risk mitigation on a level they can understand, so they start thinking about it early in life. Show them technology that can aid in communication after a disaster disrupts the cell towers and landlines – short wave radio – so that if and when a disaster damages their world, they understand they are not totally helpless. That sense of empowerment brings hope, not just to them, but to their communities.

Satellite of Maria

Credit: NOAA. The GOES-16 satellite image shows Hurricane Maria as it crossed Puerto Rico and destroyed much of the island’s infrastructure, electric grid, homes, and businesses.