By Elena Lev ‘21
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past three weeks, you’ve probably noticed that the weather in the United States, and on the entire western continent, has been far from normal. Here in Claremont, we faced two weeks of sweltering heat beyond the regular hellish temperatures the 5C’s usually endure. The rest of the world has been experiencing other, more severe natural phenomena. Wildfires have been raging across California and the Pacific Northwest, four major hurricanes have put our nation’s south and southeast, as well as Cuba and parts of Mexico, into evacuation mode, and on top of a hurricane, Mexico bore the brunt of an 8.1 magnitude earthquake. The damage wrought has caused ample speculation, by both victims and outsiders, on what is causing these varied, yet equally terrifying, natural disasters.
Four hurricanes have taken their turns spinning across the Atlantic seaboard this month: Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Katia. Hurricane Harvey formed south of Barbados and near Saint Vincent, making his first landfall on the Windward Islands. It gained intensity until it made a second landfall at Rockport, Texas as a Category 4 major hurricane. The hurricane then weakened, and subsequently strengthened to make its third and final landfall in Cameron, Louisiana. Warnings were issued across the Southeast United States, as well as in the Honduras, Mexico, and various offshore Caribbean sovereign states. 83 people have so far been confirmed deceased—one in Guyana, a sovereign state on mainland South America, and 82 in the US. 300,000 people were left without electricity in Texas, 500 people had to be rescued in Louisiana, and 70-200 billion dollars were sustained in losses. The Texas flooding was so abundant that it ended the state’s drought, and the damages are so severe that over 450,000 residents qualify for federal drought relief assistance.
“I don’t have any family in Houston, so I haven’t been directly affected, but a lot of my friends and family have been working with relief efforts.” Dayla Woller, a Scripps first year and Texas native said. “That’s why it’s been kind of weird being at Scripps, because everyone has been helping out and I’m not there to provide support.” Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 hurricane, has caused the most devastation of the four storms thus far. It developed on August 30th over western Africa near the Cape Verde islands, with peak intensity near the Virgin Islands. After weakening slightly, she strengthened again and made landfall in Cuba. Irma caused massive amounts of damage in the Florida Keys, whose 70,000 inhabitants have been evacuated until further notice. Many schools in the Keys closed, and one county says they won’t be reopening their schools until September 25th. Within the U.S., Irma also affected North Carolina, New Orleans, and parts of Tennessee. Outside of the U.S., damage was sustained in Barbuda, the Virgin Islands, and a number of other Caribbean islands. To prepare for the storm, a state of emergency was called for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands; the Dominican Republic evacuated 11,200 people, including 7,400 tourists who were moved away from ocean-side resorts; there were struggles in Haiti over evacuation procedures and a lack of preparation. One million people were evacuated from Cuba, and resort-owned dolphins were evacuated by helicopter. One of the people evacuated was Sam Rubin, a Pomona junior on study abroad. “
Rubin was flown out over four days before the storm, and was “evacuated with clear skies.” “Many Cubans were surprised we were being evacuated,” Rubin stated. “because they all were super chill and well-prepared.”
Rubin and his fellow study-abroad peers have been temporarily housed at Sarah Lawrence College, but are scheduled to return to Havana on Monday the 19th. He says the transition back and forth between countries has been strange.
“I’m sad that we got evacuated, but it was the right call ultimately because it made it less of a burden [for the landlords of the apartments to make repairs],” Rubin said.
Hurricane Jose, the least destructive of the four, began as a tropical storm off the Florida Coast, and grew into a Category 3 hurricane that stayed primarily out over the open Atlantic. It is not expected to make landfall, but could cause dangerous surf off the southeastern coast of the US, and could also hit the Leeward Islands off the South American coast, the same ones affected by Irma.
Hurricane Katia formed in the southern Gulf of Mexico, near to where Harvey originally formed, making landfall near Tecolutla and peaking as a Category 2 hurricane. It was not nearly as powerful as Irma, but still is causing rain, flash floods, and mudslides. It’s expected to produce 10-25 inches of rain, as well as mudslides and flash floods throughout Veracruz, Hidalgo, Puebla, and San Luis Potosi.
Although Hurricane Katia hasn’t caused much damage directly, it has complicated relief efforts for the 8.1 magnitude earthquake that hit just off the southern coast of Mexico. As of September 9th, 61 people have died. The states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, two of Mexico’s poorest regions, were hit hardest; 1.85 million homes lost electricity, but three quarters of them have had power restored. The aftershocks resulted in a tsunami, with 10-foot waves hitting the coast of Mexico, and 3-foot waves reaching Ecuador, New Zealand, and Vanuatu. On the opposite end of the elemental spectrum, wildfires have been raging across the United States. More than 640,000 acres have been burned in Oregon, a result of the Eagle Creek fire and the Chetco Bar fire, the first of which was caused by a 15-year-old lighting firecrackers on a forest trail. The latter, the state’s largest wildfire, was only 8% contained on September 13th, but hopefully higher air humidity will keep the fire from spreading further. Nobody has been evacuated yet, but residents in the area need to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
Elle Biesemeyer, a first year at Scripps, experienced a close brush with a wildfire. “The ash was pretty suffocating a week ago,” Biesemeyer said.“My mom has asthma and she couldn’t go outside last week, so I was worried for her.”
The La Tuna fire in LA County instilled similar fears.
“Two weeks ago the air quality was very bad, and I got a warning text from Kaiser to not let [my son] outside because he has asthma,” Juli Shamash, a West Los Angeles resident, said.
“We live pretty far from the Valley, but there was still ash on the car and pool.”
This wildfire has scorched almost 6,000 acres of land, caused 300 home evacuations, shut down the 210 freeway, and filled the sky with smoke. Shifting winds and high temperatures quickened its speed, putting more stress on an already thinly-stretched fire department— some firefighters were in Houston helping with Hurricane Harvey.
Farther from home but still pertinent, the Rice Ridge fire has burned 150,000 acres of Montana land. Glacier National Park is under an evacuation warning and the residents of Seeley Lake have been forced to evacuate. This fire is the national number one wildfire priority as of September 14th, and over 700 firefighters are working to stop the blaze.
Lastly, three mudslides in Sierra Leone last month caused the deaths of 419 people, with hundreds more still missing.
These nine natural disasters are a clear and pressing indication that something is changing in our environment. Harvey was the first major hurricane to make U.S. landfall since 2005; this is the first time since 2010 that three hurricanes have been simultaneously active in the Atlantic Ocean; Katia is the 6th hurricane to hit Mexico this season; the earthquake was the largest to hit Mexico in 100 years. And yet, even as he sends a personal donation of 1 million dollars to the relief effort for Hurricane Harvey, our president refuses to admit that the root of these events is climate change. In fact, the present administration has asked the Department of Agriculture to refrain from using the term “climate change,” preferring instead the gentler phrasing, “weather extremes.” Unfortunately, these weather extremes are only going to get worse, regardless of what phrasing they are assigned. As college students, there isn’t much active volunteering we can do to aid in relief efforts, but to donate, or learn about ways to help, please visit any of these sites: