We Still Don’t Understand the Superstorms of the Anthropocene

Hurricane Michael has killed five people and counting in Virginia—more than 800 miles from where the storm first made landfall.

|
Oct 12 2018, 7:54pm

Flickr/GSFC

As of this morning, five people have died in as a result of Hurricane Michael—in Virginia. That’s more than 800 miles away from where Hurricane Michael first made landfall in Florida. According to an email to Motherboard from Jeffrey Caldwell, the Director of External Affairs of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM), that death count could rise until all people are accounted for. However, the department doesn’t have an exact total of the number of people unaccounted for, as officials are trying to locate the vehicles of people swept away by floodwater.

"At this point we can only confirm five deaths and we know several people are still unaccounted for,” a Caldwell said in an email. “Any changes in the fatality number will be communicated as soon as that information is available.”

The storm also knocked out power for more than half a million people, shut down 1,200 roads, and according to VDEM, it spurned 5 suspected tornadoes. The VDEM also cautioned that the damage from flooding, fallen trees, and debris is severe throughout the state, meaning that commuting or travelling anywhere could be delayed or even dangerous.

Hurricane Michael is a harsh example of hurricanes of the Anthropocene—a bizarre chapter of earth’s history in which human activity is causing changes to the climate, the likes of which we’ve never seen in the history of our species, and at a speed that’s unprecedented in the history of our planet. Hurricanes are more likely to be stronger, and they’re also catching people off guard in places hundreds of miles from where they first make landfall. The casualties in Virginia this week are a somber example of our new reality: we don’t know what to expect from modern hurricanes, and that puts the people in its path at immense risk.

The National Weather Service issued warnings in the state of Virginia for high wind, coastal flooding, flash flooding, and a tornado watch as early as Wednesday. After all, this is far from the first time Virginia has experienced the fallout of storms that have formed in the Gulf of Mexico and struck the deep south first. For Virginia, Gulf of Mexico hurricanes are a “perennial concern,” according to an email from Caldwell. However, the damage was still worse than government officials were anticipating.

“The flooding was more widespread than we initially anticipated, as the storm drifted westward once it came ashore,” Caldwell told Motherboard.

Kristin Tucker Tharpe, a resident of Virginia, told Motherboard in a Facebook message that she wasn’t expecting Michael to be as powerful and deadly as it was. “I have lived in Drakes Branch Virginia for 35 years and have never seen anything like this,” Tharpe said. “My husband Kenny Tharpe is chief of the fire department and they were out all night.”

It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect Michael to weaken by the time it reaches Virginia. After all, hurricanes are known to weaken as they pass over land, since hurricanes are powered by warm water from the ocean. But by the time it reached Virginia, the hurricane still had 60 mile-per-hour winds, and it carried seven inches of rain that brought flash flooding in some parts of the state.

Andrea Dutton, an associate professor of geology at the University of Florida, told Motherboard in a phone call that Michael moved inland very quickly, and this may have caught people off guard.

“Especially because [Michael] was on heels of a very slow-moving storm—that is, when Florence came ashore, it was not moving very quickly,” Dutton said, “it’s very possible [that] especially people in the region of the Carolinas and Virginia might not have been expecting it to move as fast as fast as it did.”

Scientists will not be able to definitively link Hurricane Michael to climate change for at least a few weeks, since official confirmation hinges on reviewing scientific data. However, we can safely say that traits of Hurricane Michael that caused deaths in Virginia were made more likely by climate change.

Dutton told Motherboard that climate change warms the very ocean waters that fuel hurricanes, and it also helps give storms stronger, more intense winds. Climate change also increases the storm surge, or the coastal flooding that happens along with a storm that forms in the ocean.

“So as that hurricane moves ashore, it’s pushing water along with it,” Dutton said. “And it’s now riding much higher because of the sea level rise that we’re seeing in the past century or so.”

But in the case of Virginia, some of the areas that were severely affected weren’t even near the shore. For instance, Hanover County, Virginia experienced severe flash flooding that swept away four people in their cars, drowning them. Dutton said it’s important to remember that climate change superpowers rainfall, which increases the likelihood of deadly freshwater flooding—a known killer in the case of hurricanes.

“The intensity of the rainfall increases as a result of climate change, and that leads to cases of flash flooding in places that might even be inland, not right next to the coast,” Dutton said. “So it’s not just a matter of saltwater flooding on the coast, but also an issue of freshwater flooding.”

People who have lived in Florida will tell you that hurricanes are a fact of life. The best that you can do is hunker down or evacuate, and then hope the damage isn’t too bad. But for people in Virginia, even though they’re used to getting the the tail-end of Gulf of Mexico hurricanes, the scale and severity of Hurricane Michael is uncharted territory.

“The town next to us had to call the swift water rescue team in because people were washed away,” Kristin Tucker Tharpe told Motherboard. “Currently we have some people rescued, some bodies recovered in the water and some still missing. It was very bad.”

Caldwell told Motherboard that while there are no hard numbers, it’s evident that the damage Michael has brought on some parts of the state has been devastating. “In some communities damaged by the storm, it may take months or years to completely recovery from this storm,” Caldwell said . But even after these communities recover, some time in the future, another hurricane Michael will come along. Maybe it won’t catch these people off guard again, but maybe it will.