Three Marine Affairs Professors Talk about Hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria

The Caribbean is still reeling from the repeat rounds of Category 5 hurricanes whipped through in the last few months. The last one, Maria, left much of Puerto Rico with smashed houses and almost no electricity. URI CELS has ongoing research in various parts of the Caribbean archipelago.

The Communications team asked three professors how the sectors they were researching – tourism, fisheries, and infrastructure – were impacted.

Carlos Garcia-Quijano

Carlos Garcia-Quijano

Research: Fishing communities and methods for assessing fishery health

Research Sites: Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands

Have you heard from your collaborators? How do things look on the ground?

I grew up in Puerto Rico and spent 20 years along the coastline in fish-resource dependent communities. These are relatively poor places located near mangroves and estuaries.

These communities are those hardest hit by the hurricanes. They are resilient to economic fluctuations such as the mortgage crisis of 2008, as long as they have access to the coast and coastal resources such as fisheries. But a big storm like this causes a lot of environmental damage and it chips away at the source of their resilience. Making sure they can regain access to their coastal resources is crucial for recovery.

How do you think the sector you are researching will be impacted?

Those in remote areas are mostly poor, their infrastructure is not up to date, and they are far away from centers of decision-making. This kind of disaster really highlights income inequality. Away from San Juan, it is not a state of total abandonment but people don’t know what is going on out there. They are not being reached.

Are you involved in any relief efforts?

Yes. It is so fresh right now. People need a lot of help. Sierra Club is very involved with coastal communities. We ran a fund drive for them here in Rhode Island on October 10th. We also set up a webpage “Group URI for Puerto Rico” to raise funds for the Sierra Club’s relief efforts. We are also collaborating with a local sustainable energy initiative on the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico (https://www.youcaring.com/comitedialogoambientalycoquisolar-739871).

My wife, Hilda Lloréns, an anthropology professor at URI, and I are thinking to run a J-term course in Puerto Rico. It would be an applied anthropology course on the evolving recovery landscape; ethnography to help communities there create a unified picture of their challenges.

Austin Becker

Austin Becker

Research: Environmental vulnerability of infrastructure in small-island states.

Research Sites: Caribbean region, Jamaica

Have you heard from your collaborators? How do things look on the ground?

My collaborators in the Caribbean were not on islands directly impacted by the recent hurricanes.

We are assembling a regional inventory of coastal infrastructure in partnership with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). We are looking at seaports, airports, powerplants – critical infrastructure for small island states, to understand the extent to which these assets are at risk to storm surge, sea level rise, erosion, and other climate impacts.

The recent hurricanes put a spotlight on the need for these assessments. Unsurprisingly though, we don’t yet know the level of damage to fuel and supplies in Puerto Rico.

How do you think the sector you are researching will be impacted?

Our inventory project is still in the early stages. But a vulnerability assessment methodology for ports and airports that is being developed by a group sponsored by UNCTAD will help managers of ports and airports to better understand their vulnerabilities.

For example, with climate change, the Caribbean will have more hot days, Airports may  need to lengthen the runways so that planes will have the room they need for takeoff during hotter weather. Airports in the Caribbean are almost always right on the coast because that is where the flat, approachable land is. There is little room for expansion without infilling into the sea. For other infrastructure, flooding from high tides will become a more frequent. So planners will have to consider building at higher elevations within the next decade.

Amelia Moore

Amelia Moore

Research: Impact of outside influences such as tourism and visiting scientists on Caribbean island communities and socioecologies. 

Research sites: Northern and Central Bahamas (New Providence; Abaco; Eleuthera; Cat Island)

Have you heard from your collaborators? How do things look on the ground?

Damage in The Bahamas this season was mainly on the southern islands of Acklins and Ragged Island. Some people were evacuated to Nassau, but entire settlements will need to be rebuilt. As far as I know, all my research collaborators are fine.

Caribbean citizens in the region and in the diaspora, with the help of social media, are becoming good at responding to disaster. Social ties between people are strong.

Often, volunteers boat and fly in relief supplies before the government structures tasked to do that can operate. This unofficial help isn’t enough to address the disaster, but it is immediate and, therefore, important help.

How do you think the sector you are researching will be impacted by the storms longterm?

This season so far in The Bahamas, the tourism sector has not been greatly impacted. Some tourists left early ahead of Irma because it was not clear where the hurricane would make landfall.

What is surprising and notable this storm season is how regional social media is connecting the history of colonialism with the current storms and climate change. That is happening in a way that I have not seen before. Scholars are explaining publically that the Caribbean islands’ long history of colonialism made them less resilient and capable of responding to disasters. Colonists focused on extracting wealth and resources, leaving these island nations as weaker states in the post-colonial age.

In some ways climate change can be linked to the same history. These same colonizing countries produce greenhouse gas emissions (through their own activities and extreme consumption of goods whose emissions are produced elsewhere). These emissions then contribute to the increasing storm intensity and frequency in post-colonial regions.