By Melissa Rivera
My mother-in-law just got a water bill for $160. There’s one major problem with that. Her home has only had sporadic access to clean water, and no power, since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico more than two months ago. Since then, she has been living with my family in Virginia.
The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, which ends this week, is the costliest hurricane season since hurricane record-keeping began, with more than $367 billion in damages from 17 named storms.
The season began well before the official June 1 start date when Tropical Storm Arlene formed April 20. It was only the second recorded time that a tropical storm had formed in the Atlantic in April. Fortunately, it only lasted about two days and confined itself to the mid-Atlantic.
June and July were fairly quiet, with four named storms, two of which hit the U.S.. Cindy made landfall on the border of Texas and Louisiana June 22. It caused flash floods, tornadoes, and wind damage from Texas to Florida on the Gulf Coast and north as far as Indiana. It killed two people. Tropical Storm Emily, which formed July 31, cut across Florida and flooded part of Miami before rapidly dissipating in the Gulf of Mexico.
The first hurricane of the season formed August 7. Hurricane Franklin was a Category 1 storm that over four days tracked the Central American coast, blew across the Yucatan Peninsula and hit central Mexico. Fortunately, it caused minimal damage.
Hurricane Gert also missed. The August 13-17 Category 2 storm never landed, but tracked the U.S. East Coast. Strong currents attributed to the storm killed one person in North Carolina and another in Massachusetts. It was a warmup and a reminder to get ready for the next one.
Hurricane Harvey landed in Rockport, Texas, August 19. It bounced on and off the Texas coast, stalling to dump torrents of rain on the Houston metro area, and finally landed in Louisiana and weakened to a depression on August 30.
Harvey’s first landfall was bad enough. One person died and 30 were missing in Rockport, where flooding and wind strong enough to drive a cargo trailer into the courthouse caused power and water deficiencies. But the storm bounced out to the Gulf of Mexico, landed again, then bounced out and stalled over Houston.
The now-tropical-storm dumped almost five and a half feet of rain in Nederland, Texas over three days, making it the wettest tropical cyclone in U.S. records. Many parts of Houston saw two and a half feet of rain fall. Dams breached and engineers opened levees, causing more flooding.
Thirty-thousand people evacuated and 17,000 more were rescued from flooded streets. At least 82 people died. A preliminary report estimated Harvey will cost $198 billion, making it the most expensive tropical cyclone in history. Houses alone accounted for $77 billion of that.
And the strongest Atlantic storm outside of the Gulf of Mexico or Caribbean Sea was right behind Harvey. Irma became a tropical storm on August 30 and, after damaging or destroying many Caribbean islands, veered north and straight up Florida.
Up to 8 million people were encouraged to evacuate, the largest evacuation order in the state’s history. More than half the state lost power. When water utilities lost power, at least 84 million gallons of raw sewage flooded streets, homes, and waterways.
The storm caused an estimated $64 billion in damage and at least 134 people died. It also left the island of Barbuda uninhabitable. The next of the season’s hurricanes, Jose, forced the evacuation of every one of the island’s 1,800 people.
Hurricanes Katia and Lee continued September’s onslaught, followed by Maria.
Starting September 18, Hurricane Maria flattened the Caribbean islands of Domica, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Almost everyone lost power, water, and communication services.
The hurricane streak continued into October. Hurricane Nate killed at least 45 people, most in Central America, as the fastest-moving storm recorded in the Gulf of Mexico hurled its way north. It also caused at least $650 million in damage.
Hurricane Ophelia became the easternmost category 3 hurricane recorded and the record tenth hurricane in a row. But it was after it became a post-tropical cyclone that it did most of its damage. Three people died. It knocked out power to hundreds of thousands in Ireland and the western United Kingdom, and produced wind gusts between 70 and 119 miles per hour. It also pulled smoke from fires in Spain into the United Kingdom.
Tropical Storm Philippe finally broke the string of hurricanes when in early November it failed to form into a hurricane. But when it merged with another northeastern storm, it knocked out power to 1.2 million people in New England, caused hurricane-force gusts in the northeastern U.S., and caused flooding in Canada. The final tropical storm in the season, Rina, formed in the central Atlantic. Its post-tropical phase brought wind and rain to Europe.
This devastating season came with many lessons.
First, be prepared so, if nothing else, you can help others. One New Jersey man who was in the process of losing his home donated all of his stored food to Puerto Rico: 80 barrels of food that could each sustain 84 people for four months.
Second, if you live anywhere near a flood plain, have flood insurance even if you don’t have to. About 80 percent of Hurricane Harvey’s victims didn’t have flood insurance.
Third, make sure you’re prepared for heat and no power in the aftermath. As Hurricane Irma taught, heat can kill.
Fourth, organize your important papers and keep them somewhere you can access after a storm. Also, make sure you have savings, because, as my mother-in-law learned, bills keep coming even when you’re evacuated.
Melissa Rivera is a jack-of-all-trades who is master of none. She has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years.