The earth is angry, and rightly so.

Columnist Stephen McClanahan is retired from P&G and now active in environmental advocacy, search/rescue and emergency medical/disaster response.

How much destruction do you have to see before you have seen enough? How angry does the earth need to be before we pay attention? How many lives must be ruined before it’s too many? As these words emerge on my computer screen, I can’t help but recall the lyrics to the folk ballad, and I pray the answers are not “Blowin’ in the wind”.

In the past few months, I took the opportunity to spend some time in eastern North Carolina and the northern panhandle of Florida; in both places, I was there as part of Team Rubicon to help people try to put their lives back together following hurricanes Florence and Michael, respectively. Team Rubicon is a volunteer disaster recovery organization, mainly but not completely composed of military veterans. Hurricanes (or tropical cyclones as they’re called) are natural storms. We pay attention to the ones coming in off the Atlantic ocean. Pushed along by easterly trade winds in the tropics, warm, moist air near the ocean’s surface naturally rises and is replaced by cooler air aloft. With enough heat at the surface, the process

Learn more about Team Rubicon

continues. Throw in the rotation of the earth that induces a spin (counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere). As these get pushed along over the open ocean, they draw energy from the heat of the surface waters. The warmer the surface waters of the oceans, the more energy these storms have available. If atmospheric conditions are favorable for their large-scale formation, a storm emerges. As it grows, we give it names like tropical depression, then a category one hurricane and on up the line. I think one would have to be numb not to stand in awe at the fury and strength of such natural phenomena. Monster storms as these can make one feel very small; their scale and power are enormous. Magnificent, global forces are at play here. And yet, as tiny as we are in comparison, you and I (and many more of us) have a direct and measurable impact on them, because, you see, we’re pretty good at warming the oceans over which they pass. And with that, let me say welcome to global warming.

Monster storms as these can make one feel very small; their scale and power are enormous.

We are probably familiar with the story by now. The sun heats our earth during daylight hours and at night, the earth cools by radiating some of that heat back into space. We all know that the earth does not cool as much during those nights with cloud cover, since the clouds act as a blanket. Clouds have an immediate and temporary effect; these impact our weather. It turns out that the carbon dioxide we emit into our atmosphere from our consumption of fossil fuels has been building up for decades (look at the graph to see for yourself); it too, acts as a kind of blanket but its impact is long-term. This CO2 blanket has a much slower build time but also a much longer lasting impact on our climate. CO2 traps some of the energy that would normally be radiated into space and holds it close to the earth. And, as we know, water is a great heat sink; it takes a lot of energy to heat water but once warmed, it retains that heat very well. Most (about 95%) of the excess heat that CO2 has trapped is in our oceans. Ergo, charged up hurricanes…natural storms made stronger by human impact on our planet.

Its easy to read this kind of stuff and have it remain abstract, lifeless with no human touch. So, let’s go to North Carolina and Florida.

Its easy to read this kind of stuff and have it remain abstract, lifeless with no human touch. So, let’s go to North Carolina and Florida.

Burgaw sits in the Cape Fear river basin, about 40 miles inland from the Atlantic in eastern North Carolina. I spent a week there helping to muck-out homes in the flood zone of Hurricane Florence that went through in September of last year. One of those homes belongs to 80-year old Robert Ramsey; he lost everything, and I mean everything. Even though he’s 40 miles from the ocean, Florence came in and ever so slowly moved up the river valley; for days, it dumped unbelievable amounts of rain. The river flooded, to put it mildly.

All but 2 feet of the roof line of Robert’s single-story house disappeared under the waters.

All but 2 feet of the roof line of Robert’s single-story house disappeared under the waters. The water line was clearly visible on his metal roof. When I arrived, it had been well over a month since his house re-emerged from the flood waters. But his home was still a disaster; the destruction was so wide spread, all the emergency recovery resources that could be mustered were simply too inadequate to fix everyone straight away. I looked into Robert’s eyes as he stood in front of his home and I began to grasp the impacts. You could feel the hole in his heart; it was palpable. The damage to his home was enormous; there was nothing that was not ruined. Stench and mold were in abundant supply and growing worse by the day. Anything not washed away was rotting before your eyes. Everything in his humble home was totally destroyed. The only cure for his and about 4,000 other homes in this area was to gut

I looked into Robert’s eyes as he stood in front of his home and I began to grasp the impacts. You could feel the hole in his heart; it was palpable. The damage to his home was enormous; there was nothing that was not ruined. Stench and mold were in abundant supply and growing worse by the day.

them to the frame and try to dry out the bones of the structure. Everything inside is now in a landfill. Imagine, everything in your home being hauled to be buried. And while it has long faded from the news, the impacts of this storm ever present for those who lived it. One thing I heard time and again from the residents in the area was that this was not the first time their homes had been flooded; they do live in a river basin. But for thousands upon thousands of our fellow citizens, Florence was different; its waters were simply too much. And while it was water that Robert had to contend with, for folks in Mexico Beach, Florida, it was Michael’s winds that proved too much.

Mexico Beach is was your quintessential beach-front tourist community. It sits directly on the Gulf of Mexico. Not far from Tyndall Air Force Base or Panama City, the land is flat and low, just feet about sea level. There is nothing to protect it from storms off the Gulf. 

With little time for people to prepare, Michael slammed the upper peninsula of Florida near Mexico Beach on October 10 as a high-end category 4 hurricane; 150+ mph winds literally raked the community. Precious little remained standing when it was done.

Hurricane Michael was kind of a sneaker; it showed up in the Caribbean as low-pressure disturbance. For almost a full week, it only slowly grew to a tropical depression. On October 8, it finally attained category 1 (the lowest) hurricane status. Then it moved northward over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and as it did so, it became super-charged. With little time for people to prepare, Michael slammed the upper peninsula of Florida near Mexico Beach on October 10 as a high-end category 4 hurricane; 150+ mph winds literally raked the community. Precious little remained standing when it was done.

The place still looked like a nuclear bomb had exploded.

Team Rubicon volunteers come in for week-long waves; my assignment was for week 9 after Michael and the place still looked like a nuclear bomb had exploded. It’s kind of eerie to see a driveway lead up where a house once stood and literally, the only thing remaining is the concrete slab on which the home once stood; the winds took the rest. Our base of operations was an old warehouse in Panama City; Mexico Beach is about 20 miles down the coast to the southeast. To get there, you drive past Tyndall AFB which is well off the highway.  So mainly, you’re driving through a beautiful pine forest, or I should say, once was a pine forest. Thousands upon thousands now stand like twigs, all completely snapped off about 20 feet off the ground and all laying dead in the same wind-blown direction.

Increasing the intensity and the patterns of naturally occurring storms are some of the many impacts of a warming world. For any one storm, it’s hard to parse out the exact contribution that a warming planet has had on a naturally-occurring weather event. Keep in mind that altering hurricanes is only one of many changes taking place. What is clear, in the long view of measuring climate, is that things are changing. To quote from NASA: “Global climate change has already had observable effects on the environment. Glaciers have shrunk, ice on rivers and lakes is breaking up earlier, plant and animal ranges have shifted and trees are flowering sooner.” And things will continue

Keep in mind that altering hurricanes is only one of many changes taking place.

to change for the worse simply due to the amount of CO2 in the air right now. But we can stop the worse of it, if we act…with urgency. Scientific modeling of future changes very clearly shows that we must stop adding CO2 to the air (i.e., get off fossil fuels). If we don’t, starting in a little over a decade from now, we’re going to be in serious trouble. (Read the latest report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change if you’re into the details.)

Encouragingly, there are signs that we’re beginning to take this seriously; average citizens and political/community leaders are raising this issue and debating options. And not a minute too soon. The earth is angry, and rightly so. And nature will have the final say in all this. We need bold action and we need it now; otherwise, we’re blowin’ in the wind.



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