Nova (1974–…): Season 45, Episode 24 - Rise of the Superstorms - full transcript

In summer 2017, three monster hurricanes swept in from the Atlantic one after another, shattering storm records and killing hundreds of people. Dive into the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. How can scientists better predict these storms, and what does the 2017 season tell us about the likelihood of similar storms in the future?

Are you wondering how healthy the food you are eating is? Check it -
Unprecedented devastation.

By Friday morning they started
using the word "catastrophic."

Three monster hurricanes
in a single month.




If you're told to evacuate,
get out quickly.

They strike violently...
Scouring the land.

We saw winds in excess
of 190 miles per hour.

The eye was right here
on top of us.

Leaving devastation

and thousands stranded
in their wake.

Today the focus is on rescue.

Houston, the nation's
fourth largest city,

is underwater.

You know that people are facing
really catastrophic situations.

They may be fighting
for their lives.

Islands like Puerto Rico

and nations of the Caribbean
are ravaged.

The entire country
has been decimated.

I have never seen
anything like this before.

The Florida Keys
are in shambles.

♪ ♪

What explains one of the most
disastrous hurricane seasons

on record?

Why did the strength of these
storms take so many by surprise?

Could a warming planet
be driving the weather

to new extremes?

Are storms of this intensity
the new "normal"?

And how will we cope?

Many organizations talk about
climate refugees.

2017 Atlantic hurricane season
may have ushered in that era.

For the survivors,
life may never be the same.

This is unreal!

Here was the living room
right here.

I couldn't believe
what was happening to us.

We lost everything.


"Rise of the Superstorms,"

right now, on "NOVA."

♪ ♪

Major funding for "NOVA"
is provided by the following...

A Houston neighborhood

State Troopers, anybody here?

The terrible aftermath
of Hurricane Harvey.

State Troopers!

Anybody here?

Now, rescue workers search
for trapped residents.

We're going to go here
and knock on the door.

All right.

State Troopers!

In 2017

three monster hurricanes
strike the U.S.

in rapid succession.


Houston under water, the
nation's fourth largest city.


Much of Florida,

extreme rains,
storm surge flooding.

And Maria.

In Puerto Rico,

their second heaviest rainfall
on record.

They bring

life-threatening destruction
to millions in their path.

I've got 18 people
I'm trying to get out.

It's an unprecedented onslaught
that breaks records

with powerful winds

and especially water.

Water is going to be

part of our future,
both on the rivers,

at the oceans.

We need to be using
the best science we have

to prepare ourselves
for our "Waterworld" future.

While we scramble to rebuild

following one of the most
harrowing hurricane seasons

on record,


policy makers,

and citizens are asking,

"Is this our future?

"And if so, how can we get ready

with the next season
already upon us?"

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

It's August 2017,

midway through
the Atlantic hurricane season.

So far, it's been fairly quiet.

But that's about to end.

There's a weather disturbance
developing in the Atlantic,

and it's moving
steadily westward.

A storm starts off
in a reasonably simple way.

You need some warm
surface temperatures,

and that will give
the air near the surface

an initial trigger
to start rising.

On August 17,

the system grows in strength,
becoming a tropical storm.

It's given a name,

which will not soon
be forgotten: Harvey.

Harvey loses strength
and a few days later,

crosses the Yucatán Peninsula
into the Gulf of Mexico.

There's the storm,
it is very disorganized.

But meteorologists
at the National Weather Service

predict that as the storm moves
into the warm Gulf waters...

tropical systems just feed

off of that warmer water.

Harvey will strengthen

and hit Texas within a few days.

If you are just waking up
and tuning in,

we're now just dealing
with a tropical storm,

we'll probably be dealing
with a hurricane.

A hurricane,

but only a relatively weak one,
Category One.

However, it is expected to bring
at least ten inches of rain

and some flooding.

On the Gulf coast of Texas,

residents prepare for a bad,

but not catastrophic storm.

Water, canned goods, some fruit,

lots of pouches
for my little boy to eat,

so just trying to be prepared.

But then Harvey takes
a dramatic turn.

Well, it has changed.

And it is bigger.

In just a matter of hours,

Harvey rapidly increases
in strength.

Now, with the storm
just 300 miles offshore,

forecasters quickly
change gears.

A few hours ago, this was going
to be a Category One.

Now we're looking
at a Category Three.

They predict Harvey will be
a dangerous major hurricane

with winds up
to 125 miles an hour.

We haven't seen anything
like that along this coast

for at least 47 years,
this part of Texas.

A major hurricane
with big flooding, surge, wind,

and a lot of damage.

As Texas officials prepare
to face

this rapidly evolving monster

wind engineer Forrest Masters

recognizes a good opportunity
to gather data.

We've been there for every
major event that's happened,

all the major storms
you can think of,

from Katrina to Sandy.

We've been in about 30 storms
conducting experiments.

He immediately travels
from Florida

to Texas to meet the storm.

Along with a team of engineers,

he sets up a 5,000-pound
wind tower

to measure the speed
and direction

of wind close to the ground...

One of the least understood
components of violent storms.

We can haul these
anywhere we need to

and set them up
in the span of 30 minutes.

They have different levels
of anemometry,

which are precision
wind instruments.

They take measurements
ten times per second.

Masters thinks that having
better wind speed data

at ground level...

Taken during
the most powerful storms...

Can help in the design
of more resilient buildings.

Harvey perfectly fits the bill.

As it nears land, it reaches
Category Four out of five

on the standard
hurricane wind scale.

Once we get at three or above,

we're in the major hurricane

That's when things
get very serious,

because we see the likelihood
of windborne debris happening.

And ultimately, when we work
our way up to a Category Five,

we're testing the limits
of the infrastructure.

On the morning of August 25,

Harvey is moving towards
Corpus Christi on the coast.

Local officials issue
mandatory evacuations,

ordering several thousand
coastal residents

to move inland.

Many people in Corpus Christi
are getting out,

taking the city up on
an offer to leave town for free.

Hundreds of people boarded
school buses

headed for an evacuation center
in San Antonio.

About 200 miles farther up
the coast is Houston.

Even though the storm is still
to the south...

It's so big, it will definitely
have an impact on the city.

But there's no evacuation order,

in part because
of a painful experience

during a previous
major hurricane.

In 2005, when Hurricane Rita
was bearing down on Houston...

Officials ordered an evacuation

several days in advance
of landfall.

Millions took to the highways.

In the massive traffic jams,
cars ran out of gas,

stranding thousands
in 100-degree heat.

In the end, more people died
while attempting to flee

than while hunkering down.

That memory is still fresh.

So officials don't order
a mass evacuation.

Millions of Houston residents
prepare to shelter in place.

At this time,

there will be no mass
evacuations called.

We'll have a lot of water,

but it's not the kind of water

that we would ask people
to evacuate from.

While residents
anxiously await landfall

of what is now expected to be
a Category Four hurricane,

the winds suddenly intensify
even further...

Reaching sustained winds
of 130 miles an hour.

Our biggest concern
with hurricane forecasting

is rapid intensification right
as the storm is making landfall.

Hurricane Harvey was
an extremely dangerous storm

in that regard,

because in the last 30 hours,

it increased by
50 mile per hours in its winds.

People along the shore
need to leave.

You need to be gone.

It's not a Cat One anymore,
this is a Category Four,

130, 135-mile-per-hour storm.

Just before 10:00 p.m.,

about four miles east
of Rockport, Texas,

Hurricane Harvey makes landfall.

♪ ♪

Oh, man, that vehicle is going
to be gone!

We prayed a lot, talked a lot.

We kept ourselves busy,
we played cards.

We could see things flying

Fences were coming down,

things were flying
all over the place.

As predicted,
when it comes ashore,

Harvey's sustained wind speeds
hold at 130 miles an hour...

Making it the first
Category Four storm

to strike the U.S.
in 13 years.

The eye passes directly
over Rockport, Texas,

about 150 miles from Houston.

We came outside,

we looked up,
and it was a clear sky,

was nothing but stars,
that was the eye.

Not even two seconds
after we shut the door,

it started all over again.

The eye was on top of Rockport...
I mean, it was right here.

The eye was right here.

Lining the eye
is the hurricane's eye wall...

Where the winds are strongest.

Anyone in the eye's path
gets hit twice

by the super-charged
eye wall winds...

First as the storm approaches,

and then again as it departs.

In 20 years
of hurricane research,

Forrest Masters has seldom seen
such a powerful storm.

We measured some of the highest
winds we've ever recorded.

We saw winds in excess
of 190 miles per hour.

In a matter of hours,
Rockport is left in pieces.

We underestimated the power and
the force behind this hurricane.

It just went right through
and just devoured everything.

It's just devastating.

♪ ♪

Much of Rockport is flattened
by Harvey's powerful winds.

But having spent much
of its energy over land,

the storm quickly weakens...

From a Category Four hurricane

into a tropical storm

maintaining winds
of about 45 miles an hour.

But wind speed is not
the only measure

of a storm's destructive power.

This category number

really just relates to the
maximum sustained wind speeds.

But the category system
tells us nothing

about flood potential as far
as storm surge and heavy rain.

The heavy rains
were just beginning.

Even though wind speeds are now
much less hazardous,

residents are far from safe.

Harvey drifts east and stalls.

Conflicting winds in the upper
atmosphere pin it in place.

We have a high pressure

to the east
and a high pressure to the west,

and there's nothing
in the middle to move it away.

Warm ocean water keeps
the storm alive.

The heat evaporates moisture
into clouds

only to be dumped
in record amounts as rain.

This storm was essentially
just pumping water vapor,

turning it into liquid,
and dropping it on Texas.

At the same time,

the sustained winds
blowing onshore

push ocean water inland...

Potentially creating
a six-to-12-foot storm surge.

With the addition
of heavy rains,

widespread flooding is

Many of our best computer models
showed that Hurricane Harvey

was indeed going to be
a one-two punch.

This thing was going to linger

for days as a tropical storm

and produce rainfall amounts

that would lead to significant
and life-changing flooding.

Any hurricane that puts down
ten inches of rain

in one spot is going
to make flooding.

The forecast here is 30 to 50.

30 to 50 inches of rain...

A deluge that goes on and on.

Rainfall totals
surpass existing records.

The National Weather Service
introduces a new shade

of purple
on their rainfall maps...

To indicate
the more than 30 inches

of record-breaking rain
Harvey drops on the region.

As the rain falls, storm surge
compounds the problem.

It lowered the efficiency
of the rainfall runoff.

So where was this 30, 40 inches
of rain going to drain?

Harvey's total inundation
of rainfall

plus wind-driven storm surge
on top of the tides

creates a slow-motion

Already, the rivers,
reservoirs, and bayous

of Houston's Harris County,

the third most populous
in the country,

are at record levels.

And waters continue to rise
for several more days.

There's almost a level
of despair there.

You know that people are facing
really catastrophic situations,

and if they didn't get out,

they may be fighting
for their lives.

This could be one
of the worst flooding events

in American history.

The city of Houston,

we're going to do everything
we can to assist people,

get them off the roof,
get them out the attic,

get them out of the home.

So today the focus is on rescue.

I'm sorry!

No, no, don't be sorry.

As part of the federal response,

the U.S. Border Patrol
Search, Trauma, and Rescue Team

finds people swept away
in floodwaters,

their homes and cars
no longer safe.

Here, we're going
to put the life vest on you.


All right, try to climb in this.

I'll push you up, all right?

One, two, three!

The water's moving so rapidly,

it takes about ten people
to haul in the victim,

fighting the current.

You okay?

Are you hurt?
You injured?


Let me take your life jacket.

For most of this area,

25 inches of rain is
a massive flood event.

To have 50,
and there's even been a report

of 60 inches of rain is
just beyond our comprehension.

It's beyond anything

that we could've
really dealt with.

Then it becomes an issue

of what's the best way
to triage a disaster.

Now, the National Guard
and other government agencies

conduct 13,000 rescues...

Over thousands of square miles.

The sheer volume
of rainwater fallen

is enough to fill the
Houston Astrodome 85,000 times.

And the flood is slow
to retreat...

The result of Houston's

and some think unchecked,

Ecologist Erin Kinney has found
that over 500 square miles

of Houston's Harris County

is covered
by impervious surfaces

that don't absorb water.

As Houston and
the surrounding area expanded,

it has done so often
at the expense of natural lands.

And it has resulted

in the loss of acres and acres

of freshwater wetlands.

Things like asphalt and concrete

are not meant to have water
percolate through them.

Yeah, I grew up around here.

There's a tennis court

that's eight feet under water.

Our parking lots, our driveways,

the strip malls, our highways.

Those are all
impervious surfaces.

Natural vegetation is
so much more efficient

at not only allowing
that water to absorb

but also filtering it
as it goes.

It filters out the microscopic
viruses and the bacteria.

That filtering capacity
is really what I think

is the unseen power
of a wetland.

But the flooding isn't just
a problem in Houston.

The storm leaves
a massive footprint.

A hundred miles northeast,

Lumberton, Texas, receives
a record-setting

48 inches of rain.

It's one of the worst hit.

But it's not alone.

And because the number
of flooded areas is so large,

the federal relief effort
is stretched thin.

Residents here are mostly
managing on their own,

conducting search and rescue.

♪ ♪

Jerry Haire...
"Snuffy" to his friends...

Lives near
the Pine Island Bayou,

which flooded over its banks,

even damaging homes built
on stilts

to stand above the water.

Gary Arnold lives
a few hundred miles away,

but rushed to Lumberton

to help his friend
rescue neighbors

and ferry them to safety.

We were taking people
back and forth

from one side to the other

to go get their medicines
at the store.

We were taking MREs back
and forth to people.

Some of them didn't have
no place to go.

Some of them's older people,
didn't have no family.

And some of them just didn't
want to leave their home,

because they were scared that
they would get throwed in

with a bunch of people

and just be, you know,

Robbed, raped, killed.

I mean, you don't never know.

It's just a bad deal.

This is these people's

♪ ♪

Be careful stepping
in that water for real.

What could happen to me?

You could get MRSA,
you could get typhoid,

you could get...
um, what's that other stuff?

What else they say is
in that water, Snuffy?

E. coli.

And there's no telling what
other chemicals are in here.

Because, I mean,

fertilizer plants blew up

All this water's coming
from that direction.

So just think about that.

That's a sad deal.

The sheer power
of inundating water

upends houses, trees,
and even cars.

Somebody was probably
driving down that road,

and the water forced, forced it
over here to where it's at.

♪ ♪

Experts begin calling Harvey
a 500-year storm...

Meaning it has
a one in 500 probability

of happening in a given year.

Yet, in the past three years,

the Houston area has experienced
three 500-year storms.

it takes about five days

for the storm
to blow itself out,

and the clean-up
will take much, much longer.

Because it's not just water
that gets carried.

It's viruses and bacteria

that are floating around
in people's homes.

And the rescue workers are
walking around in that.

We're going to be dealing
with the aftermath

of those floodwaters for years.

But this hellish hurricane
season is far from over.

Six days after Harvey hit,

while much of southeast Texas
remains underwater,

a new hurricane out
in the Atlantic... Irma... forms

and intensifies rapidly.

It went from a Category Three

with 120-mile-per-hour winds

to a Category Five
with 175-mile-per-hour winds

in just 30 hours.

Irma continues moving westward.

It's heading across
unusually warm waters...

Fuel for hurricanes...
Giving it the potential

to develop
into a monstrous storm.

♪ ♪

The island of Barbuda

is first to feel
the force of Irma.

Winds up to 185 miles an hour

grind across
the 62 square-mile island,

leaving 90%
of properties damaged.

All communication with
the outside world is cut off.

The prime minister declares
the island uninhabitable.

We just did a fly-over,

and I have to tell you
my heart sunk.

This has been one
of the worst days of my life.

The entire country
has been decimated.

I have never seen anything
like this before.

The powerful onslaught

Irma hits St. Martin and
then the British Virgin Islands.

Both suffer extensive damage.

For these islands,

it is one of the worst
hurricanes in modern history.

This storm is so unusual,

because it stayed strong
for so very long.

♪ ♪

Irma maintains top winds
of 180 miles an hour

for 18 hours.

And now, it may be headed
for Florida.

All the computers
modelling this storm agree.

It will take a northward turn,

pushed by high-altitude
wind currents,

but they disagree
about exactly when and where

it will change direction.

One model has it going up
the east coast, grazing Daytona.

The other has it going
into the Gulf of Mexico,

and then the next run,
they switch.

Where is this thing
really going to go?

We can't evacuate
the entire state of Florida.

Because of the Florida
peninsula's narrow geography,

every coastal city...

Whether on the Atlantic side
or the Gulf side...

Faces potential flooding
from a storm this massive.

Florida's not a wide state,

and the east coast and
west coast aren't that far apart

in terms of our understanding
and our ability to predict.

If this does hit Florida,

because the arms of this storm
are so big,

it's going to hit both sides.

So whether it goes
on the east side of the state

or the left side of state
or right up the middle,

the entire state of Florida
is going to see damage.

Miami is already prone
to flooding.

If Irma strikes the city

the storm surge there
could be devastating.

But Miami isn't the only major
population center at risk.

Cities on the west coast,
like Tampa,

also have very little defense

against a possible
eight-foot storm surge,

which could take out billions of
dollars of coastal development

and put thousands of lives
at risk.

When faced with a superstorm
like Irma,

small changes
to the hurricane's path

can result in dramatically
different outcomes.

To hone the prediction,
more measurements

of temperature,
pressure, humidity,

and wind speed are needed.

These come from satellites,



and ground-based
weather stations.

And also from rugged aircraft

that fly directly
into the storm,

like this P-3 Hurricane Hunter

penetrating Hurricane Irma's
eye wall,

with scientists onboard.

That's the most intense part
of the hurricane,

that's where the strongest winds
are and the greatest turbulence.

It gets immediately dark,

because you're surrounded
by clouds.

The rain starts to stream
off the windows.

They've got a lot of instruments
on the fuselage of the aircraft,

so as they fly through
the storm,

they're taking measurements

of the pressure, winds,
temperature, and humidity.

Also, they have instruments
called dropsondes

and they're little packages
that fall down through the storm

on parachutes
and radio back as they fall.

And a Hurricane Hunter aircraft

will typically drop
maybe 20 of those,

sending back data
for about a 15-minute period

till they splash in the ocean.

We fly what's called
a figure four,

where you fly to the periphery,

and then you chop through
at right angles

to the last pass you did,

because you want to sample all
four quadrants of the hurricane

to find out, you know,

what are the winds
in all four areas?

Measurements collected
in the storm

reach supercomputer centers
in the U.S. and the U.K.

There, the data flows
into numerical models

that generate forecasts
for Irma.

The European Centre for
Medium-Range Weather Forecasts,

in England,

uses some of
the fastest computers on earth

to output what are regarded
as the most accurate models

of a hurricane's path.

So this is Ventus,
one of our two supercomputers.

And inside this machine,

we process approximately 100
million observations every hour.

So this machine has to be
incredibly powerful.

to 100,000 desktop computers.

These massive
number-crunching computers

predict the future weather
for any point on the globe.

Right now, they're figuring out
where Irma is headed.

We have a set of grid points
around the globe, 500 million.

And at each
of those grid points,

we solve the equations

that tell us what the winds
are doing at those points,

what the temperature is doing,
what the humidity is doing.

As Irma approaches Florida,

the solutions
to all those equations

result in a forecast
of Irma's track,

which is updated
every six hours.

♪ ♪

The National Hurricane Center
in Miami

analyzes the output
of the computer models

to issue
its official storm warnings.

They have Irma hitting somewhere
in Florida in just three days.

But the models have not yet
nailed down

where it will make landfall...

A crucial determinant of damage.

Now, just 250 miles
from the Florida Keys,

Irma hits Cuba...

The first
Category Five hurricane

to make landfall there
since 1924.

It's a disaster for the island
and its residents,

but as it crosses land,
it loses strength...

Which is good news for Florida.

The land interaction
that Irma had with Cuba

took about 25 miles per hour
off the storm.

Cuba did a huge favor
for Florida,

because if Irma
had not hit Cuba,

passed maybe just 20 miles
to the north of where it did,

I'm convinced that

it would have been
a Category Five hitting Florida

and would have caused

just unbelievable
catastrophic damage there.

As Cuba takes the brunt
of the storm,

Irma leaves $13 billion
in damage

and ten dead in its wake.

100 miles to the north,

Florida is now
under a state of emergency,

with mandatory evacuations
for the Keys and Miami.

The last catastrophic hurricane
to hit Miami was Andrew,

a Category Five storm,
25 years earlier.

The extreme damage was

between the Keys and Miami,

leaving dozens of people dead,

and more than 160,000 homeless.

That's why residents
are so anxious

to know where Irma
will make landfall.

All the models are considered

to make a forecast
of Irma's track.

But there is uncertainty
that is represented in a cone.

The cone covers the area where
Irma will most probably go...

And it gets wider
the further out in time.

So two days out...
With a hurricane 400 miles wide

and the width of the Florida
peninsula less than that...

It shows everyone could be
in danger.

♪ ♪

As a consequence, those
in the most vulnerable areas,

some six to seven million

have been urged to evacuate.

You look at the roads,

it's an evacuation
all the way up.

The storm's going
all the way up.

No matter where you are,
you're going to get hit,

unless you're out past,
like, Tennessee or something.

I have a five-gallon can
sitting in the trunk.

I've got some gas still
in the car,

but not enough to try

and outrun a Category Four
or Five storm.

Forget it.

Do not sit and wait
for this storm to come.

It is extremely dangerous
and deadly

and will cause devastation.

Do not ignore evacuation orders.

we can rebuild your home,

but we cannot rebuild your life.

We're full,
but we don't turn anyone away.

We're serving three meals a day,

right now we're wrapping up
with breakfast.

We have around 500 people here,

and so far so good.

Our biggest concerns
would be food supplies

and also later in the evening,

when we are hunkering down,

people who might need
medical support

or any type of 911 situations.

If you're near the water,
if you're in the Keys,

you need to leave now.

One thing
all the models agree on...

The Florida Keys are right
in the path of destruction.

Irma makes landfall at 9:10 a.m.
on September 10

at Cudjoe Key, Florida,
with 130-mile-an-hour winds.

Storm surge engulfs
entire neighborhoods.

Thousands of homes are wrecked.

There is no way these islands...

Just a few feet
above sea level...

Can be protected.

After hitting the Keys,
Irma heads towards the mainland,

making landfall
at Marco Island and Naples,

which are lashed by the
eye wall's most intense winds,

ripping into infrastructure
like a giant on a rampage.

The wind just tore
that sign down.

And that wreckage is going
to become airborne missiles

when the core of the hurricane

Landfall here spares Miami
and eastern Florida

much of the worst.

But Irma is still
a dangerous storm

as it tears into the Everglades

and continues up the west coast.

Those directly
in the storm's path

take the most severe
wind damage, as expected.

But it's the location
of the greatest flood damage

that is surprising.

For example,

Irma leaves Tampa
unexpectedly dry,

but drowns parts of Jacksonville
under five feet of water.

It's a tough problem.

Storm surges brought
by hurricanes

are notoriously difficult
to predict.

Much depends
on the exact strength

and direction
of winds blowing onshore,

as well as how they interact
with the landscape...

And even the rhythm
of local tides.

Sudden changes
in any of the variables

can quickly render
a prediction useless.

Irma is a case study

in how tricky it can be
to issue a timely forecast

for a densely settled
coastal area...

Where lives
and property are at stake.

Though Irma's impact is not
as severe as some anticipated,

the hurricane exacts
a heavy price.

Some 40 people die
in the Caribbean,

and at least 80 in Florida.

Most in the hardest hit area...
The Keys.

Total devastation.

All we've got left is
a pile of rubble.

Howlin' winds, sideways rain,
tornadoes dropping down.

Everything going haywire.

Water about eight,
ten foot deep.

May I dump some water
down the back of your neck?

Nobody knows in my family
if I'm alive or dead,

and there's quite a few people
that passed away in the storm.

Oh, my God.

Thank God we have this.

If we didn't have this
and those MREs,

we wouldn't eat, because
there's no grocery stores open.

There's nothing that's going
to be open in the near future.

They're devastated too.

And thank God the Army came in.

It could have been worse

had there not been
a timely evacuation order

for the Keys
and other vulnerable areas.

But on the mainland,

why was it so difficult
to precisely predict landfall?

The nature of the problem is

that it is a fundamentally
chaotic system, our atmosphere,

so that we will always
maybe be one step behind

our last mistake.

But as long as we learn
from that mistake, it's okay.

Improving both track
and intensity predictions

is of utmost importance

if we are to face more seasons
like 2017...

Already one of
the most destructive on record,

and now, with the arrival

of a storm named Maria,
not yet over.

Like Harvey and Irma before it,
Maria rapidly intensifies.

It went
from a tropical depression

to a Category Five hurricane
in just 54 hours.

Maria is now

one of most rapidly intensifying
hurricanes on record.

Rapid intensification

of the three major storms
to hit the U.S. in 2017

has taken forecasters
by surprise,

primarily because
it's so difficult

to take measurements
deep inside a hurricane...

Just above the surface
of the ocean...

Where atmospheric conditions
have a powerful influence

on a storm's ferocity.

♪ ♪

What is critical for determining
the energy transfer

from the ocean
to the atmosphere,

which is what drives
the hurricane,

is not only
the sea surface temperature

but the atmospheric temperature
right above it.

In a powerful hurricane,

that's a dangerous no-go zone
for a ship or plane.

But not for a drone.

Hurricane Research Division

is testing
an unmanned aerial system

that we can deploy
from the plane.

This is called the Coyote.

It can sustain flight
for about an hour.

And the idea is to do as much
sampling at low altitude,

where we will not fly
the manned aircraft,

to get humidity measurements

that are driving
the energy exchange.

Deployed at a high altitude

by a Hurricane Hunter aircraft,

a Coyote can fly in the powerful
winds above the sea surface

and radio back
continuous measurements.

♪ ♪

All models agree.

Maria, now a Category Five,
is on a collision course

with the island nation
of Dominica.

As it passes over,

it leaves in its wake

one of the worst
natural disasters

ever to hit the island.

But Maria's not finished.

So what we have now is
a Category Four,

or maybe even a Five,

heading right
toward Puerto Rico.

Two days later, the storm
barrels into Puerto Rico.

It's the second strongest
hurricane to hit the island

in recorded history.

The worst Atlantic seasons
on record

have only seen one Category Four
or Five hurricane

hit U.S. territory.

Incredibly, this is now
the third monster storm

to make landfall in 2017.

Maria hits on the southeast
corner of the island,

where storm chaser,
Josh Morgerman,

has come to film.

Okay, my neighbors' windows

He's holed up in a hotel there,

where locals
have also sought shelter.

Can you guys open the door?

Their windows
have been blown out&

Can you open it?

Creating a suction effect,

so they can't get out
of their room.

Here, I'm pushing!

One, two, three!

Okay, okay.

Come on, come on.

Just get in there.

Go in there.

Go in there, it's safer.

Go in there.

Okay, here's some pillows.

The wind speeds
were really catastrophic

as it made landfall.

The track of the storm was
really a worst-case scenario

for Puerto Rico.

♪ ♪

The wind seems to have changed

and, uh, it's now
just blasting these windows,

and we're all in the bathroom.

As I've always said,

the bathroom is
the best place to be

during really bad winds.

♪ ♪

Maria wreaks widespread
destruction across Puerto Rico.

Whole neighborhoods
are devastated,

and the entire island
loses power.

Mountain rivers flood
the highlands,

hundreds of landslides cover
roads, engulfing buildings,

while winds gusting
up to 155 miles an hour

leave homes gutted.

This here was my room.


This one right here
was my grandmother's room.

The kitchen, right here.


here was the living room,
right here.


Although the official death toll
is 64,

some later estimates
for those who died

during the storm
and its aftermath

exceed 4,000.

In the months
following the storm,

getting the basic necessities
of life is an uphill battle.

We don't have any electricity,
we don't have any water.

We don't have any signal,
we cannot communicate.

There are only a few spots,
along highways,

where people can find
cell signals.

We have a crisis,
you know, in P.R.

Basically, we got hit hard.

People are dying.

You know, no water,
no electricity.

And it's just pure chaos,

It is so sad to see this island,

and we....
there's no more food, either.

We can't get food in here.

And my dog died from the storm.

She got so nervous,
and it was so hot, she died.

So we've been through a lot.

A lot, a lot.

Days are spent in line
for the essentials,

just to survive.

We wait for water, food,
first aid.

Any kind of help
that they can give us.

3.3 million Americans endure

what many see as
a lackluster government response

to the crisis.

I think that the message
is clear.

Puerto Rico is devastated
by the hurricane,

and we are in need of help.

FEMA is here,
but we will need more.

These supplies beside me

just will last
for a couple of days.

Three devastating hurricanes
hitting the U.S.

in a single season.

Is it a fluke, bad luck,

or is there a reason
this is happening...

A reason that can be traced

to the fact
that our climate is warming?

We now know 16 of the 17
warmest years on record

occurred since 2001.

A century and a half
of burning fossil fuels

on an industrial scale

has released billions of tons
of long-buried carbon

into the atmosphere.

In the form of carbon dioxide,

it traps heat,
warming the oceans.

This not only provides more fuel
for powerful storms,

it raises sea level
as glaciers melt

and warm water expands.

During storms,
even a small rise in sea level

can have an impact,

causing powerful storm surges
and increased flooding.

One way to gauge the speed
of sea level rise

due to climate change

is to track the history
of changing sea levels

going back millennia...

Before we began
burning fossil fuels.

Andrea Dutton collects samples
from ancient coral reefs,

like this one exposed
just above the shoreline.

Since the corals she studies
need sunlight,

they can only grow
where the water is shallow,

making them a measuring stick
for sea level.

By analyzing the cores,

Andrea can compare how fast
sea level rose in the past

with current rates.

the global average sea level

is rising at about
three millimeters a year.

So that's about a thickness
of two pennies stacked together.

Which doesn't sound
very impressive, right?

But when you look at the rate
of sea level rise we see today,

it far exceeds
anything we've seen

in the past several
thousand years at least.

And so sea level was
going along,

and then it started rising
very rapidly

during the industrial period.

Sea level has responded
to this increase in temperature

and is now rising very quickly.

Andrea has also found evidence

of hot spots
along the Florida coast,

where sea level is rising
at an even greater rate.

We started pulling
the tide gauge records,

and we realized that there was
a very rapid acceleration

of sea level
by almost five inches.

And so when we talk about three
millimeters of sea level rise,

that's the global average
that we see right now,

that's about
one foot per century.

And all of a sudden

we get five inches
in five years.

I mean, that's a huge amount.

That kind of increase

in areas that are
already vulnerable

to flooding and storm surge

will serve to magnify
the impact of hurricanes.

When we have
a prolonged onshore wind,

we already have heightened
sea levels along the coast,

so this compound flooding
from storm surge and heavy rain

is just going to get worse,
because of sea level rise.

In fact, in May 2018,
a new study concluded

that above-average
ocean temperatures

increased rainfall during
Hurricane Harvey by 15% to 38%.

These authors warn

that future Atlantic hurricanes
are likely to be bigger,

more intense,

and longer lasting
than in the past.

By the end of the century,

three Category Four storms

is going to be not that unusual.

It's going to happen more often

with warmer oceans
and climate change.

As the atmosphere warms

and the ocean warms,

there's more energy
in the system.

And that energy has to be
released somehow.

So we expect
from our understanding

of the global earth system

that as we increase the
temperatures of the system,

we should expect to see stronger

and probably
more frequent storms.

Today, Category Four
and Five storms

only make up about
ten percent of the hurricanes

that hit the U.S.,

but they produce
half the damage.

Even one or two more of these
powerful storms each year

will be devastating
to vulnerable communities.

We need to plan for a future

where storms are going to be
more intense

and sea level rise is going
to be higher

and storm surge is going
to wipe out

a lot more of the coast
when it hits.

One of the things
that I hope comes from 2017

is forethought on how we plan

in terms of resiliency

in places like Puerto Rico
or perhaps even the Keys.

We know that we are going to see
hurricanes again

and perhaps even stronger ones,

if the climate change literature
is correct.

In 1998 we had Georges.

Their houses were destroyed.

And they're building the
same thing in the same place.

We don't learn,

you know, to prepare
for the next hurricane season!

♪ ♪

I look forward to the day
when we can move from tactical

to strategic
when we talk about hurricanes.

And case in point would be

versus shelter in place.

Today we are heavily reliant
on people getting out of the way

when storms come through.

Are we going to be able to do
that 50 years from now,

a hundred years from now,

when the coastal population
has exploded?

Four months after Maria pounded
Puerto Rico,

the storm's power
still reverberates

in the lives of the people.

It's a little rough,
because it's so limited.

The only gas station we have
right now is just ruined.

The stores were closed.

We had to drive far away

to even get money
to even go buy things

for us to survive
and our family.

Everybody was getting sick

because we didn't have a way
to find food or water.

Families in the mountains
still have no running water,

and power is months away.

Well, electricity,
as you can see,

we still don't have no
electricity, 100 days after.

And this is reality.

I couldn't believe
what was happening to us.

We lost everything.


It will take eight months

and $2.5 billion

to restore power
for most islanders.

And even then,
blackouts continue.

For the fishing industry,

the loss of boats, traps,
and piers

puts hundreds out of work.

And many more jobs
and homes are lost permanently,

spurring hundreds of thousands
to leave the island

in what some have called
a mass exodus.

Many organizations talk about

or climate refugees.

And I think 2017 Atlantic
hurricane season

may have ushered in that era
for the Caribbean.

♪ ♪

Maria, a single storm,

causes some $90 billion
in damage in Puerto Rico alone,

the third costliest
behind Katrina and Harvey,

and in a territory
whose gross national product

barely clears
$100 billion a year.

We're going to get back up.

We're going to rebuild
Puerto Rico again.

The climb has been hard,
but we're getting there.

We are getting there.

This is hurricane country.

Indeed, the word "hurricane"

comes from "Huracán,"
the Caribbean god of evil.

These islanders'
considerable grit

has been forged by the winds.

At first,

it was really hard to take in,
you know,

I cried for a few hours.


you just have to accept it,

because there's nothing
I can do right now.

So I've got to stay positive
and work.

In Houston as well,

many are also struggling
to stay positive

with the help of neighbors
and community.

A canoe shows up on our street.

But these two guys went,

"We heard there were people here
that needed to get out."

My wife is obviously crying
at this point.

And he just says,
"Where are you going now?"

She's like, "I have no idea."

And I always joke about,
like, you know,

if there's ever an apocalypse,
we're the first to die,

because we have seven children,
who are not helpful, and a dog.

So I'm like, "No one takes in
the family of nine and a dog."

And, and the Ramseys did.

They live literally
like two blocks up,

and they were on a high point,

and they just said,
"All right, come on."

And it starts pouring down
rain again,

and they're taking these
wet, rowdy kids, and their dog,

into their home.

When Aric first returned to
his Houston home after Harvey,

he shot a video that went viral,

bringing a message of hope

to the millions who lost so much
to this hurricane season.

My son who's 13

loves playing piano,
plays every day.

He was kind of worried
about his piano,

and so I was like "Hey,"
I handed him my phone,

I was like, "I'm going
to just play real quick,"

and let him know that it works.

I'm going to have to tune
this one.

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

This "NOVA" program
is available on DVD.

"NOVA" is also available
for download on iTunes.

♪ ♪