A house underwater: discussing humans and hurricanes in the United States


Photo courtesy of NOAA

By Ivana Porashka

Staff Writer


Harvey and Irma sparked nationwide debates in regards to hurricanes and global warming on several platforms. Sponsored by the Office of Civic Engagement, a panel of Sewanee faculty presented their experiences with the 2017 hurricane season to discuss how nature affects politics and day-to-day life.

Department of Physics professor and National Atmospheric Research Entity employee Mike Coffey described the phenomena of hurricanes. Pulling up a powerpoint slide of the water cycle, he explained that “water is a great transporter of energy in the atmosphere. All of the water that’s on the Earth now has always been on the Earth and always will be…it just gets continuously recycled through processes of evaporation and precipitation.”

In response to the heavily debated question, “Has human-caused global warming produced a detectable increase in hurricane or global tropical storm activity?” Coffey said that there is simply not enough data to support a conclusive answer. A general consensus is that “the warmer sea temperatures are, the more frequent and intense hurricanes can get.” With only around ten hurricanes occurring annually, staticians are unable to gather enough individual samples in a study.

Russell Fielding, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Sustainability, was the next panelist and discussed the environmental aspects of hurricanes. He started off by stating, “Nature is very adaptable to disaster. Ecosystems evolved in the presence of hurricanes, despite the destruction.”


Noting literature on ecosystem adaptation to hurricanes, Fielding pointed out, “Birds have very sensitive organs that detect and sense changes in the magnetic fields of air pressure; in other words, they can sense the approach of destructive weather.”


He swiftly moved on to the issue of human-induced climate change. “The temperature is not the problem. It is the rate of change that is the problem. Nature cannot keep up,” he established. Adaptation, natural selection, and evolution is slow. Due to the increasing frequency and intensity of hurricanes, entire species’ existences are being threatened.

Sewanee’s geographic information instructor Chris Van de Ven spoke on the role of computer cartography in disaster relief by introducing OpenStreetMap.org, a community-driven map database which records the precise location of landmarks all over the world. The map greatly aids in the distribution of resources, finding the nearest emergency services and shelters, and allows people worldwide to contribute to the website information.


David Shipps, the current director of the Babson Center of Global Commerce, former vice president for global partnerships for The Weather Company and former senior vice president of business development at The Weather Channel, discussed the profitability and money-making potential of hurricanes for news channels.  


Revenue is generated through the public’s interest and the level of viewership, so loud and sensationalized breaking news stories are generally preferred. “Hurricanes, in the media world, are referred to as ‘slow-moving tragedies,’” Shipps said.


JoyAnna Hopper, an Assistant Professor of Politics, discussed how politics came into play in regards to this hurricane season, specifically with U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico. “Anything that involves the government distributing resources will be political,” Hopper stated.

Contentious conversations have taken place between President Trump and the governor of Puerto Rico involving the amount of aid that was to be given and its estimated arrival time because of Puerto Rico’s position as a territory, not a U.S. state. “It is technically a non-incorporated territory, which means, according to constitutional scholars, that Puerto Rico can be treated as a foreign nation or as part of the United States, depending on how the United States sees fit,” she stated.


Alondra Ramirez (C’21) from Houston, Texas shared her own experiences with hurricanes. “The day it hit was during orientation at Sewanee. I kept calling my mom but the service wasn’t great so I could not reach her,” Ramirez recounted. “Then, I received a call from my friend Jason. He was crying, asking how my family was. He said ‘I can’t see your house. I’m in a boat. I’m going around the neighborhood and I cannot see you. I’m so scared. Where is your mom and your sister?’

“I just kept picturing how my house looked underwater…all of my things floating around…everything destroyed,” she described.

Ramirez expressed her gratitude for government programs such as FEMA for financially helping her family rebuild their lives from the ground up. Sewanee’s financial aid covered her entire freshman year’s tuition and board. “I thought I wasn’t going to be able to finish my education, but now I will be,” Ramirez said