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The Global Meaning of Hurricanes

written by Thu Tran, MD,FACOG
on Friday, 8th September ,2017

This afternoon I delivered a beautiful baby girl. Her grandmother and mother did not cry as much as her father.  He literally was sobbing and could not stop.  She was their second daughter.  Her five years old sister’s photo was by her mother’s bedside, showing a stunningly photogenic girl, a perfect blend between her African American mother and Caucasian father.  Obstetrics is such a special medical field.  Where else can you witness the mystery of a big baby squeezing her way out of a narrow pelvis without breaking her mother’s pelvic bones? Where else would you see a grown man cry tears of joy? 

During her labor, the couple told us how they already picked out their little girl’s name but would not reveal it to us.  We talked about babies’ names, from boys to girls’.  We agreed there are not too many Harveys or Irmas that we know of.  In fact, in 26 years as an obstetrician, I have not delivered a baby Harvey or Irma yet.  They sound pretty, but no parents I know have named their children Harvey or Irma. 

How does a hurricane get its name? For those who don’t know, hurricanes are named by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).  These experts of hurricanes meet annually to discuss hurricanes.  Some of the most destructive hurricanes have their names “retired,” a decision made by WMO.  Years ago, hurricanes were named after saints.  Storms were named using female names since 1953, until 1979 when male names were also used.  Nowadays, male and female names for storms are alternated and rotated through six lists that run through 2022.

It might be fun thinking about how hurricanes are named, but it’s more important to know why we seem to have so many more storms nowadays? Will we have to recycle many names for hurricanes more than we expect before 2022? Do you wonder why there are so many deadly hurricanes in modern times? We saw how horrible Harvey was, looking at the photos and video clips from the news and social media, hearing the tragic stories of drowning victims, in one case only the driver escaped from his car window and helplessly watched as his van went under the water, carrying both his parents and his four children ranging from 8 to 16 years old.  It could have been our families in that storm being wiped out in just a few hours.  Nature has a way to end someone’s existence without mercy or reason.

Then came Irma the female storm, reportedly the most ferocious hurricane of all, slamming into the Caribbean islands with winds as strong as 185 miles per hour! I have never driven beyond 80 miles/hour.  Can you imagine sitting in a car driven at 185 miles/hour? Imagine sitting in that car for a few hours with rain pouring down on the roof, like sharp knives cutting into the metal of your roof.  Irma was so ferocious when it passed over the little island of Barbuda, it destroyed 90% of all structures and vehicles on the island!  The storm was so wide it encompassed an area of 450 miles!  95% of St Martin’s structures, a beautiful island my family have visited twice, are now destroyed.  How fast could those residents drive or run away from a storm that wide? Hurricane Irma is now heading to Florida, and it is bigger than the state of Florida!

If you have travelled to the Caribbean, you would know how poor many of those islanders are.  They live in poorly built buildings or bungalows. Imagine trying to survive such horrendous storms in such a flimsy setting.  Most of these poor families probably do not even have sufficient transportation to escape to higher land. 

While watching the flood from Harvey in Texas, did you hear of the flooding in South Asia a few days before, causing 1,000 deaths?  Did you know monsoons in this region have affected 41 million lives? Storms and floods cause many deaths yearly around the world.  We don’t hear much about them because they tend not to be featured prominently in our newspapers.

A few days after Harvey struck Texas, an article by Rebecca Elliott, a Sociology professor at the London School of Economics, summed up nicely the social problems of devastating hurricanes such as Harvey, why there are many more storms like Harvey and Irma, and the social obligation of a great government to its people in the face of catastrophic storms.

Professor Elliott explained how many modern day hurricanes have developed as a result of decades of environmental negligence, where extreme climate changes have led to rising sea levels, heat waves and droughts, on top of poor public policies to make our lives safer from these storms.  We can no longer avoid hurricanes, but our government should have created policies  to build better infrastructures and regulate factors responsible for climate changes such as clean energy and public transportation.  We are bearing the consequences of environmental  negligence, which could get worse when our government leaders do not even believe in climate change.  President Trump, Professor Elliott pointed out in her article, promised us infrastructure, but then rescinded regulation requiring federal funded structures to be built with consideration of rising sea levels! Why would you believe in sea rising levels when you think climate change could be a Chinese hoax?

In short, Professor Elliott believes in a “Green New Deal” where the government have policies in place to help the poor adapt into this climate change consequences, as they tend to lose the most in bad storms, from housing to job securities.   

In the mean time, can we also do something to protect our environment?  Many environmental scientists have been crying out to the current government leaders to open their minds and eyes to sciences.  It’s not like looking into a crystal ball to predict an event.  Scientists have completed enough work over the past several decades for us all to acknowledge climate changes as consequences of human actions on earth.  As presented eloquently in Timothy Egan’s recent article in the New York Time, our government needs to acknowledge this climate change as a potential threat to our existence, as in the old movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still" where aliens warned how our world can be totally destroyed if we continue to extend our violence, in that case, nuclear weapons.  Well, scientists now believe the threat of climate change could be as serious as nuclear proliferation. 

I do not want to bore you with more articles on climate change and the consequential hurricanes, but I admit Nicholas Kristof, one of my favorite writers, was so articulate  and scientific that everyone should read his recent articles in the New York Time to understand climate change.  Kristof interviewed scientists from MIT, Cornell and other highly regarded institutions who confirmed how category 3 and 4 storms have developed more often because of the climate being warmer. Arctic ice is melting quickly, strong winds are wandering all over the earth, yet those who are in positions of improving or at least slowing down this devastating climate change effect are still in denial!

Kristof mused at the end of his article how many policy makers traveled recently to areas where they could see the total eclipse.  They obviously believed enough in these scientific predictions  to travel afar to witness the eclipse.  I wonder, like Kristof, why these politicians would not believe the studies of climate change, not one study, but numerous studies warning us how we humans are destroying our only planet.  If our government continues to walk in the dark and refuses to take a flash light from these scientists when it comes to climate change, we will end up falling off the cliff as we are forced to walk behind them.

Many of us start having dark or "apocalyptic" thoughts about our life and planet while witnessing one disastrous hurricane, earthquake or wildfire after another.  It might be natural for the preachers to convince us that the earth is coming to an end, something we cannot prevent or avoid since these events are out of our control.  Ahmed Ragab, professor of science and religion at Harvard, in Henry Fountain excellent  New York Time's article, reminds us how we need to think about the connection between these natural crises to science and their effect on humans.  Dr. Peppard of Fordham University believes we humans are capable of foreseeing and preparing for these natural events.  We can predict the consequences of these catastrophic events, whether they are nuclear weapon tests or natural disasters, and try to work on avoiding them as much as we can.  In his words:

"To pretend that it's such a tragedy is to pretend that there's no social and collective responsibility for the outcome."

While preparing packages to help the flood victims, I hope you will reflect on the little things we can do to help slow down climate change and natural disasters that affect all of us, especially the poor.  Below is the list of ten things to fight greenhouse gas emissions which cause global warming:

•Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. ...

•Use Less Heat and Air Conditioning. ...

•Replace Your Light Bulbs. ...

•Drive Less and Drive Smart. ...

•Buy Energy-Efficient Products. ...

•Use Less Hot Water. ...

•Use the "Off" Switch. ...

•Plant a Tree. 


  • Let's be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.
    There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period.

Tags: climate change, hurricanes, global warming

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