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Environment

Warmed Oceans Fuel Massive Hurricane Matthew as It Bears Down on Florida After Flattening Parts of Haiti and Cuba

Early news reports describe colossal damage in impoverished nations.

Hurricane Matthew
Photo Credit: Hector Retamal/AFP

Hurricane Matthew, which destroyed major towns in western Haiti and eastern Cuba, passed over the Bahamas by mid-afternoon Thursday and was headed for the eastern coast of Florida with winds greater than 130 mph and storm surge flooding, according to storm forecasts and early reports from hard-hit Caribbean regions.

The BBC Latin Service reported that up to 40 inches of rain has fallen in Haiti. The southwestern town of Jeremie was "pretty much wiped out from the seaboard all the way to the cathedral,” a radio host in Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince told the BBC Thursday. The town has been virtually cut off from the rest of the world because of destroyed roads and bridges and broken-down communications, he said. "The devastation that we are seeing is horrible....The town is really in dire straits and it's very, very bad down there." An aerial photo from Reuters posted on Al Jazeera showed there was little remaining but walls of roofless homes and muddy streets.

Other photos showed rivers with brown torrents overflowing their banks, trees with branches torn off and people sitting on ruined furniture in the streets and remnants of homes, looking stunned. As disaster strikes the impoverished country yet again, Haiti has an interim president. A delayed election that was to be held Sunday was postponed. Midday reports from the Weather Channel said Haiti's death toll is at 136 and climbing, and government officials say 28,000 homes have been damaged and 350,000 people need relief.

Eastern Cuba hit hard 

The eastern tip of Cuba has similar scenes of destruction. The Miami Herald has a photo gallery and several short videos have appeared on Cuban websites. One Cuban historian Iiving in New York City wrote to his listserve Thursday morning: “I can find no new pictures from Baracoa today. I suspect that, since the town (isolated from the rest of Cuba by a mountain) is incommunicado by road and landline, people's cellphone batteries have run down. 70-80 percent of the houses are without roofs, as well as schools and businesses. A tremendous project of stone, earth and debris removal is underway.”

The AFP press service, reporting from nearby Guantanamo, where the U.S. has its military base and infamous prison, said, “Hurricane Matthew devastated the historic colonial town of Baracoa in eastern Cuba and hurled large rocks onto the roads, cutting off a total of four towns, authorities and residents … Cuban authorities said no victims had been reported from the storm—the Caribbean's fiercest hurricane in nearly a decade—which swept the province of Guantanamo with winds of up to 220 kilometers (135 miles) per hour Tuesday.” The report continued, "'There's nothing left of Baracoa. Just debris and remains. The big colonial houses in the city center, which were so pretty, are destroyed,' said resident Quirenia Perez, 35, speaking to AFP by cellphone after losing her roof, electricity and landline in the storm."

The Bahamas and Florida

The hurricane passed over Nassau and the Bahamas midday Thursday, meaning that damage reports will soon start emerging. It was among the four most powerful storms of the past 65 years to hit the island chain, tweeted Phil Klotzbach, a meteorologist specializing in Atlantic basin seasonal hurricane forecasts.

“Only 3 hurricanes since 1950 have impacted the Bahamas with stronger winds than #Matthew's current winds of 140 mph: Andrew, Floyd & Frances,” he tweeted. “Matthew has now been a major hurricane for 6 days—the most by an Atlantic hurricane forming after Sept. 25 in over 50 years (Flora-1963)… The most recent Category 4 hurricane to make landfall along the east coast of Florida was Hurricane King (1950). Andrew was Cat. 5.”

Governors in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas have declared states of emergency as the storm is expected to work its way northward following the southeastern U.S. coastline. The latest forecasts are predicting category 4 winds of 131-155 mph along the entire Florida coast. More than 2 million people have been urged to evacuate their homes and local news reports say major highways are overwhelmed with evacuee traffic.

Meteorologists are predicting Matthew could be the strongest hurricane to hit the United States since Wilma in 2005. The National Hurricane Center’s storm advisories, which are constantly being updated, say hurricane-force winds will extend 60 miles from Matthew's eye, while tropical storm-force winds will impact areas 160 miles from the eye.

Climate change and Matthew

Many scientists say climate change has intensified Hurricane Matthew because warmer ocean waters help create stronger hurricanes. In a Democracy Now interview Thursday, Michael Mann, an atmospheric scientist at Penn State University, explained that a warmer ocean has allowed the storm to intensify “far more quickly than any other storm that we’ve seen in modern history, basically going from not even a tropical depression to a near-hurricane-strength storm over the course of, you know, less than half a day, and then, the next day, of course, strengthening into a major hurricane, a Category 5 hurricane. It’s weakened a little bit, but now it’s restrengthening.”

Mann explained that the warm tropical Caribbean will sustain the storm’s intensity as it moves toward the Florida coast:

That rapid intensification occurred was in the region of the Caribbean that has the greatest heat content, not just that the ocean surface temperatures are warm, but there’s a very deep layer of warm water. And that’s important, because that helps sustain these storms as they churn up the ocean. The churning doesn’t bring cold water to the surface to weaken the storm, if there’s a deep layer of warmth. And that all has a climate change signature with it, not just the fact that the ocean surface temperatures in the Caribbean are at near-record levels, but the—just the sheer depth of that warm water is unprecedented. And as the surface warming penetrates into the ocean, we are seeing increases in ocean heat content.

Mann, like other meteorologists, predicted storms like Matthew will become more frequent.

“Last year was the warmest our oceans have ever been on record,” he said. “That’s critical context. It’s that warmth that provides the energy that intensifies these storms. It isn’t a coincidence that we’ve seen the strongest hurricane in both hemispheres within the last year.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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