Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Grid upgrades help avert worse Hurricane Ian impact

An entirely solar-powered community just 12 miles from where Hurricane Ian made landfall survived the storm without losing power, CNN reported. 

Babcock Ranch was designed with a redundant solar grid with in-home battery backups and streets “designed to flood so houses don’t,” according to the network. 

While the storm tore shingles from roofs, residents of the town — which bills itself as America’s first 100 percent solar community — now see their comparatively light damage as evidence that their model works. 

“We have proof of the case now because [the hurricane] came right over us,” 68-year old resident Nancy Chorpenning told CNN.  

“We have water, electricity, internet — and we may be the only people in Southwest Florida who are that fortunate,” Chorpenning added. 

On a broader scale, expensive upgrades to Florida’s power grid helped the state’s electric system weather Hurricane Ian, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

While hundreds of thousands remain without power, the damage is largely superficial, CEO Archie Collins of TECO Energy told the Journal. 

“Now it is just a matter of clearing the debris and the branches and the trees that have come down,” Collins said.  

The rapid pace of grid repair is a vindication for the often-controversial multibillion-dollar upgrades state utilities carried out over the past years, the Journal reported. 

That spending paid in part to improve, bury and strengthen transmission lines — with Florida Power & Light burying about 40 percent of their system underground, according to the Journal. 

Nonetheless, the continuing blackouts are “just a reminder of the power of Mother Nature, and it is humbling,” CEO Eric Silagy of Florida Power & Light told the newspaper.

“You can engineer and you can build to very strong standards, but there’s no grid in the world that’s hurricane proof.”

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. Subscribe here.

Today we’ll begin with the approval of federal aid for Puerto Rico, followed by a look at Florida’s long road to recovery after Hurricane Ian. Plus: Future U.S. water quality regulations could hinge on the definition of a single word.

Puerto Rico gets aid as Florida copes with Ian aftermath

President Biden announced $60 million in federal aid for Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Fiona during his visit to the battered island on Monday.

  • The president pledged to rebuild Puerto Rico “in a resilient way, so when storms come again, which they will, they’re not having the damage that they caused before.”
  • “We came here in person to show that we’re with you — all of America’s with you — as you receive and recover and rebuild,” he said.  

Double devastation: Both the Caribbean and the southeastern U.S. are reeling from damage caused by the back-to-back arrivals of Hurricane Fiona and Hurricane Ian.

Puerto Rico plagued by power loss: About 120,000 homes and businesses in Puerto Rico lacked power on Monday, two weeks after Hurricane Fiona caused outages for the island’s 3.3 million residents, Reuters reported.

  • After wreaking havoc in both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic on Sept. 18, Fiona slammed into Canada’s eastern seaboard on Sept. 24.
  • About 24,500 Canadian customers were without power on the North Atlantic island province of Nova Scotia early Monday.  

Mental health challenges rattle Puerto Rico: Residents of Puerto Rico may be confronting a mental health crisis, as hurricanes, earthquakes and a global pandemic have traumatized families over the past five years, experts told USA Today.

Hurricane Fiona hit the island almost exactly five years after Hurricane Maria — a devastating Category 4 storm — ravaged the region, USA Today reported. 

Grappling with uncertainty: “There’s a real sense of uncertainty of the future of Puerto Rico,” Daniel Gaztambide, assistant director of the clinical psychology program at the New School, told USA Today. 

“There has to be a response to address the immediate natural disaster and a response to address the past, present, and ongoing political disaster,” he added. 

Anxiety skyrockets: Puerto Rico’s Mental Health and Anti-Addiction Services Administration said that calls to its hotline have surged since Hurricane Fiona struck the island, USA Today reported.  

“We’ve seen through those calls how feelings of sadness, anxiety, fear, insecurity, uneasiness, and even loss of appetite have all increased,” Carlos Rodriguez Mateos, director of the administration, told the outlet.

ROCKY ROAD TO RECOVERY

Just nine days after Fiona battered Puerto Rico, Hurricane Ian came barreling into southwest Florida — where residents are now picking up the pieces amid widespread devastation. 

A mounting death toll: Authorities confirmed the storm has killed at least 100 people in Florida, with 54 occurring in southwestern Florida’s Lee County, CNN reported.

  • More than 1,600 people have been rescued in Ian’s path since Sunday, according to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) office.  

Infrastructural collapse: While blue skies have returned to southern Florida, more than 550,000 people were without power as of early Monday afternoon, according to nationwide outage aggregator poweroutage.us.

More than 100 boil-water advisories were in place in cities around the state, according to the Florida Health Department.  

Rescuers go door-to-door: Rescuers from Florida Task Force 2 — most of them Miami firefighters — went door-to-door this weekend in the island town of Fort Myers Beach, The New York Times reported.

  • The firefighters aimed to find anyone in need of rescue in the town, located on Estero Island off Florida’s southwest coast.
  • The team members said they found at least 750 people who had stayed in Fort Myers Beach in defiance of mandatory evacuation orders.
  • Rescuers took about 200 of them off the island.  

Northward bound: After leaving Florida, Ian was not done — inundating Virginia with rain on Sunday, The Associated Press reported.  

The storm’s remnants moved offshore and formed a nor’easter, which could bring more precipitation into a Chesapeake Bay that is already filled to the brim, according to the AP.  

Something to watch – Orlene arrives in Mexico: Hurricane Orlene, a Category 1 storm, made landfall in southwestern Mexico on Monday, bringing with it strong winds and heavy rain, The Washington Post reported.  

Hurricane warnings were in effect for the Isla Marias archipelago and a stretch of the mainland Mexican coastline, according to the Post.

High court hears arguments on water quality case

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Monday that could determine the future of a key section of the Clean Water Act, our colleagues Rachel Frazin and John Kruzel reported. 

The section in question is the Waters of the U.S. Rule, a section of the Act which establishes federal jurisdiction — and permitting requirements — over a broad array of U.S. wetlands, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

  • The 6-3 conservative-majority court didn’t signal whether it would narrow the government’s power to regulate waterways, although Chief Justice John Roberts has presided over a series of deregulatory decisions this year.
  • That included a sweeping June ruling curtailing the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to push the nation’s power plants away from coal.

What’s the fuss? The current debate is a highly technical question with far-reaching implications, Frazin and Kruzel reported over the weekend.

  • Two Idaho landowners, Michael and Chantell Sackett, sued over the requirement that they obtain permits to build a house on land zoned as federal wetland.
  • Their attorney Monday argued that the existing federal definition of “wetland” was too broad.

Touching v. neighboring: The Sacketts’ lawyer argued that permitting should only be required for properties “touching” a federal wetland, not simply neighboring one, according to Frazin and Kruzel. 

A change to reflect that interpretation would potentially require only properties and projects hosting wetlands — as opposed to draining into them — to require permits. 

  • In her debut before the court, new liberal appointee Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson questioned this approach.
  • “Why would Congress draw the coverage line between abutting wetlands and neighboring wetlands when the objective of the statute is to ensure the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters?” she asked. 

Conservatives had questions, too: Justice Brett Kavanaugh suggested to the Sacketts’ lawyer that the distinction was meaningless. 

If it wasn’t, he asked, “Why did seven straight administrations not agree with you?”

Future implications: Sam Sankar of environmental advocacy group Earthjustice warned The Hill that a rollback in the Clean Water Act would directly impact not only wild landscapes but also the drinking water for millions of people. 

“People who live on wells or in areas where the water treatment systems aren’t as big or fancy or as expensive are going to suffer,” Sankar said. 

Major international climate race heads to runoff 

A key presidential race that could determine the fate of South America’s Amazon rainforest is headed to a runoff.

  • Brazil’s presidential election Sunday was a grudge match, pitting far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro against leftist former president Lula da Silva.
  • Da Silva presided over a historic drop in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest — while Bolsonaro oversaw a record rise, as Vox reported.

By the numbers: Da Silva took about 48 percent of the vote to Bolsonaro’s 43 percent, according to The New York Times. 

Since neither made it past 50 percent, that will force the two into a runoff election. 

Several other Bolsonaro loyalists — like his former environment minister, notorious for the deforestation that occurred on her watch — won election to Brazil’s Congress. 

Going upriver: Thousands of Brazilian citizens in small towns and tiny villages across the Amazon voted at mobile polls aboard riverboats, the AP reported. 

  • Big Amazon landowners — who have made fortunes converting forests to soy fields and cattle pasture — have spent millions trying to ensure Bolsonaro’s reelection, according to Bloomberg.
  • Regardless of who wins the national election, Bolsonaro allies will likely maintain control of the governorships of most of Brazil’s Amazon states, environmental news site Mongabay reported. 

The dense carbon-storing forests of the Amazon are one of the many key earth systems being pushed toward collapse by a combination of climate change and human action, as we previously covered. 

Amazon battleground: Da Silva’s success in cutting deforestation has made him unpopular among large Amazon landowners — and a plurality of voters in several of the region’s states, according to Mongabay. 

Ground zero: According to nonprofit news site InfoAmazonia, two of the states Bolsonaro took — Rondonia and Acre states — are among the nation’s leading hot spots of deforestation

Those states have pursued a Bolsonaro-supported model of agriculture built on the conversion of public and private forests to agriculture, InfoAmazonia reported.

Monday Miscellanies

Sweden dives into Russian gas probe, Caribbean governments curb carcinogenic organic pollutants and how to achieve job security while saving the planet.

Sweden sends diving vessel to probe ruptured gas pipelines

  • Sweden deployed a diving vessel on Monday to the Baltic Sea, with hopes of demystifying a series of blasts that struck Russia’s Nord Stream gas pipelines last week, Reuters reported. Europe is probing what caused the burst — a suspected act of sabotage that Russia has likewise pinned on the West, according to Reuters.   

Caribbean nations cleaning up cancer-causing chemicals: UN

  • Caribbean governments are taking steps to reduce the presence of cancer-causing chemicals plaguing their environments, the United Nations reported. At the end of a seven-year, $9 million program, the eight participating countries have ramped up their abilities to sample and inventory so-called “persistent organic pollutants.” To read about the health impacts of these compounds and efforts to eliminate them, see the full Hill story.  

A nationwide need for electricians amid transition to renewables  

  • Those looking for job security while helping save the planet should consider retraining as electricians — a profession in dire of foot soldiers in the U.S.’s sweeping campaign of electrification, The Washington Post reported. “A billion machines need to be installed or replaced over the next 25 years across 121 million homes,” Ari Matusiak, CEO of electrification nonprofit Rewiring America, told the Post.

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Tags amazon rainforest Biden Brazil election Climate change Hurricane Fiona Hurricane Ian Jair Bolsonaro power outages Puerto Rico

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