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7 September 2017

Don’t call Hurricane Irma a “perfect storm“ – you’re playing into Donald Trump’s narrative

Irma is the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic. But its spectacle is also a political tool.

By India Bourke

On Wednesday, Hurricane Irma hit the eastern Caribbean with winds of up to 185 miles per hour. It passed directly over the tiny island of Barbuda, leaving it “barely habitable” and “literally rubble” and killing a two-year old child.

The category five storm then skirted the edge of Puerto Rico, cutting off hundreds of thousands of homes from water and electricity. In French St Martin 95 per cent of the island is said to be destroyed and at least six are dead: “I can already say that the impact will be hard and cruel,” said President Macron of the situation at a crisis meeting last night. Even the rich are cowering – Richard Branson retreated to his concrete bunker on his private island Necker and his son later reported that most of the buildings above ground had been destroyed. 

Irma is the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic ocean. Its 185 mph winds have now lasted over at least 33 hours – longer than any other hurricane ever measured in the world during the satellite era, according to atmospheric research scientist Philip Klotzbach.

The storm is on course to reach the Turks and Caicos islands by Thursday night, and mainland America by Sunday.  The United Nations has said as many as 37 million people could be affected. Nor it is alone: Hurricane Katia is already in the Gulf of Mexico and Hurricane Jose is close on Irma’s heels.

So does this make Irma “a perfect storm”, as the Washington Post’s weather account suggested? Klotzbach, of Colorado State University, told Fairfax Media that such a description was “fair” given its huge size.

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But perhaps we should also be wary of the phrase, which risks normalising the storm as part of a historically continuous narrative of extreme weather events.

Originally a literary metaphor used by the likes of William Makepeace Thackeray in his novel Vanity Fair, the term didn’t become a meteorological expression until 1936 – when it was used to describe extreme flooding by the Port Arthur News in Texas. It was then more recently popularised by Sebastian Junger’s 1997 non-fiction account of a fishing vessel lost in an extratropical cyclone, which became the basis for the box office hit A Perfect Storm.

The term thus weaves together elements of science and spectacle, and reflects the wider way storms are often represented as dramatic but exceptional events. Perfect storms are tragedies, certainly, but ones with clear beginnings, middles and ends, and which are followed by periods of recovery and re-growth and where the good guys will eventually save the day.

Take, for example, the narrative structure of most natural disaster movies of the 1990s. Or even the news coverage of the last few hours, which contrasts the chaotic dramas of evacuation and storm damage with serene imagery (and in some cases music) from the International Space Station – and encourages an almost cathartic immersion in the unfolding story.

Donald Trump is all too familiar with this version of the storm script. He has stuck to it closely for hurricanes Harvey and Irma alike.  “Hurricane looks like largest ever recorded in the Atlantic!” he tweeted with awe of Irma on Wednesday – within an hour of reminding readers of the response his “team” are providing to such events: “Watching Hurricane closely. My team, which has done, and is doing, such a good job in Texas, is already in Florida. No rest for the weary!”

In this way, the president gets to turn such disasters to his advantage. He appears strong and steady, while normalising an event that should instead be focusing attention on reducing emissions and tackling climate change.

Science suggests that stronger, more destructive storms like these are only set to become more likely as the earth warms. “Unfortunately, the physics are very clear,” Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research told the Guardian. “Hurricanes get their destructive energy from ocean heat, and currently water surface temperatures in this region are very high.”

The result is an urgent need to think, not just about what this most recent spate of Atlantic storms tells us about our more threatening climate future, but also about how we think about the threats themselves. For even as Trump plays up to the spectacle, other climate change deniers are already turning the representation of the storm back on scientists. American radio host Rush Limbaugh, for example, has claimed that the coverage of Irma is a conspiracy designed to trick people into worrying about climate change and buying more batteries.

In calling Irma a “perfect storm” therefore, we must also remember the imperfect nature of our own response to the science that predicted it.

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