Almost nothing on the planet, short of nuclear weaponry, destroys economic value as rapidly as a mega-hurricane. In Puerto Rico, decades of economic progress were undone in 12 hours by Hurricane Maria.
With millions lacking electricity or potable water, avoiding a humanitarian disaster should be President Trump’s top priority. But these immediate needs are just the beginning of Puerto Rico’s long road to recovery. As Congress considers an aid package in the days and weeks ahead, it’s important to grasp the truly extraordinary scale of the storm’s economic devastation.
Hurricane Maria was an absolute monster. By our calculation, the average exposure in Puerto Rico was winds of 123 miles per hour. Normally, only small areas get slammed, and indeed some locations suffered through Category 5 winds of 158 m.p.h. But what stands out about Maria is that if you were anywhere in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, you would have been experiencing something that felt like passing through a strong Category 3 hurricane. There was nowhere to hide.
Scouring an entire territory the way Maria did is not normal. Of the more than 13,000 cyclone events around the world since 1950 (an event is one hurricane or typhoon hitting one country), only five topped Maria in their overall average intensity, according to data gathered for a 2014 study one of us did with Amir Jina of the University of Chicago.
In all five cases, those strikes were on much smaller islands (Guam, Hong Kong and the Northern Marianas) making it easier to achieve high-intensity scores per area of land affected. More notably, all five were in the Pacific Ocean, whose wide, warm expanse gives cyclones a long runway to intensify. In more than 60 years of data, no Atlantic hurricane was a disaster as epic as Maria slamming into Puerto Rico.
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