Over 2,500 miles away from Tropical Storm Irma’s center, the majority of USC students feel distant from the impact of the storm. Yet for some Trojans hailing from affected territories including Florida and some Caribbean islands, the storm hits home, causing concern as it makes its way toward family and friends.
Irma tore through the Caribbean last week before hitting the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm early Sunday and moving up Florida’s southwest coast, making landfall again near Marco Island. On Monday morning, Irma weakened to a tropical storm, although the National Weather Service warned rain and tropical storm conditions could affect parts of Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina through Wednesday.
For Ana Rescala, a sophomore majoring in computer engineering and computer science, hurricanes have been a concern. Her younger sister, Paula, is a freshman at Rice University in Houston, Texas, where classes were canceled the week of Aug. 28 due to Hurricane Harvey.
Less than two weeks later, her parents were under mandatory evacuation orders to leave their home in Tampa, Fla., as Irma’s path tracked directly toward the city.
“Especially as the one outsider of the entire family, I know my parents are safe, but I’m a little concerned about Tampa right now,” Rescala said. “We haven’t experienced anything this bad, at least not in my lifetime. So I don’t know what to expect.”
Professor Julien Emile-Geay, an expert on climate change in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said that despite the common perception, hurricanes like Irma are actually an expected event.
“The remarkable thing is, for hurricanes, like all weather phenomena, their function is to even out energy,” Emile-Geay said. “Turns out there’s about 90 tropical storms per year worldwide, and that number is amazingly constant, which makes climatologists think that [hurricanes are] kind of like a vent to get energy out of the ocean, into the atmosphere and eventually out to space.”
What is rare, Emile-Geay said, is not a hurricane but rather a hurricane that makes landfall. A storm’s starting point is unpredictable, unlike the prediction capabilities available after it has formed. Most hurricanes occur in open water, going largely unnoticed.
However, in the last month, hurricanes have made their way into the American psyche, after both Irma and Hurricane Harvey made landfall.
Like Rescala, Brennen Lopez, a freshman majoring in business administration, thinks Irma is distinct from the other storms he’s seen hit his hometown of Miami. Although Irma didn’t cause any lasting damage to his family or home, Lopez said the experience was still surreal.
“[My parents] were pretty calm about getting prepared for it … so it wasn’t like a huge deal,” Lopez said. “[But] I’m not used to asking my parents like, ‘Hey, how’s the hurricane going.’ So that’s still a little freakish to me.”
While Lopez admits the idea sounds unreasonable, if his class schedule and parents would’ve permitted it, he would have flown to be with his family when Irma hit. Although his parents kept him updated, spotty cell service and power outages in Miami made it difficult to stay in contact from Los Angeles.
“I haven’t heard from my parents in probably six hours [right now],” Lopez said. “All of my friends here are like, ‘Hey, is your family OK?’ and I’m like ‘Oh yeah, yeah, yeah’ but in actuality I’m just hoping that nothing’s happening.”
Lynette Merriman, the associate vice provost for Campus Support and Intervention, is leading USC’s outreach for Irma. Her office has emailed students whose hometowns may have been affected and is aware of students’ possible concerns following natural disasters.
“A student’s experience [can be challenging] … their anxiety, their stress, feeling that they weren’t there and the rest of their family had to go through it,” Merriman said. “So one of the things we do is help connect them with crisis counselors to help them process the event.”
Additionally, if a natural disaster causes financial hardship, Merriman’s office will connect the student to the financial aid office, which can offer support.
And for those not personally affected, but worried about possible future storms, Emile-Geay warns hurricanes like Harvey and Irma may become increasingly common. Climatologists can’t tell if climate change will mean more hurricanes making landfall, but know it will change the hurricanes themselves.
“We know that they [storms] are going to have to be overall carrying more energy,” Emile-Geay said. “So either you’ll have more storms of the same intensity or you’ll have maybe even fewer storms but individual storms will be bigger and stronger.”
Emile-Geay urges those with concern to take action, not wait for the next Irma to strike.
“There are a lot of people who don’t want to take any action on climate change because it’s a change in their lifestyle,” Emile-Geay said. “And what I like to tell people is a hurricane is a pretty big change in lifestyle.”
To help slow climate change, Emile-Geay suggests limiting one’s carbon footprint and pressing the government to take action. Little changes now can help prevent the next disaster.
“The people whose lives have been flattened by a hurricane can tell you that that’s a pretty serious change in lifestyle,” Emile-Geay said. “So are you willing to give up your planet or your car?”