Happy Scribe

Joe Perkinson lives right on the Gulf Coast in Orange Beach, Alabama, the first he and most of the people who live around him thought they'd be OK to stay at home during a big storm this week.


But then it was absolutely terrifying.


It was the worst night of our lives. We were caught completely flat footed.


The storm turned into a hurricane, Hurricane Sally. In Joe's house got hit hard, three foot waves hitting the house on the north side, while 125 mile an hour winds shook the whole house from the south side. It was just brutal on my wife and I just sat there just waiting on the roof to peel off. They made it through the night.


Joe talked to us after the hurricane passed by then his wife and daughter were out looking at all the damage, the top floor where they spend most of their time fine. The House is on stilts, but the bottom floor is covered in mud. The boat dock is destroyed.


And outside, I'm looking at pine trees with no leaves and the bark ripped off of them. There's a car. I've never seen the car. I have no idea where it came from.


This isn't the first time Joe Perkinson has waded out a storm, which, yeah, he says isn't always the best thing to do.


But this time, he says, was different. This time he felt like he might actually die.


You know, I was just praying. Please let us stay tomorrow morning. Coming up, hurricanes and wildfires are getting more destructive. And with a world that's getting hotter, the costs of these disasters are going up. But trying to change that could cost a lot to. Says, consider this from NPR, I'm Kelly McEvers. It is Friday, September 18. This message comes from NPR sponsor Unfinished Short Creek, the latest investigative True Crime podcast from Witness Docs and Critical Frequency, a battle over family home and the limits of religious freedom.


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Twilio Dotcom comedian Larry Wilmore has had quite the career, but maybe his most infamous moment came from a single joke he made to President Obama back in 2016.


There was a rallying cry from people who said yes or thank you. That was the blackest thing I've ever seen in my life.


You know, listen to the it's been a minute podcast from NPR. This is consider this from NPR. First there was Hurricane Laura, then Hurricane Sally, and more storms are coming. Turns out there have been so many tropical storms this year that the National Hurricane Center has already made it through the alphabet to name the storms. The last storm name started with a W, so now they're using the Greek alphabet. In the last five years, this country has lost 500 billion dollars because of climate driven weather disasters, storms and fires, and that's just an estimate by the federal government, doesn't even include 20-20.


My colleague Sacha Pfeiffer talked to NPR's Rebecca Hirsche and Nathan Rott about the cost of these disasters and the bigger costs of climate change.


Nate, you're outside Eugene, Oregon, near where one of the major fires is burning. Give us some sense of what those fires mean for the local economy there.


Well, they've just been devastating. You know, you have businesses here in Eugene, up and down the state that have had to close just because of the smoke. And a lot of these businesses were already just hanging on by a thread because of the pandemic. Then you've got the direct damages from the fires, lost homes, lost timber, lost buildings, lost infrastructure. I talked to a telecom worker the other day at the incident command post for the fire I'm near.


And he had just gotten back from being in the burnt area. His name is Rob Robison, and he described the scene where it just looked like a ghost forest. He said they lost something like 60 miles worth of telephone poles that had been built. And he says each of those poll cost about 10000 dollars.


We're looking at, you know, multimillions worth of infrastructure to replace.


And Robison was frustrated because he said he felt like there were things that we could do right now to decrease risk to infrastructure. But we haven't because it cost money.


Nate, on that point, when it comes to wildfires, for example, what can be done to decrease their long term costs?


So it's going to take a big change in the status quo. Here's Sara Ultimates, pope, a former smoke jumper who now runs a forest collaborative in southern Oregon.


We do have a lot of work that we need to do on our forests to get them back to a more healthy state where they're going to be resilient in the face of climate change and resilient to disturbance. And to do that, we're going to have to invest in them.


So she says we're going to need more prescribed fire, more thinning, more management at these places. And that is going to cost a lot of money, you know, billions of dollars.


So that's wildfires than there's hurricanes. And Rebecca, give us a sense about the hurricane cost.


Well, you know, hurricanes are consistently the most expensive disasters that we see, especially hurricanes that cause a lot of flooding like Sally. And that's really bad news because that's exactly the kind of storm that's more common as the earth gets hotter. This year has been really bad. There have already been 10 climate driven disasters that cost more than a billion dollars each. That was as of July. And one thing to remember is that where people live really matters.


You know, the number of homes in flood prone areas, it's skyrocketed in the last three decades. So this same disaster today is going to cause more damage, hurt more homes than if it had happened previously.


Rebecca and Nate, we've been talking about the overall economic costs of his climate fuelled disasters. But let's go to a more personal level. How does this affect families and what do we know about how surviving a fire or a flood affects people financially?


Well, the effects are really dramatic for a lot of people, especially poor people. If you don't have savings to fall back on or they can't afford adequate insurance, a disaster can totally derail a family's finances. For decades, people whose home is their only source of wealth, for example, they're more likely to end up renting even years later. Bankruptcy is more likely. There are other costs, too. Like, for example, research suggests that young people who survive a hurricane, they're less likely to enter college.


It takes longer to graduate if they do go. And survivors also have long term mental and physical health problems often. And that can interfere with work that obviously hits your income or create new costs of their own.


These are extreme weather disasters we've been focusing on. But what about the financial hit from less dramatic or less immediately noticeable climate impacts like the gradual rise of temperatures?


So, yeah, I mean, rising temperatures and heat waves hurt agriculture, health, certainly electrical bills. You know, you have warmer waters affecting fisheries. And, you know, then there's just the down the road impacts of ecological decline. You know, we are in an extinction crisis right now that climate change is only going to make worse. And we depend on ecosystems for everything from clean water and air to places to go where we can just escape from it all.


And I don't really know how you put a price tag on something like that. NPR's Nathan Rott and Rebecca Hairshirt talking to my colleague Sacha Pfeiffer. So, yeah, the cost of doing nothing to stop climate change is huge, but the alternatives are also complicated. One example of that is Japan. In 2011, Japan got a third of its energy from nuclear power, one of the energy sources with the smallest carbon footprint.


Then everything changed. Now I'm looking at. Magnitude nine point one earthquake, then a devastating tsunami, the waves hit the Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Explosions sent radioactive material into the air. Even now, some of the towns around the plant are uninhabitable.


Honestly, that Kazuo Okawa used to be a maintenance worker at the Daiichi plant in his old hometown, a lot of the land is now blocked off as a storage site for contaminated radioactive topsoil. Nothing else to talk.


Who wants to live next to this, this nuclear waste?


He says he used to think nuclear power was safe, but now a partner, I'm afraid of nuclear power.


In one moment, it devastated our home. Well, there's a 100 percent.


And he says he's 100 percent against it. A lot of people in Japan have turned against nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster, the government shut down all 54 of its nuclear reactors and there was a push to use more solar and wind power. The first, the government required utility companies to give money to renewable energy producers, something called feed in tariffs.


But those tariffs have recently been cut, and Japan is relying more and more on imported coal and natural gas. And that has meant a big increase in greenhouse gas emissions. So many say it's time to start thinking about nuclear power again and to choose which you want to choose.


You may have to choose a nuclear power eventually.


Tatsu Suzuki is a former nuclear engineer and now professor at Nagasaki University. He says nuclear power is like a strong medicine. It can work, but it can also have bad side effects.


The world may have to take medicine or nuclear power, but you have to be very, very careful and you have other choices. I would recommend that nuclear power should be the last one place where a choice has been made.


Is Fukushima, the region where the disaster happened in 2011.


It plans to be completely powered by renewables by 2040. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf went to see it. It's a real turnaround for a place where nuclear power ruled only a decade ago, especially in the former exclusion zone near Daiichi. There are solar panels everywhere from small ones on roofs and hillsides to massive mega farms along highways, making use of the land available after the disaster.


Some of these panels are run by big developers, and others are not sure, like the solar panels on farmer Shigeyuki Kono's fields. He's 74 years old and this land has been in his family for generations.


He gestures around at it, This is all my land. But it's nonsense.


Nonsense because it's relatively useless. The wind carried radioactive material here after the disaster and the government has scraped off all the topsoil and decontamination efforts. The farmers here can't really farm much anymore. So when a small local power company came and asked Shigeyuki if they could rent his land for solar panels, he said yes.


Could you go? I was really worried after the nuclear accident, how would we get power?


Most of his neighbors also agreed, but that means everything is different now, he says. There were rice paddies all around here with tiny frogs that created a kind of soundtrack for his life. Now it's quiet. He misses the frogs a lot, he says, and he doesn't make nearly the same amount of money as he did farming.


But Shigeyuki says he sees this as a necessary change.


He has nine grandkids. They all live far away now, but they were just in town the other weekend for a visit running through the fields.


This is so my my grandparents farmed here. My parents do. But now it's time for change. I've realized it's a new season that you get in this.


He says looking out over the solar panels is for future generations. That's Cat Lonsdorf.


She reported that story for NPR's Above the Fray Fellowship, and you can find more of her reporting with wonderful photographs to accompany it in our show notes. This is considered this from NPR.


I'm Kelly McEvers.