When I looked at the Star Tribune homepage, I was stunned.
A picture of a place far away that I knew so well was the top story. It was September 2, 2019 and Hurricane Dorian had just battered the Bahamas.
Some Midwest grandparents retire to Arizona or snowbird in Florida. My grandparents took a vacation to the Bahamas, fell in love with it, and made it their home.
They lived on a small, thin island in the Abacos named Man O’ War Cay. The Star Tribune captioned it incorrectly as “Man-o-War City”, but it’s more like a village. The population as of the last census was 215. The streets are too narrow for cars, so residents drive golf carts. It’s a quiet, beautiful, unfailingly friendly place, and hard to imagine a better spot to retire.
I started visiting the island before I could walk. I remember making coconut bracelets with Daddy Marsh (my grandpa) or picking up fresh bread with Noni (my grandmother) straight from the kitchen of the local baker. I remember watching the bright stars at night or looking for crabs with a flashlight.
My Mom, who passed away in January of last year, considered the island her favorite place in the world. She asked that her ashes be scattered both there and in a mountain near her childhood home in Tennessee. My wife and I were planning to take our young kids for their first visit in October with my Dad and brothers, to fulfill my Mom’s wishes.
So it was surreal and heartbreaking to see a tiny, obscure island that I love on the nightly news and in the paper. Hurricanes are not new in the Bahamas – it’s a part of life, and they know that every so often they’ll be in the path of a storm. But not like Dorian.
A category 5 with winds of 185 mph and gusts up to 225 mph, it made first landfall on the neighboring island and the second island it hit was Man O’ War Cay. Because it was so slow moving, the punishing storm lasted for hours, tearing off roofs, flinging boats, and downing power lines. It slowed to one mile per hour after the eye passed, and the hurricane force winds and rain continued for almost two days.
Miraculously, there were no deaths on the island. But the neighbors who stayed told stories of having to abandon their houses and flee to neighbors just in the nick of time. Or seeing golf carts lifted into the air and blown around by the wind. It was terrifying.
When the storm finally passed, the harm the island community had suffered was catastrophic.
Every building was damaged. One quarter of all homes were in such bad shape they needed to be demolished. All boats on the island but one sunk or were blown ashore. 150-foot barges were turned upside down. Debris was everywhere.
No resident could remember experiencing anything like it. In fact, Dorian was the worst disaster to ever hit the Bahamas and tied for the second biggest Atlantic storm on record.
But this is the fifth Atlantic hurricane to reach a category 5 in the last four years alone. Hurricanes are getting stronger, and climate change is to blame.
The community is resilient and I know will come back. They are rebuilding. But they will need help for years to restore the island to what it once was.
Many residents of the Bahamas sought shelter in the U.S. following Dorian. We failed one of our first tests of compassion for climate refugees, turning away many with President Trump saying they were:“very bad people and very bad gang members.”
There will be strong storms like Dorian in the future. They may hit the Bahamas; or Florida; or New Orleans.
We know that some warming is already locked in, but we can still avoid the worst effects of climate change if we act resolutely. In Minnesota, that means moving as swiftly as possible off of fossil fuels, electrifying our vehicle fleet and home heating, insulating our buildings, and improving our agricultural practices. The actions required are bold, but they bring many benefits, from healthier air to good jobs. And the alternative – watching people and places we love continue to suffer the devastation of climate change – is intolerable.
Stories matter. Raised voices matter.
How we respond right here in Minnesota matters to our neighbors and to those on small islands who we may never meet, but who are counting on us to act.