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“This Is a Climate Emergency”: Devastated by Dorian, the Bahamas Are on Frontlines of a Dying Planet

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It is a scene of utter devastation after the Category 5 Hurricane Dorian ravaged the Bahamas. Residents of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas are now bracing for the storm, which has been downgraded to Category 2. The official death in the Bahamas is at seven but is expected to rise. On the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, as many as 13,000 homes have been destroyed or heavily damaged. Rescue efforts have been hampered by widespread flooding. Some reports say 70 to 80% of the affected areas remains underwater, including the Grand Bahama International Airport. The Bahamas Red Cross and other relief groups are scrambling to help survivors. From Freeport in Grand Bahama, we speak to Crystal deGregory, professor at Kentucky State University’s Atwood Institute for Race, Education, and the Democratic Ideal, and Sam Teicher, the founder and chief reef officer for Coral Vita, which is based in Freeport, Grand Bahama.

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Video squareStorySep 06, 2019“We Are on the Frontline”: Despite Tiny Carbon Footprint, Bahamas Is Ground Zero of Climate Crisis
Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in the Bahamas. It is a scene of utter devastation after the Category 5 Hurricane Dorian ravaged the island nation. Residents of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas are now bracing for the storm, which has been downgraded to a Category 2. The official death toll in the Bahamas is at seven but is expected to rise. On the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, as many as 13,000 homes have been destroyed or heavily damaged. Rescue efforts have been hampered by widespread flooding. Some reports say 70 to 80% of the affected areas remain underwater, including Grand Bahama International Airport. This is Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Alexander Minnis.

PRIME MINISTER HUBERT MINNIS: We are in the midst of one of the greatest national crises in our country’s history. The government will bring to bear every resource of state possible to help the people of Abaco and Grand Bahama or any other island nation that’s necessary. No effort or resources will be held back.

AMY GOODMAN: The Bahamas Red Cross and other relief groups are scrambling to help survivors.

CAROLINE TURNQUEST: They need every piece of help they can get. It is totally — it’s devastating. It’s heartbreaking when you look and see the initial videos that are coming out of there. And so, we know, from what we’ve been seeing and hearing, that this one will be — will require the help of all persons.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to the Bahamas, where we are joined by two guests. Crystal deGregory is with us, a professor who was born in the Bahamas, now serves as the director of the Atwood Institute for Race, Education, and the Democratic Ideal at Kentucky State University. She’s joining us from Freeport in Grand Bahama. Also in Freeport, Sam Teicher, the founder and chief reef officer for Coral Vita, which is based in Freeport, Grand Bahama.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!, under these severe conditions. I wanted to start with Crystal deGregory. You are Bahamian. You were just visiting your family when the hurricane made landfall. Can you describe the scene and what’s happened to your family there?

CRYSTAL DEGREGORY: It is devastating. The toll of the hurricane is truly indescribable and unprecedented. Much of the island is under floodwaters. Professionals and deputized citizens alike are still out in the field attempting to rescue those in distress. And again, it’s just pretty mind-boggling, because this is not supposed to happen to these areas. These are inner community. They are suburbs, if you will, not sea-facing properties. And so, we really otherwise thought them to be safe.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to your sister and her family?

CRYSTAL DEGREGORY: Yeah, it was just crazy. You know, the call came in that the water was rising. It was soon to be at their steps. And then the next call came in that their neighbor’s house had taken in substantial water, that they had sought refuge with my sister, but then the waters in her house were also rising several feet, really quickly, almost at once. It was like flash flooding. It was, you know, virtually dry or just relatively wet, and then they were just flooded.

And I tried, to no avail, to use every resource of social media and the public and people actually in the United States calling back into the Bahamas to try and get them some recourse. But again, they needed a boat. I mean, no truck was big enough, tall enough to wade through waters which were anywhere from waist deep to chest high. And so, they had to wade into those waters without and sought refuge with a neighbor, which is where they bunkered down, some 20 of them, Sunday or Monday night. I don’t even know what day it is, so I don’t even know what day that was, unfortunately.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We’re also joined by Sam Teicher, the founder and chief reef officer for Coral Vita. Could you talk about your experience during the storm? And in the aftermath, now that the storm has passed, what’s been the government recovery or rescue operation?

SAM TEICHER: Yeah, thanks you for having us during this story. The Bahamian people really are going to need a lot of help.

I was very fortunate to be located on the south side of the island. I was on a canal system, so we were definitely worried about strong surge, but we were in a strong house and were able to weather it. We have a few friends hunkering down with us. Couldn’t really venture outside for most of the storm. It was relentless, nonstop wind, rain. But I somehow [inaudible] that, at hundreds of people and constantly getting videos seeing flooding across the island, hearing stories of people fleeing into attics and often into roofs, and being, you know, fortunate here to not have to deal with that, but also being trapped and not being able to help.

That is now the sort of focus, is rescue. We, once we were able to, had a pickup truck, and we had some supplies, power tools. So, with my friends, Joe and Luke, yesterday we went out. We delivered fuel to teams that had been lent jet skis that were being used for rescue operations. There’s definitely a shortage of fuel, water, food, medical supplies, diapers, hygienic products. As soon as I get off the phone here, actually, I’m going to go back out with Joe and Luke. They’re right now trying to get a family we couldn’t get to last night, that has a small kid, who have been trapped on the north side of the island kind of near the airport. So, from what I’ve seen now that the storm has passed and we’ve been out there, as Crystal was saying, it’s just — it’s utter devastation. And Bahamian people are really resilient and incredible, but they really need help from the outside world now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sam Teicher, when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico a couple of years ago, virtually all the electricity and cellphone service went out. What is the situation with basic utilities right now? Is there any electricity across the island? And you’re obviously having cellphone conversations, and you’re able to get through. Sam, did you hear me? Well —

SAM TEICHER: Yeah. Hello. Are you there?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, yes. We can hear you now. Yeah, I asked about the situation —

SAM TEICHER: Yeah, we’ve still got spotty internet.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — with utilities, with the internet, with electricity, with cellphone service.

SAM TEICHER: Well, that was a good example of connectivity there. I still don’t have power at my house. I had backup storage units, so I’ve been able to charge my phone, and our neighbor has a generator.

AMY GOODMAN: Sam, we’re going to go to break, and we’re going to reconnect with you to try to get an improved service. We really also want to ask you about your work there and to draw the map of the Bahamas for us — I mean, this archipelago of 700 cays and islands might surprise people, who might think of it as one or two islands — but also what’s happening to the coral reefs. Sam Teicher is founder and chief reef officer for Coral Vita, based in Freeport, Grand Bahama. And we’re also on the phone with Crystal deGregory, who is a Kentucky professor, Bahamian by birth, visiting family when the storm struck. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Global Warming” by Ossie Dellimore. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. The Bahamas have been devastated by the Hurricane Dorian, Category 5. Crystal deGregory, still on with us from Grand Bahama, historian at Kentucky State University, caught in Grand Bahama, in Freeport, when she was visiting her family, and Sam Teicher, founder and chief reef officer for Coral Vita, which is also based in Freeport, Grand Bahama. We’re going to try this again, Sam. Describe the geography and also your work there, the coral reefs. There’s 24-hour-a-day coverage of this devastation of the hurricane, but almost never do they mention the issue of climate change.

SAM TEICHER: Yeah, you’re spot on, Amy. I mean, this is a climate emergency right now. There’s hundreds of islands throughout the Bahamas, often very low-lying. And the whole reason I’m down here with my team is because we’re at a state where we have to grow corals to restore dying reefs. Obviously, the best thing to do is to stop killing them and other ecosystems, not only for their ecological wonder and supporting marine life around the world, but in cases like hurricanes, they shelter coastlines from storms. A healthy coral reef reduces wave energy on the average of 97%. So, we came down here to build our first coral farm. It was totaled. We’re going to have to rebuild it. Obviously, the priority right now, though, is helping people.

So, yeah, the Earth is a living planet. The ecosystems that support us all are dying right now. And ultimately, that really affects us, because coral reefs, mangroves, forests, you name it, they provide people with food, clothes and shelter. So, [inaudible] here, we plan to do this work all around the world. There are lots of people doing coral reef restoration. And that’s kind of the state we’re at right now. We need government, industry, the media to help solve climate change. But in the meantime, since they’re often failing in that regard, we need to sort of jumpstart a restoration economy that can help repair these ecosystems that take care of all of us.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Crystal deGregory, I wanted to ask you — so far, we’ve been hearing that the death toll is at seven. But given the devastation, the photos we’ve seen, it seems very likely that that number will grow. How do you assess how the government prepared for the storm, and then how they’ve been acting in the first 24 hours or so after the storm finally left the islands?

CRYSTAL DEGREGORY: You know, we always think that people can do a better job, and there is perhaps room for improvement. I personally believe that it is likely that the death toll is higher than initially reported. But we have to remember that we were amid a storm bearing down on a neighboring island, and the panic that would have ensued from reports of mass death would not have helped those who faced Dorian’s wrath here on Grand Bahama to endure it any better. You know, we will just see in the days to come.

I’ll say that, you know, where — you know, I could say that the government’s response perhaps could be better. There could not have been a better response from scores of young Bahamians who are using social media, in ways never before seen in previous disasters, to rally help, both immediate for those seeking rescue, as well as long-term, in terms of letting the world know that we do in fact need their help.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Denis McClean, warned that the intense hurricanes in the Atlantic in recent years are linked to climate change.

DENIS McCLEAN: This is the fourth consecutive year that we have witnessed an extremely devastating Atlantic hurricane season, including Category 5 hurricanes like Dorian. The sequence cannot be divorced from the fact that these last five years have been the hottest ever recorded because of the continuing rise in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Hurricane Dorian crystallizes the existential threat posed to small island developing states by the ongoing climate emergency. This is an enormous humanitarian and development challenge for the Bahamas.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is a spokesperson for the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. And, Sam Teicher, you are from the United States. You live in the Bahamas, on Grand Bahama, as you try to restore the coral reefs. What does it mean to have the president of the United States right next door denying climate change? What kind of effect does that have on the islands of the Bahamas, if it does?

SAM TEICHER: Well, first, I do want to just echo what Crystal said, and the Bahamian people have really rallied to help people out here, so a tremendous credit to them. And the priority really is on help and relief and rescue right now.

You know, if I had a country club along the Florida coast, I would want a coral reef that’s healthy off of it, because, if nothing else, it’s going to lower my insurance rates, because it’s going to reduce storm damage. So, you can think about it from an economic perspective, public health perspective, a humanitarian, ecological, national security. Coral reefs, the Arctic, the Amazon, all these ecosystems, and, ultimately, the impacts of climate change, affect people everywhere. So, I would really encourage the president to take better advice from better people. I think he has the ability to change his mind and to really use the resources and influence and power of a country like the United States to do the right thing, because climate change is a clear and present danger to all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. Sam Teicher is the founder and chief reef officer for Coral Vita, which is based in Freeport, in Grand Bahama, one of the most devastated islands of the Bahamas right now, along with Abaco. And Crystal deGregory, historian at Kentucky State University, went home to the Bahamas to see her family, when Hurricane Dorian struck. This is Democracy Now! Of course, we’ll continue to cover this story. We’ll be covering Climate Week here in New York, as well as the U.N. climate summit that’s taking place.

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