The Irma Diaries: Hurricane Irma Survivor Stories Should Be a Climate Change Wake-Up Call
By Lornet Turnbull
There's a popular quote often attributed to Mark Twain that was used in a radio ad in the Virgin Islands many years ago: "Everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it…."
It always seemed strangely inappropriate in a place where people seldom talk about the weather, and where blue skies produce picture postcard days and temperatures seldom vary from the mid-80s. In the islands, the saying goes, as in much of the Caribbean, the weather is pretty predictable.
But really, it is not.
Rising sea levels, longer dry spells and erosion of precious beaches are affecting people's lives and livelihoods. And in her new book, The Irma Diaries: Compelling Survivor Stories from The Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands author Angela Burnett warns that unless there's some real movement to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, the series of deadly hurricanes that churned their way through the Caribbean in September 2017 could be a glimpse into a future of unprecedented weather.
"There is a real possibility that a hostile climate could eventually make the islands I have always called and cherished as home uninhabitable," wrote Burnett, who works as a climate change officer in the British Virgin Islands.
Irma was the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane in recorded history, and it left a trail of destruction and despair across the Caribbean and Florida. The British Virgin Islands, a territory with a population of 36,000, took a direct hit.
The storm killed four, destroyed businesses, eroded beaches, shredded hillside vegetation, flattened homes and left an untold number of people adrift and sickened from the destruction of water and electricity systems. Maria, another Category 5 hurricane, followed two weeks later, grazing the Virgin Islands but devastating the nearby island of Puerto Rico, which had become a staging ground for its Irma-ravaged neighbors.
The hurricanes of 2017 left no one unscathed in the Caribbean islands it touched, and the story of their economic and emotional toll is still unfolding four months later. "Irma was definitely a game changer," Burnett said. "The BVI is now at a very important crossroad; Irma makes it impossible for us to redevelop without factoring in climate change impacts."
The Irma Diaries, which Burnett wrote in about two months, tells the story of 25 hurricane survivors, based on her first-hand interviews with a cross section of residents from the four major inhabited islands in the BVI (Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada and Jost Van Dyke).
Their stories—of ripped-off roofs, flying debris, blown-in doors, broken windows, crumbled walls, homes caught afire and overturned vehicles—are horrifying and harrowing, and also at times humorous. But along with the anecdotes on how the people prepared for and survived a storm of a magnitude none of them had ever experienced, many of them talked, unprompted, about the role the changing climate had in shaping these disasters.
They've had ample evidence this year alone. Almost exactly a month before Irma, an unusual storm dumped between 8 and 15 inches of rain in various parts of the territory in 24 hours, leading to widespread flash flooding.
One resident, having clearly read Al Gore's Truth to Power, referred to the "rain bomb," which is how Gore in his book describes a kind of downpour that might have occurred once in a thousand years, but now occurs quite regularly.
Another person, referring to the hurricane as "Irmageddon," was outraged that the climate change conversation has not gotten any more prominent in public policy debates. One family that had been planning an expansion of their home is now considering building a concrete bunker instead.
Burnett, 31, gave her book an unofficial launch at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, in November 2017.
Often the youngest person at many of the climate functions she attends, Burnett also authored the climate change adaptation policy for the BVI and conducted a vulnerability assessment for the region's tourism sector. She also helped to pioneer and develop the new Climate Change Trust Fund, whose board was seated just weeks before Irma hit. The need for such a fund is based on recognition that the U.K.-dependent territory simply doesn't qualify for most of the big pots of climate change funds available to other countries. From public school classrooms to government cabinets, Burnett has been trying to educate people locally around the importance of climate change adaptation and warning of the likelihood of stronger hurricanes. Still, the strength and ferocity of Irma surprised even her.
"People never act on something unless they care about it first," she said. "You need to get them to connect to that thing at some level." With this book, she wants to "put people in the shoes of those who lived this disaster, even if they're on a small island in the Caribbean. Spending the hurricane with them and going through how they had to save their lives at the hands by this climate-change induced threat I think is a powerful way to start a connection."
Burnett began writing the book about a month after the hurricane made landfall. She wrote at times in longhand and on many nights she worked by candlelight because many of the homes on the island, including hers, had no power. Many still remain in the dark four months later.
She said was stopped by police many nights for breaking curfew, because she was driving home late from interviews or from the local sewer treatment plant, which had become a refuge because it was one of the few places on the island with power that she could access.
A decade ago, when she first started her work on climate change, many people in the islands didn't really know what it was or that it had anything to do with them because most of the images associated with it were of melting ice caps and starving polar bears, she said.
While the entire Caribbean contributes very little overall to global emissions, "If you look at our carbon footprint, per capita, we are probably up there with the average citizen of in some developed countries or other countries making significant contributions," she said. "From a moral perspective we have a responsibility to act. Climate change impacts everything about our future."
A big part of getting that message across has been to help Virgin Islanders understand how climate change affects them. Talking to primary and high school students, for example, Burnett uses familiar analogies to explain the dynamics of climate. She's helped stage local debates on climate change and once included a climate change parade float for a colorful cultural festival. She's done exhibits, streamed Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth on movie nights and played short videos in public places where people wait in line, like banks.
"Our climate has been such a steady, unchanging backdrop to life that we often don't realize how fundamental it is to everything about our existence," Burnett said. "Adaptation requires a new way of thinking and acting on the part of government, civil society, private sector and individuals."
In an afterword to Burnett's book, Michael Taylor, a physics professor at the University of the West Indies' Mona Campus in Jamaica, wrote that Irma is solid proof of why climate change needs to be taken seriously in the Caribbean. The impact of unprecedented climate is not just erosion of a Caribbean way of life but derailment of Caribbean development, Taylor said.
The setback to economies, many based on tourism and agriculture, will be considerable, he wrote. "In a real sense, Irma portends the future challenge of climate change for the Caribbean region—the challenge of living in a new era likely consistently marked by climatic events only rarely seen to date, or by climatic events that have never been experienced before."
Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.
This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.
1. Kiss the Ground<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc5f0c92a5603e68aec39e56b0db02a"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K3-V1j-zMZw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 22</strong></p><p>Between <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wildfires-california-washington-oregon-photos-2647585008.html" target="_self">wildfires devastating the U.S. West Coast</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tropical-storm-beta-landfall-2647760268.html" target="_self">storms battering the Gulf</a>, the impacts of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change/" target="_self">climate crisis</a> can feel overwhelming right now. <em><a href="https://kissthegroundmovie.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Kiss the Ground</a> </em>offers an alternative to all of the bad news by focusing on solutions.</p><p>The film, directed by Josh and Rebecca Tickell and narrated by Woody Harrelson, explains how we can heal the Earth through "regenerative agriculture," farming practices that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into soil as a way to restore soil health, which in turn boosts ecosystems and food supplies.</p><p>"<em>Kiss the Ground </em>shows how feasible it is to make these changes at a grassroots level immediately and make a truly substantive impact with low cost and easy to implement solutions," Executive Producer RJ Jain said in an email. "This is why I got involved."</p>
2. Public Trust: The Fight for America's Public Lands<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5338f7a2931e356910026e5fd76fac56"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jsKMTAaj_wQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: YouTube</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 25, 2 p.m. EDT </strong></p><p>This <a href="https://www.patagonia.com/films/public-trust/" target="_blank">award-winning documentary</a> tells the stories of Indigenous activists, journalists, whistleblowers and historians working to protect America's <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/public-lands" target="_self">public lands</a>. The film focuses on three political struggles: the shrinking of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/bears-ears" target="_self">Bears Ears</a> National Monument in Utah, the mining of Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and the opening of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Arctic-National-Wildlife-Refuge" target="_self">Arctic National Wildlife Refuge</a> to fossil fuel exploration.</p><p><em>Public Trust</em> was directed by David Garrett Byars and produced by Jeremy Rubingh. Patagonia Films, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and actor Robert Redford are executive producers. It will be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">released</a> on YouTube in time for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/national-public-lands-day-2640656776.html" target="_self">National Public Lands Day</a>.</p><p>"Our country is fortunate to have millions of acres of public lands, including National Parks, Monuments, Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness set aside for future generations," Redford said. "Sadly, these lands that belong to you and me are under unprecedented threats from the greed of big corporations, eager to weaken restrictions in the pursuit of profits. Many of our current politicians are also to blame. <em>Public Trust</em> tells the story of citizens who are fighting back. It's a much-needed wake-up call for all of us who want to preserve our unique and wild cultural heritage."</p>
3. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="156438a30836a765d7a92982545fc334"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/B_OFZvAd05Y?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Oct. 4</strong></p><p>Beloved nature broadcaster <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/David-Attenborough" target="_self">David Attenborough</a> has spent his career introducing viewers to the wonders of our planet. In recent years, his footage of albatrosses swallowing <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastics" target="_self">plastic</a> in <em>Blue Planet II</em> has been credited with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/2018-fighting-plastic-waste-2624606566.html" target="_self">helping to ramp up</a> the global fight against plastic pollution. Now, in this <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">World Wildlife Fund</a> (WWF)-produced <a href="https://www.attenborough.film/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">documentary</a>, he reflects on the defining moments of his career and the devastating changes he has witnessed.</p><p><em>David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,</em> which was also produced by Silverback Films and directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey, features an intimate conversation between Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin as the broadcaster reflects on his life and a career that took him to every continent on Earth. In addition to streaming on Netflix, the movie will be available in select theaters starting Sept. 28.</p><p>"For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide, but there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections," WWF executive producer Colin Butfield said in a <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/david-attenborough-life-our-planet" target="_blank">statement</a>. "This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action as world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time."</p>
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