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11.1.19

From the Editor

One doesn’t have to live on an island to have been horrified by the recent devastation of the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama by Hurricane Dorian. Just as one needn’t live beside a river to react to scenes this past spring of epic flooding on the Mississippi, or in a western forest to sense the horror of a wildfire at the door. After all, in this video-saturated world of ours, the problem isn’t that we won’t comprehend the magnitude of distant traumas, but that we will swipe past the disaster of the day out of exhaustion, boredom, or to find that hilarious cat video everyone is talking about.

And yet there was something particularly wrenching about watching from the Vineyard as Dorian parked itself over the Abacos, a group of islands with roughly the same number of souls – 17,000 – as our year-round population. Add the much larger population of the equally devastated Grand Bahama and the number is closer to the range of our summer population. Anyone who has lived here on the Vineyard through the seasons has seen days when the boats cannot run, planes cannot fly, the electricity flickers or goes out, limbs or even whole trees fall, Five Corners is underwater, and maybe the parking lot at Derby headquarters in Edgartown is too. Those are watchful days when the Island really feels momentarily cut off from the rest of the world. Most of us, I think, secretly love a good storm.

But a Dorian, with hundreds dead and thousands missing? That could never happen here to people like us, we tell ourselves, and not without reason. We are farther out of the traditional path of hurricanes. We have higher ground, stronger houses, a more powerful government. Never mind that around the world an estimated twenty-two million people are expected to be displaced by extreme weather events in 2019, a “low estimate” according to The New York Times that will nevertheless be a record breaker. And never mind that both climate science and history, as reported in previous issues of this magazine and elsewhere, makes clear that a mega-hurricane could very well rake the region. Science, as we know, is out of favor in policy making.

And besides, should a storm hit, we have far more money to spend on a quick cleanup and return to business than do the Bahamians.

So it isn’t so much because we looked at the Abacos and Grand Bahama and saw a vision of our own fragile Island’s future that the spectacle of Dorian’s destruction so resonated here. I suspect it has more to do with the idea we harbor that living on a reasonably small island confers a certain bond of universal kinship to other island dwellers everywhere. “Oh,” we say when visiting other places that are unconnected to a continent, “back home we live on an island too. We have to take a boat there.”

There is doubtless some grain of truth to the sentiment, just as desert dwellers in Arizona may have some discernible degree of kinship with Bedouins, and Iowa corn farmers may share a keen weather eye with traditional Maya gardeners. But it’s hard to imagine the sentiment flowing as strongly the other way, from the ruined Abacos to tidy Martha’s Vineyard. What the Abaconians felt as Dorian destroyed their homes and gardens, I imagine, is utterly and completely alone.