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What we can learn from storms

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As Hurricane Dorian tore through the Bahamas, causing loss of human life and destruction of property in the billions of dollars, many of us sat transfixed before the spectacle unfolding on our television screens, wondering how nature could have dealt our neighbor such a cruel hand. But the reality is that we should not have been surprised.

This is hurricane season and in most years there are dozens of tropical storms, caused by the confluence of cold arctic air meeting warm tropical seas. Most years those storms rage offshore in the middle of the ocean before petering out far enough away to avoid landfall. They rarely hit land directly, but that is more by happenstance than by design. The land mass of the Caribbean is dwarfed more than 9-to-1 by the surface area covered by water.

Even still, there have been epic storms in years past. The Bahamas originally were pastoral colonies — where British navy, explorers and pirates alike would drop livestock, pigs and goats that could propagate on the rocky, sandy conditions — so they could restock their stores with fresh meat on their journeys. The islands were not intended to become major human settlements, and, in fact, were not until after America’s Revolutionary War.

At that time, colonial plantation owners in the South (primarily South Carolina) who had sided with the British against American independence found themselves under some threat of retribution. As recompense for having supported the Empire during the war, the British offered these plantation owners some of the uninhabited pastoral islands in the Caribbean — the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos. They arrived toward the end of the 18th century with slaves in tow. 

But after several failed seasons — having discovered the harsh, rocky soil of these islands was far less hospitable to large-scale farming than the lush marshlands of the South Carolina low country — they essentially abandoned their operations, leaving behind the slaves they had imported and the livestock deposited during years of exploration and conquest.

The descendants of these marooned former South Carolinians proved to be a hardy race. Though stranded, they managed to eke out a meager living from small-scale farming and fishing. They eventually built boats from driftwood and the remnants of shipwrecks that washed up on the islands’ shores after tropical storms. With these rudimentary boats, they learned to navigate the Caribbean seas by starlight, and eventually became expert fishermen, wringing a significant bounty from the sea. With nothing on the island to destroy, the vicissitudes of nature seemed to work largely in the islanders’ favor.

Back in the Carolinas and Georgia, those tropical storms continued to slam into the mainland with such force that they created massive flooding of inland waterways. They created almost permanent swamp-like conditions in low-country areas. Those proved to be ideal for the planting of rice, and large-scale rice plantations arose in those areas. Again, man harnessed nature’s awesome power to secure his earthly bounty.

But over time, as is usually the case in human civilization, our bounty bred the seeds of our ultimate destruction. It happened in Egypt, when man began to ignore the signs and erected technologies that could forestall the ebb and flow of the Nile. Moses had to lead the people out of that disaster once it became an epic flood. 

And it happened in more modern times in the Roman seaside resort town of Pompeii — a city unrivaled to this day for its luxurious network of mineral baths, ingenious indoor pools and man-made fish ponds. It was a playground for the rich that sat for more than six centuries at the foot of an active volcano. Mount Vesuvius provided bounty, to be sure — healing hot springs abound along its base, providing health and rejuvenation for the Roman elite. The Romans understood it was an active volcano, but felt that their appeals and sacrifices to the gods would prevent its destructive force from destroying their manufactured heaven on earth.

When it finally blew its top in 79 A.D., Vesuvius caught the residents of Pompeii by surprise. The fleeing townspeople had just minutes to escape, and many perished in the soot and ash even before rivers of molten rock descended upon the town. Many centuries later, archaeologists would find the town almost perfectly preserved beneath a thick layer of ash and limestone, pots still on stoves and bread still in ovens.

The lesson of storms is that we can either work with nature or be broken by it. In the Caribbean, the damage wrought by storms is compounded by overbuilding that has occurred on the islands. Rather than making a living off the fruits of the sea, as their ancestors did, the modern Bahamas has become a global tourist industry. Man-made ports house massive cruise ships, and the islands are developed with huge resort hotels. But the land at any time could be reclaimed by the sea. The building of deep-water ports cleared out many of the shallow reefs and cays that stood as a buffer against some of the tropical storms’ power.  

In the Carolinas, where I grew up, plantation farming for generations in the high country has eroded natural forests and worsened flooding in the low country. As in the Caribbean, tourist developments along the Carolina coasts have contributed to erosion of beaches and the sea’s steady encroachment. Industrial pollutants from American factories have compounded the thermal effects of sea and air, in effect causing slower storms that dump far more water on the states than they can handle.

The effect of this attempt to defy nature, rather than operate in harmony with it, ultimately compounds the damage and the tragic loss of lives wrought by storms. We build what we believe to be a permanent edifice on shifting sands, which the sea retakes eventually.

Armstrong Williams (@ARightSide) is the owner and manager of Howard Stirk Holdings I & II Broadcast Television Stations and the 2016 Multicultural Media Broadcast Owner of the Year. He is the author of “Reawakening Virtues.”

Tags Atlantic hurricanes Bahamas Carolinas Dorian

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