A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
Based on a model developed at the University of the Virgin Islands, the Cyril E. King Airport, as now positioned on St. Thomas, will be covered by four feet of water within 50 years.
That’s just one of the drastic changes projected for the next generation or two because of climate change. And it’s one of the reasons Shawn-Michael Malone, the territory’s federal relations coordinator, lobbied for special assistance through the federal Environmental Protection Agency to get V.I. climate change mitigation efforts off the ground.
The request was granted last week.
In January the Governors’ Institute on Community Design – a think tank, of sorts, comprising strategy experts and former state governors – will conduct a two-day workshop in the Virgin Islands focusing on the development and implementation of the territory’s policies on climate change. Gov. Kenneth Mapp will host the event.
Attendees, according to Malone, will include the governor’s cabinet, key staff, and representatives from various agencies and nonprofit organizations. Among the groups he expects will be invited to send representatives are UVI, the two chambers of commerce, the St. Croix, St. John and Virgin Islands community foundations, Hotel and Tourism associations, various environmental organizations, United Way, AARP and insurance industry groups.
The Governors’ Institute develops targeted workshops for state and other local jurisdictions by request. The website contains a list of typical workshop topics, including government organization, land conservation, water quality and supply, economic development and transportation infrastructure.
Given that there is little to no local funding for climate change policy development, Malone said it made sense for the Virgin Islands to ask for help with that.
Drastic change in the near future is inevitable, he said, and it will affect virtually all aspects of living.
“It’s going to happen. There’s nothing you and I can do to prevent it,” he said. But there are ways to adjust to it.
Take the case of the St. Thomas airport. The four-feet-in-50-years scenario is just one model, but virtually all predictions call for sea level rise to impact operations relatively soon, within the lifetime of much of the current population. Mitigation efforts – such as raising the runway and terminal – will take time and money, so now is the time to start planning. Relocation is a limited option, given the paucity of flat land on the island.
While we don’t know precisely how fast or how soon, Malone said, “There will be sea level rise,” and that’s especially concerning because so much of the territory’s economic activity takes place in coastal areas. Rising water is only one consideration.
There will be elevated temperatures too. And hurricanes and tropical storms are expected to intensify; in fact, they already seem to be getting stronger. All those things will have a myriad of ramifications.
School buses and classrooms will need air conditioning, Malone said. Carnival and festival parades may someday shift to nighttime to protect participants from heat stroke.
V.I. Water and Power Authority utility lines will need to be buried underground, both to protect them against windstorms and also to keep the heat from deteriorating them.
In reaction to the destruction of Hurricane Hugo (1989) and Hurricane Marilyn (1995), the territory adopted more stringent building codes in 1996 and 1997. The aim was to strengthen buildings against wind storms. But the storms are getting stronger, “which means,” said Malone, “I see coming another revision to the building code.”
Starting in 2019, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will require all disaster plans to include an assessment of how climate change will impact an area during an emergency, he said. Are shelters in good repair? Will current evacuation routes still be safe and accessible? Are these roads in good condition and how well can they stand up to flood waters? Are they clearly marked and named so that people unfamiliar with an area will be able to follow a designated evacuation route?
Malone said the governor’s office is working with the V.I. Emergency Management Agency on street mapping. VITEMA is also working on its five-year disaster plan.
The number of possible impacts from climate change is unknown, but the list seems to grow continually – as do the ways of mitigating those impacts.
“We’re literally rewriting the way we live,” Malone said. “It’s a very long and complicated process … it’s just going to be part of our daily lives now.”
The support from the Governors’ Institute is not limited to the workshop. The assistance will run for a year. Unlike most grants, which entail a specific amount of funds, “there’s not a price tag” on the program, Malone said. That doesn’t mean unlimited money; rather, the territory will be looking to various federal resources for financial backing of its mitigation efforts.