For an award-winning journalist covering Latin American and the Caribbean, Hurricane Dorian illuminates the consequences of American isolationism.
by Tim Padgett ’84
When Hurricane Dorian devastated the northern Bahamas last September, my sense of purpose took a hit.
Not my immediate sense of purpose. Natural disasters like Dorian—and the need to inform the world about apocalyptic storm damage and desperate aid appeals— are part of what define a journalist’s raison d’être. So I, of course, headed to Freeport on Grand Bahama island to file dispatches for my NPR affiliate in Miami. That sense of purpose was in full gear.
I’m referring to a larger, more existential sense of purpose—and that had little to do with the Bahamas and everything to do with America.
While I was reporting on Dorian’s aftermath, news broke that the Trump administration had diverted almost $4 billion from the Pentagon’s budget to the construction of a border wall.
Why would an issue so relatively far away hang over me in the muggy air of the Bahamas that week? Because of something Father Stephen Grant told me as we toured the hurricane damage.
Grant is the rector of St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Freeport. He’s a soft-spoken but sagacious community pillar. And he seemed to know the storm fate of every household we passed as he delivered donated food in his church van to hard-hit neighborhoods. At one pink house he slowed down and spoke so quietly and somberly my recorder barely registered what he said.
“The storm surge rose so quickly in that house it caught two people as they tried to escape to the attic, and they drowned,” he said with a lost gaze, coming to a complete stop. “Every house in this district was underwater one way or another.”
Storm surge—the tsunami-like floodwaters that hurricanes push inland—was as high as 20 feet in the Bahamas during Dorian. Even more than the storm’s 200-mile-per-hour wind gusts, the surge exhibited how global warming—and global warming symptoms like sea-level rise—are turning more and more Caribbean hurricanes into Category 5 monsters. What used to be the aberrant storm is today the norm. And that fact weighed heavily on Father Grant’s husky frame.
Which is why, after the food was delivered, we drove to a vast limestone mining pit that he and many others in Freeport and Grand Bahama had long feared would serve as an open canyon for storm surge in a powerful hurricane—as it apparently did during Dorian.
“OK, that limestone quarry has been profitable for Grand Bahama,” Grant pointed out, “but look at the price we paid for it during this hurricane. If climate change is making these storms stronger, we’ve got to correct mistakes like this and invest in a lot more mitigation.”
When I reminded him a small, poor island nation like the Bahamas might not have the resources to do that, Grant nodded and said: “That’s why we’re counting on the U.S. to help us out in that effort.”
That’s when I felt like turning off my recorder and hanging my head.
The United States, I could have told Father Grant, seems to be getting out of the business of “helping out.” And that’s where the larger sense of purpose I’m talking about comes in.
In my more than 30-year-long career, covering natural disasters in the Americas has always meant more than tallying death tolls and destruction figures. Because I’m an American correspondent, it has also entailed measuring the U.S. aid response. Increasingly, it involves a degree of moral responsibility: Countries like the U.S. emit the bulk of the greenhouse gases that cause the global warming that’s hammering the islands next door to us.
Not so long ago, Americans seemed to understand the global obligations that accompany the level of our wealth and the consequences of our weight. But in a recent Eurasia Group Foundation opinion survey, only 18 percent of Americans said the best way to achieve peace is to promote and defend democracy around the world. As globalization abroad and demographic change at home fuel a national identity crisis—and the “America First” fervor that comes with it—much, if not most, of my country is turning precariously inward and xenophobic.
Hearing the news about billions going to the border wall only reminded me of that trend, and it made me brace for more isolationist news concerning the Bahamas. Sure enough, the U.S. refused to grant the customary visa waiver to Bahamians who needed to relocate to South Florida for a while to regroup after having their homes, belongings, and lives swept away by Dorian.
This isn’t the country I grew up in. In Indiana, my senator was the iconic statesman Richard Lugar. And it certainly isn’t the sense of purpose I received at Wabash College, which prepares students for the global leadership no superpower in any age can shirk—and teaches them that any superpower that does shirk it is no longer really a superpower.
It’s why foreign language instruction at Wabash was and is focused not just on grammar and vocabulary, but on how those play out in global practice.
My professor of Russian, Pete Silins, knew I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, which is why our morning tutorials often sounded like press briefings. “Uh-uh,” Pete would scold me from his reclining chair as we discussed Pravda articles he’d found to translate. “If you want to be Our Man in Moscow, you can’t ask a question with a terrible declension of the genitive like that.”
Ditto my Spanish professor, Bernie Manker. Few courses I took at Wabash have been more useful to my work as a Latin America correspondent than Bernie’s ingenious vocabulary classes. They readied me for Latin America’s overwhelmingly balkanized Spanish—for the fact that a word for “slipper” in Venezuela can mean “cuckold” next door in Colombia.
Wabash Magazine captured the College’s work helping its students understand the world and become international leaders some 20 years ago in an issue called “Our Epistles to the World” about Wabash men abroad. It also captured the optimism of the post–Cold War globalization then emerging, and the important role Americans like those Wabash men would play in it.
But two decades later we have to acknowledge there was also a lot of arrogance attached to that optimism. The current administration came to power thanks in no small part to the educated U.S. elites who inexcusably allowed so much of the U.S. working class to be left behind by globalization.
Globalization was inevitable and unavoidable—the culmination of two centuries of technological revolution, from trains to jets to the Internet, which ultimately annihilated distance and borders. But even so, U.S. business, government, and unions—Democrats as well as Republicans—did next to squat to prepare ordinary Americans for globalization’s tectonic labor shifts.
Meanwhile, globalization’s high priests, including the media industry I work for, helped stoke ordinary Americans’ resentments by adding insult to their injury. They gave the impression that folks who weren’t part of their internationalist club were losers. And if those folks didn’t like it, well, they could go vote for an isolationist.
And they did.
Still, that doesn’t excuse the equally arrogant folly of turning America’s back on the world—gutting and demoralizing our foreign service in the process—especially when it works against America’s interests. Denigrating immigrants and traumatically separating asylum-seeking families, for example, has actually set back the long-term effort to reduce illegal immigration.
In the early 2010s, Washington finally woke up to the fact that illegal immigration is best confronted not at the border but at its source. So it began investing in ways to convince migrants, especially Central Americans, to stay home. Congress and the Obama administration mustered a billion dollars to help Central America’s hellish northern triangle—Guatemala, El Salvador, and especially Honduras—reduce poverty and elevate security.
By 2015 it was starting to work, particularly on the security front. That summer I spent time in Honduras reporting on U.S.-spearheaded efforts to professionalize the police and reclaim vast swaths of the country from the vicious maras, gangs like MS-13. They rule whole cities and send countless Hondurans—especially the youths the maras try to forcefully recruit—fleeing to the U.S.
But the current administration defunded the program. One likely result is the new wave of Central American migration we’ve seen at the border in the past year.
That kind of migration may soon be coming from the east as well as the south if the U.S. continues to dismiss global warming and its impact on the low-lying islands of the Caribbean. Scientists say some of the basin’s smaller isles could actually disappear in future hurricanes. But pulling out of the Paris climate accord doesn’t exactly signal that America is concerned about that prospect—or, for that matter, about the reality that sea-level rise could dunk much of U.S. coastal cities like Miami by the middle of this century.
Meanwhile, China is taking advantage of our indifference to the Caribbean by mounting large-scale infrastructure projects there—and generally broadening its influence in the region.
So Caribbean denizens like Claudina Swann may well decide the best move is to emigrate to the U.S., legally or illegally. Swann and her two young children were almost swallowed by Dorian’s terrifying storm surge before they miraculously scrambled to the roof of their Freeport home. But Swann confided to me that every storm she faces now seems deadlier than the one before—“Trust me,” she said in tears, “this last one was the worst of them all”—and that she fears she won’t survive the next one.
My sense of purpose was formed in a country that realized it ignored fears like Swann’s not just at her peril, but at our own.
TIM PADGETT is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN and has reported on Latin America for almost 30 years. He received the Maria Moors Cabot Prize for his work in the region, and in 2016 he earned the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Series for The Migration Maze, about the brutal causes of—and potential solutions to—Central American migration.