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Meet Kristin Wilson-Grimes

Title: Research Assistant Professor
Affiliation: University of the Virgin Islands
Interview Date: May 31, 2018
Interview Language: English
Spatial coverage: U.S. Virgin Islands
Topics Covered in this Interview:
– mangroves, ridge to reef, ecosystem services
– University of the Virgin Islands, Virgin Islands Water Resources Research Institute
– US drought monitor, standardized precipitation index
– ecological data, nearshore ecosystems, fish

Interview Highlights

On the physical destruction of Hurricane Irma in 2017
When we first went outside, it looked like a bomb went off. I’ve never been in a war zone or a place that’s actually been bombed, but that’s the closest thing that I could tell you that it seemed like. … All of the vegetation had been denuded, it was stripped off. The trees were like torqued like halfway up. It was like somebody had wrenched them and twisted them. … And then … we learned that, you know, in these big storms like in Irma, you can actually have tornadoes that are part of those storms. … And then you heard the stories, and you saw the physical evidence of these neighborhoods where water spouts came ashore, where tornadoes ripped across. You know, that was what was just so shocking because you saw concrete structures that basically had exploded, been lifted up, moved and kind of just dropped and blown apart. …
At the University of the Virgin Islands, there was over $50 million worth of damage just on the St. Thomas campus alone. And the Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, the roof came off and kind of peeled back … That building sits right on the ocean. You know, it’s one of the great assets of that facility but also one of its greatest vulnerabilities. So all the labs on the first floor flooded because of the storm surge and then because of all the rain that came in from up above as well. … When we came up to the Center for Marine and Environmental Studies that day, we could see the roof laying on the ground out in front of the building. So, we knew that it had peeled back kind of like a can of sardines.

On the aftermath of Hurricane Irma
The University made the decision to go back to classes very shortly, in October. And they did that because they wanted things to have a sense of normalcy for the students. But that was really difficult because it wasn’t normal. It wasn’t normal for the students, it wasn’t normal for the faculty. …
I mean what happened after Irma … it was really the community that stepped up so quickly right after Irma. And it was amazing to see the networks of private boats, for example, private flights, private individuals …  and even some of the national airlines, too, that were doing emergency flights and that sort of thing. But it was those private boats that were doing runs back and forth to Puerto Rico. Friends of mine who were organizing networks … figuring out how to set up ad hoc distribution centers to get those materials into the hands of the people that needed them the most.

On data and planning for drought in the USVI
It’s hard to get long-term monitoring data in any place. But the US Virgin Islands, in particular, doesn’t have a lot of long-term data, whether it’s on environmental parameters or the condition of our ecosystems or on wildlife populations. There’s very few long-term data sets that are continuous. And that’s one of the things that’s a real challenge for trying to come up with management plans for trying to create a plan that would allow for greater resiliency. If we don’t understand what the history has been in a place, how can we use that to predict or plan for the future?

On the impact of drought and other hazards on the USVI
What we do know in the US Virgin Islands is that climate change, and the impacts from drought and other hazards, we see and feel them from the top of the mountains down to the reefs. And while we might not have as much hard data as we would like, we know that we see and feel those impacts. And that’s on the ecosystems, but it’s also in the human communities that are a part of these systems as well. And so, we know in some of the terrestrial forested ecosystems, that we think that we’re seeing changes in species composition to some of the more drought-tolerant tree species in particular … We know that some of the wildlife populations … at least we think, are declining as a result of the drought. There’s been some indication that for our native amphibians, so, some of the native frog species but also some of our non-native frog species, is that the breeding season was delayed in 2015 because of the drought and that some of the breeding season was also likely curtailed as a result. … And then down into the mangroves … there were areas that were stressed or had standing dead trees as a result of the drought … And what might be kind of surprising is that even though those mostly red mangroves that were standing there were standing dead, you know, bone dry, snap dry, they were still providing some ecosystem services that we might not think about. …

On mitigating impacts of drought
The Virgin Islands Water Resources Research Institute has been involved in trying to get us experimentally included in the US Drought Monitor, other actions at the university in trying to help and support the development of a hazard and mitigation resiliency plan for the territory. I’ve personally been involved also in the Ridge to Reef Task Force, which is something that’s been newly formed as a result of the storms. Preceding the storms, I was also involved in the governor’s climate change task force. So, this is also thinking about other sorts of creeping hazards. So, I think of drought as a creeping hazard. Sea level rise is also kind of a creeping hazard versus one of these things that’s like an acute event that happens, like a large storm event.  … So, these creeping and acute hazards work together and we have to be thinking about and preparing for them in the US Virgin Islands, especially because we are on an island, which means that we have limited resources. We have limited capacity, and we want to make sure that we’re building in redundancies in our human infrastructure, in our ecosystems, which means preserving diversity, which means trying to protect some of our environments. Which means making sure that we not only have the rules on the books but that we’re enforcing some of our environmental regulations, that we’re doing those things so that we can really be thinking and shaping the future of the US Virgin Islands proactively, rather than just … reacting to the situations that come.

On preparing for future hurricanes
When you look at many of the hillsides in St. Thomas and St. John, or communities in St. Croix, you see a sea of blue roofs right now. … And when you look across that, and when you think about, “Well, will these communities be more prepared?”… I don’t know. Is our territorial government more prepared now? Maybe. I’m not sure, you know. I think we have more resources right now. That’s for sure. We know that there’s a lot more resources that are literally flooding into the territory. FEMA is providing a lot of support into the territory. We have these grassroots, long-term recovery groups have been formed on each of the three islands. … Between kind of the top-down approach, and the spot them up approach, I think that’s really hopeful for the Virgin Islands. If a storm hit us right now though, I think it would just … It would be very difficult. I think it would be a blow to the communities that are kind of already down, and it would be really, really hard. …

And when you look at the predictions for hurricanes in the Atlantic basin, and what climate change means for the frequency, the intensity of those events, it means that we have to be smarter about what we build, where we build it, how we build it, how we let people know about the risk to where they live, what the options are for what they could do to be more prepared, how they can be more resilient moving forward. And we need policymakers, and we need decision makers who know that science, and who are prepared to make the decisions that need to be made. …

Thinking about this hurricane season coming up like, “No. Our mangrove systems are not acting in the same ways that we, that they were before the storms.” But I’m hopeful that, you know, these can be amazing systems. They are the ones that have been around for thousands and thousands of years. That if we give them the space, we give them the opportunity through restoration activities that these are environments that we can help and assist in bringing back and improve not only the ecosystem resilience but also the community resilience by reinstating their important benefits that they provide.