On the morning of July 1, 1946, a second sun rose over the remote Pacific island chain of Bikini Atoll.
The world’s fourth atomic bomb had just been detonated over the area with an “unearthly brilliance that petrified observers,” wrote the Washington Post reporter at the scene.
A hundred miles away, from a ship just off the shore of tiny Rongerik Atoll, Bikini’s former residents watched a mushroom cloud form over the place that had been their home. Now it was a bomb site, shrouded in toxic nuclear fallout that would render it uninhabitable. The Bikini islanders didn’t know that yet; they had agreed to a series of nuclear tests on their islands believing they would be able to return as soon as the experiments ended.
Instead, they began a decades-long nomadic existence that would see Bikini islanders starve on atolls too small and sparse to sustain them and sicken from lingering radiation on others. The tiny community would be relocated five times in as many decades before settling elsewhere in the Marshall Islands. Some islanders watch warily as scientists re-evaluate their old home. Others have tried to move on, settle down.
But their bad luck just won’t let them. Now, they say, the rising seas and brutal storms brought on by climate change have rendered their new homes uninhabitable. On Wednesday, Marshallese Foreign Minister Tony de Brum will meet with members of Congress and ask for a change in the terms of the fund that was set up to help Bikini islanders resettle. Currently, the fund can only be used to help them buy property in the Marshall Islands, but they’re giving up on the Pacific entirely. They want to come to the U.S. instead.
“Kili [is] uninhabitable because of climate change,” de Brum told the BBC Tuesday, referring to the tiny island where about 700 people now live.
Life on Kili is barely sustainable under the best of circumstances. The Bikini islanders moved there in 1948, after it was clear they would starve if they remained on Rongerik. The new spot was attractive because it was public land, meaning that the Bikini people could establish their own community there, but it had little else to offer. The lack of a natural lagoon effectively eliminated the islanders’ traditional fishing culture. Space for farming on the island was sparse, so residents had to rely on imports to supplement what little they could grow locally. Rough seas could stop shipments for months, and the threat of starvation loomed constantly.
In the late ’60s, U.S. officials announced that most of the effects of its nuclear detonations had worn off, and some Bikini islanders opted to return to the atoll. But subsequent tests found alarming levels of radiation in the islands’ sand, fruit, fish and the people themselves. The hundred or so islanders living in Bikini atoll were re-evacuated in 1978, and most returned to Kili.
The intervening years have rendered Kili even more unlivable, islanders say. Bikini Liaison Officer Jack Niedenthal told Radio New Zealand in August that the past four years have been brutal for Kili residents, as higher tides and severe summer storms batter the island.
“The island has been inundated by waves, and not just a little bit,” he said. “… It’s getting to the point where people are tired of having water in their living rooms and trying to deal with the waves and the water coming over the island.”
According to the BBC, Kili saw widespread flooding in 2011 and this year. Sea salt is seeping into the ground water, rendering it undrinkable and unusable for agriculture. The island’s runway flooded earlier this year, cutting residents off from the world and from the imported supplies they depend on for food. Conditions are just as bad in other parts of the Marshall Islands, where other Bikini islanders live.
The nation of low-lying islands and atolls is among those most threatened by climate change, its leaders say.
“Most countries that are elevated have the option of a managed retreat, but not here — our front line is our last line of defense,” Ywao Elanzo, the country’s acting director of the Office of Environmental Planning and Policy Coordination, told Al Jazeera in May.
If predictions for rising sea levels prove true — NASA announced in August that a global rise of several feet is unavoidable — these islands will be inundated. The majority of homes on Kili, for example, are built less than 4 meters above sea level. The island’s highest point isn’t much higher.
With no other options to save their drowning country — apart from abandoning the area entirely — Marshall Islands leaders have called for huge steps to confront climate change.
“Relocation is not an option,” de Brum said at a climate change even in 2013. “Because forced relocation is telling us you no longer have a country.”
But Bikini islanders, who have already been relocated so often, feel differently.
Last week, the Department of the Interior issued a letter of support for the idea, recommending that the terms of the fund be altered to allow Bikini islanders to resettle here.
“This is an appropriate course of action for the United States to take regarding the welfare and livelihood of the Bikinian people, given the deteriorating conditions on Kili and Ejit Islands in the Marshall Islands with crowding, diminishing resources, and increased frequency of flooding due to King Tides on their islands,” wrote Interior Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas Esther Kia’aina.
It’s now up to Congress to approve the changes.
Niedenthal, the liaison officer for the displaced people of Bikini, says the U.S. has a moral obligation to help the community it displaced 70 years ago. He knows people who were there when the last islanders left Bikini Atoll, who still recite a promise made by an American officer there “like it’s right out of the Bible,” Niedenthal told Radio New Zealand in August.
“This American stood up to them, Commodore [Ben] Wyatt in 1946,” Niedenthal said. “[He] said ‘Don’t you worry. It doesn’t matter if you’re adrift on a raft at sea or on a sand bar, you will be like the children of America. We are going to take care of you.”
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