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BOOK FEST: Coral reefs vs. U.S. Navy
Local author outlines fight to keep a Puerto Rican island from being used for target practice

Kevin McCarey’s day gig is as a professor of film at SCAD. But he’s also the author of an intriguing book about his experiences in the 1970s on the front lines of the long and eventually successful effort to stop the U.S. Navy from using Puerto Rican islands for target practice.

Islands Under Fire focuses on the fight to save Culebra, at the time was one of two Puerto Rican islands – actually part of the Spanish Virgins — which were the only inhabited areas on earth used for live–fire training. (The Navy pulled out of Culebra in 1975, but used neighboring Vieques until 2001.) In addition to being a gripping, entertaining slice of life from a tumultuous period of U.S. history, the book also details Puerto Rico’s long, sad experience with being abused first by one colonial power, the Spanish, and then another in the form of the United States.

McCarey makes a presentation this Sat. Feb. 16 at 11:30 p.m. as part of the Savannah Book Festival.

How did you cope with the outrage you must have felt, seeing this beautiful, fragile ecosystem used to test weapons?

Kevin McCarey: I think rage comes from a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, and I felt neither. I felt that if we just plugged away at it we could stop the bombing of Culebra. It worked out, and I don’t want to take a lot of credit for it. It was due to the work of these lawyers up in Washington who worked for free, and who were absolutely tenacious.

When you’re in a situation like that, certain people can inspire you to believe. And that would be the mayor of Culebra at the time, Ramon Feliciano. He was like the mouse that roared — a simple, humble man with great character. He was so absolutely positive that we would be able to stop the travesty, and I think we all fed off of his energy. A truly great man.

But honestly the main way I dealt with the environmental travesty on a personal level was by trying to maintain a sense of humor.

Of the things contributing to what happened in Puerto Rico – environmental neglect, imperialism, racism, bureaucracy – which was the most egregious?

Kevin McCarey: I’d say it was colonial attitude. At the turn of the 20th century, right after we took control of Cuba and Puerto Rico and the Philippines and Hawaii, the U.S. funded a book called Our Islands, ironically written by a former Confederate general. It was like these people were not Anglo-Saxons, didn’t have our traditions, and so were suited to be our loyal colonial subjects. I’d say that was the most outrageous thing, that as late as the 1960s and 1970s we hadn’t outgrown that condescending attitude toward the people of Puerto Rico.

Talk about how that particular time in U.S. history influenced the effort to stop the Navy. There was so much going on then: Vietnam, Nixon, etc.

Kevin McCarey: Another thing taking place during that time was the very first Earth Day. And not only were we trying to deal with the Vietnam War, we were also dealing with desegregation. There was also a movement across the country to address those challenges. We had women’s rights coming to the fore finally.

And on top of this collective energy to correct environmental woes and foreign policy woes there was much more freedom of expression. There was a lot of negativity but also a great amount of confidence that something could be done to make things better.

That’s the great thing about this country — we’re resilient. We can look inside ourselves and say, dammit it might be broken, but we can fix it. And we’ve fixed an awful lot of things, particularly during that period.

Can the Caribbean coral reefs come back from such mistreatment?

Kevin McCarey: Yes, and it’s interesting. After these reefs began to recover from the trauma of the bombing, they then had to endure Hurricane Hugo. What we discovered was that hurricane damage, which will tear apart 1000 year old coral reefs, has one positive aspect: It will carry chunks of reef to new areas of the ocean. Reefs will then begin to grow in areas where they wouldn’t be before.

That said, the big problem today is ocean acidification. Reefs are very sensitive to ocean temperatures, there’s a very limited range in which they can survive. If you have overall global warming and oceanic warming, it’s possible the reefs can migrate and move to cooler latitudes.

However when you introduce ocean acidification, with carbon dioxide, into Mother Ocean — the source of all life — the reefs cannot survive that. Some people predict that by the middle of this century there might be almost no coral reefs yet.

We fought like hell to save the reefs from the Navy but it turns out what we’re doing to the environment is going to have far more tragic and lethal effect on ocean life than whatever the Navy was doing back then.