On the frontline of hurricane disaster

Gator Halpern is in no doubt at all that climate change is wreaking havoc.

The founder of Coral Vita, 2018’s Young Champion of the Earth for Latin America and the Caribbean has been on the frontline of climate disaster.

When hurricane Dorian hit, his Coral Vita team, which grows corals for reef restoration, was prepared for a hurricane.

“But Dorian was anything but normal,” said Halpern.

“The farm was hit by a 17 foot-storm surge, destroying most of our infrastructure. We lost all of our corals and have been finding our coral tanks washed ashore 35 miles east of our farm. Many of our neighbors' and friends' houses were completely destroyed, and much of the island was under water.”

imageVisitors are educated about corals before the hurricane. Photo by Coral Vita

Coral Vita is creating a reef restoration model that can sustain threatened corals and the values they provide. Their recently launched land-based farm—a commercial model meant to sustain large-scale restoration and function as an eco-tourism attraction and education centre for local communities—accelerates coral growth up to 50 times, while enhancing their resilience to warming and acidifying oceans.

When the hurricane hit, Coral Vita sprang into action, preparing a big truck full of chainsaws, power tools and other supplies, to directly assist people in need as soon as the storm passed.

A fundraising effort raised money for medicine, first-aid, water, generators, canned food, hygienic products, and other essentials. “We did all we could to help those who had lost everything. After supplying critical goods, we transitioned any remaining funds into long-term rebuilding and relief efforts,” said Halpern.  

“Quite a year it’s been,” said Halpern, reflecting back on the time since winning the Young Champions of the Earth prize.  “We watched Coral Vita really come to life over the past 12 months. When we started the Young Champions programme, our coral farm was at the beginning stages of construction.

“We knew what we wanted to do, but we were just starting to build the structure both physically and business-wise that could make it happen. Since winning the award, we finished building out a beautiful coral farm, eco-tourism attraction, and education centre.

imageThe coral restoration space is officially opened before the hurricane. Photo by Coral Vita

“We opened the facility to great fanfare here in the Bahamas and started growing corals, giving tours, and hosting regular classroom field trips. Things were going great, with 20 different species of corals growing and tourism operations about to ramp up, when Hurricane Dorian hit the northern Bahamas with unprecedented force.”

Now, the team is focusing on putting the farm back together.

“There’s a long road ahead for both Coral Vita and the Bahamas in general, but we’re rebuilding in Freeport and will be back better than ever in the near future,” said Halpern.  

“As part of Coral Vita’s rebirth after the storm, we’ve also recently opened the Coral Vita Conservancy, a non-profit branch of our organization that opens the door to traditional philanthropic and grant opportunities.

“This storm is a prime example of how we need to protect, restore and create resilient coastal ecosystems that can adapt to climate change, shelter communities from natural disasters and provide livelihoods for local populations.

“In the long term, Coral Vita will continue to work to make that happen in The Bahamas and around the world,” he said.

Coral reefs provide multiple benefits for the 500 million people through fishing and tourism, contributing an estimated US$1 trillion to the global economy. But they are severely threatened, with 90 per cent expected to die by 2050.

imageReconstruction efforts after hurricane Dorian. Photo by Coral Vita

Gabriel Grimsditch, Programme Management Officer of the marine and coastal ecosystems branch at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said that these events highlight the vulnerability of coral reefs and restoration efforts.

“Given the projections for current and future climate change, it is imperative that we invest in research on scalable, cost-effective and climate-smart coral restoration technology,” he said.  

“We are currently in the research and development phase for coral reef restoration worldwide, so efforts like Coral Vita’s are valuable and provide important lessons and knowledge to the global community.

“The damage caused by the hurricane highlights the challenges that coral restoration projects around the world face, and we commend Coral Vita’s resilience in the face of adversity.”

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The Young Champions of the Earth Prize, powered by Covestro, is UN Environment Programme’s leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world's most pressing environmental challenges.