Micronesians flee radioactivity of home islands, find a new life on Kaua‘i

Kaua‘i resident Ano Lauties felt he once had the best life possible, living in the Marshall Islands in Micronesia.

When he lived there, he grew up with strong family ties, traded fish with neighbors, got married, worked as a welder and commuted to Kwajalein Atoll from his home on Santo Island to make extra money.

Lauties said he left his dream world in 1999 to move to Kaua‘i to save himself and his family.

Now a resident of Lihu‘e, Lauties, 49, his wife, two sons and two nephews have joined about 50 former Marshall Island residents who have migrated thousands of miles east to Kaua‘i.

Lauties said they all relocated primary to avoid the risk of being exposed to what he claimed is lingering radioactive fallout from atomic and nuclear testing first undertaken by the United States at Bikini and Enewetok atolls in the Marshall Islands more than 50 years ago.

Some scientists and medical doctors have said they have treated a significant number of islanders with leukemia, typhoid and hair loss – illnesses allegedly attributed to contact with radioactive fallout – and the number of cases is increasing.

But other scientists say the island chain, located 2,500 miles southwest of Hawai‘i, is safe for visitors.

Lauties said he had no choice but to leave his homeland of nearly 45 years “because of the danger. He said because of the danger “more people from Marshall Islands will come to Hawai‘i.”

Lauties said bizarre miscarriages by his mother and wife persuaded him to leave. “My mother gave birth to a grape,” he said. “My wife gave birth to a fish. It was the radiation, I believe.”

Many of his fellow countrymen also have settled in Hawai‘i because of better jobs and for better educational opportunities for their children, Lauties said. He estimated about 5,000 Marshall Islanders live in Hawai‘i.

Lauties is asking leaders of the Marshall Island government to aggressively pursue more compensation for future generations of Marshall Islanders he believes will be stricken by lingering radioactivity. He believes radioactive residue has worked its way into the water, the land and food chain of the Marshall Islands.

The U.S. government has set aside hundreds of millions in trust funds to compensate islanders with documented illnesses believed to be tied to exposure to radioactivity.

The federal government also set aside millions to clean up the Enewetok Atoll, where the world’s first nuclear bomb was tested in 1952.

The 10.4 megaton explosion was 750 times larger than the one that exploded over Hiroshima during World War II.

Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. government conducted 67 atmospheric tests in the Marshall Islands, according a Web site. Some islanders were “irradiated by the fallout,” and others were forced to leave Bikini and Enewetok, which are unoccupied now, and other islands, the Web Site said.

Some islanders were forced to relocate to new islands, and others starved because they could not get used to their new environment.

Marshall Island government officials have said these people and their descendants have remained as exiles of their home island for nearly 60 years, and that their lives have degraded.

Since 1956, the federal government has established $247 million in trust fund compensations for Marshall Island residents, paid out $1 million cash and spent nearly $240 million to clean up Enewetok.

According to figures found on the Internet, officials with a nuclear claims tribunal estimated another $100 million in personal injury claims would accumulate by 2001, when a “compact of free association” between the Marshall Islands and the United States ended.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia ratified the agreement with the United States in 1986. The pact accorded the former entities of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands a political status of “free association.”

The Republic of Palau negotiated a separate agreement with the United States beginning in 1995.

The pact provided to the Marshall Islands economic assistance from the U.S. government, including access to federal programs, the defense of the two island groups and other benefits.

In exchange, the United States claimed the right to defend the island group and to deny access to it by other nations.

When the pact became official in 1986, the United States agreed to set aide a $150,000 trust fund that was anticipated to generate $270 million in compensation payments.

The pact worked for the United States in this way: In exchange for agreeing to establishing the $150 million trust fund created through the pact, Marshall Islanders were prohibited from seeking further legal address in U.S. courts and dismissing standing lawsuits at the time.

Before the pact was signed, Bikini atoll residents had filed a class action seeking $450 million in compensation. Another group filed suit seeking $4 billion in compensation.

This spring, Marshall Islands minister of foreign affairs Gerald Zackios helped renegotiate the compact.

Whether more federal funds can be allotted to cover more claims is up in the air, according to a Republic of Marshall Islands official in the Pacific region.

A study on the cases by Marshall Islanders claming injury from radioactivity has been put before President Bush and Congress for review.

If President George Bush and Congress agree with the findings and conclusions of the study, the doorway could opened for additional compensation, said the official who asked not to be identified.

“It is plainly up them, we have to wait,” he said.

Lauties said he is a common man and that he is far away from home. He said, however, that he will do his best to educate his children and others about the effects of radioactivity on the Marshall Islands and “carry on the fight.”

“The Republic of Palau, the Federation of Micronesia, no bombs, but Marshall Islands, yes,” Lauties said. “We, the Marshall Island people, should get something more.”

The Marshall Islands consist of two chains of 29 coral atolls and five low islands that stretch several hundred miles from north to south.

The island nation has a total land area of about 70 square miles, and boasts a population of about 56,000, of which about 25,000 are located on Majuro Atoll, the capital of the Marshall Islands.

The key industries of the Marshall Islands is agriculture, fishing and marine resources.

Kwajalein Atoll is the largest island, home to the United States Army Kwajalein Atoll, a ballistic missile defense test site and about 2000 support personnel and family members on Kwajalein and Roi-Namur islands.

Lauties grew up on Namorik Atoll and, at age 29, moved to Kwajalein Atoll, where he met his future wife, May.

Lauties eventually moved to Santo Island within the Kwajalein Atoll, and made his home on there for 20 years.

Lauties said what he likes most about his life in the Marshall Islands was being with his family, working as a welder for a U.S. military contractor, fishing with friends and living a simple life.

“There are no cars, because the island is only one mile long,” Lauties said. “So people walked. It was a good life.”

Lauties also participated in social activities with many of the 500 people who lived on the island.

But Lauties said the continual talk of villagers about radioactive fallout planted the thought, for the first time, of finding a new home.

Lauties said people are afraid radioactivity has found its way into the island’s food chain.

“We live by the ocean. People afraid to catch grab, because they say you eat one at night, and by morning you will have no hair,” Lauties said.

The miscarriages of his mother and wife and his father’s sickness gave him more reason to move, he said.

Lauties believes that both his mother, who has since passed away, and his wife, were victims of latent radioactivity. His father also had bloody stools before he died at age 72, Lauties said.

Lauties said he doesn’t know if he has “the sickness,” but plans to go through testing in Hawai‘i to find out.

He first came to Hawai‘i in 1995 so that his 17-year-old son, Benje could get medical help on O‘ahu.

Lauties said his son ran and jumped as youngster.

But when Benje turned nine years of age, his muscles began to degenerate, and he was later diagnosed with something similar to muscular dystrophy, Lauties said. His son can only get around by wheelchair now.

“I think he has it (radioactivity) too,” said Lauties, who pursed his lips and shook his head as he looked at his son. “I wish it was not.”

Lauties came to Kaua‘i in 1999 with his wife, Benje, and two nephews. They live in a rental home in Lihu‘e. His other son lives in Anahola. The sole provider of his family, Lauties works as a stockman for a Lihu‘e retail store.

He chose to live on Kaua‘i because its warm weather reminds him of home and because of the island’s natural beauty and still, slow-paced lifestyle.

The most noticeable difference between the Marshall Islands and Hawaii is “money,” Lauties said.

“Back home, money has little value. Here, it is everything,” Lauties said.

The first group of Marshall Islanders came to Kaua‘i in the early 1990s to pick guava on the North Shore. Many now work in the construction, hotel and farming business on Kaua‘i, Lauties said.

Although Lauties is thousands of miles away from his home, he thinks about it every night.

“To me, the Marshall Islands are the most beautiful islands in the world,” Lauties said. “But I won’t go. Maybe only a visit. I am afraid of radioactivity.”

Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and mailto:lchang@pulitzer.net

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