The Heat Is Online

Climate change triggers a new Age of Migration in US

Welcome to the Age of Climate Migration

Extreme weather due to climate change displaced more than a million people from their homes last year. It could soon reshape the nation


Rolling, Feb. 27, 2018  

Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas and Louisiana last August, causing $125 billion in damage, dumped more water out of the sky than any storm in U.S. history. By one calculation, roughly a million gallons fell for every person in Texas. The water rained down on a flat former bayou that had become a concrete and asphalt empire of more than 2.3 million people. Highways turned into rivers and shopping malls into lakes. As the water rose, people scrambled for safe refuge – into attics, onto rooftops and overpasses. A Texas game warden captured a nine-foot-long alligator in the dining room of a home near Lake Houston. Snakes swam into kitchens. A hawk flew into a taxicab and wouldn't leave.


As the deluge continued, tens of thousands of people fled – some in fishing boats down suburban streets, some in canoes, some on Jet Skis. Others risked a harrowing drive through water, fallen trees and swimming dogs. More than 30,000 people ended up in shelters. Thousands more headed up Interstate 45, toward Dallas, where parking lots at IHOPs and McDonalds were full of desperate people wondering how their suburban neighborhoods had turned into Waterworld. Many of them lived in their cars until the floods receded, and eventually returned to devastated homes.

Some people who hit the road during the storm kept going. A few days after the waters drained away, I was driving across central Arizona on old Route 66, which novelist John Steinbeck called "the Mother Road" – it was the route that hundreds of thousands of people took to escape America's first man-made environmental catastrophe. Today, the ghosts of the Dust Bowl, the 1930s drought that caused a region roughly the size of Pennsylvania to dry up and blow away, haunt every gas station and roadside ice cream shop.

Near Flagstaff, I pulled into a service station and parked next to a Subaru with the words "We Survived Hurricane Harvey, Orange, Texas" scrawled on the back window in bright-pink letters. The mud-splattered car was loaded with luggage, boxes and a guitar case. A middle-aged woman and a scruffy man with wild brown hair pulled themselves out, looking road-weary and haggard. The man popped open the hood and fiddled with some wiring.

I nodded to the words on their back window. "How bad was Harvey?"

"Bad," the woman said. She introduced herself as Melanie Elliott. "We had to get out of there."

"It was a fucking disaster," the man said, bent under the hood. His name was Andrew McGowan. "We got swamped."

Orange, I later learned, is an old industrial seaport near the Louisiana border, population 18,643. The town has been hit repeatedly by recent hurricanes: In 2005, Rita savaged the city; three years later, Ike breached the city's levee and flooded the streets with as much as 15 feet of water. Three people died. "We were just dealing with water all the time, constant flooding," McGowan continued. "The whole place is going under."

"Harvey was it for us," Elliott added. "Too much water, we can't deal with this anymore. We are going to San Diego."

"What are you going to do there?" I asked.

"We don't know," McGowan said. "I'm gonna play some guitar and see what comes along."

As they piled back into their Subaru and headed toward the highway, I thought of the old Woody Guthrie song about the farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl: "We loaded our jalopies and piled our families in/We rattled down that highway to never come back again."

In 2017, a string of climate disasters – six big hurricanes in the Atlantic, wildfires in the West, horrific mudslides, high-temperature records breaking all over the country – caused $306 billion in damage, killing more than 300 people. After Hurricane Maria, 300,000 Puerto Ricans fled to Florida, and disaster experts estimate that climate and weather events displaced more than 1 million Americans from their homes last year. These statistics don't begin to capture the emotional and financial toll on survivors who have to dig through ashes and flooded debris to rebuild their lives. Mental-health workers often see spikes in depression, PTSD and suicides in the months that follow a natural disaster. After Harvey, one study found that 30 percent of residents in flooded areas had fallen behind on their rent or mortgage. One in four respondents said they were having problems paying for food.

Politicians inevitably vow to rebuild, to make their city stronger than before. But in the coming years, as the climate gets hotter, the seas keep rising and storms grow more intense, those vows will become less and less credible. Climate change is going to remap our world, changing not just how we live but where we live. As scientist Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, puts it, "There is a shocking, unreported, fundamental change coming to the habitability of many parts of the planet, including the U.S.A."

In the not-so-distant future, places like Phoenix and Tucson will become so hot that just walking across the street will be a life-threatening event. Parts of the upper Middle West will become a permanent dust bowl. South Florida and low-lying sections of the Gulf Coast will be underwater. Some people may try to stick around and fight it out with Mother Nature, but most will not. "People will do what they have done for thousands of years," says Vivak Shandas, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University. "They will migrate to better climates."

One recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change predicts that by 2050, as much as 30 percent of the world's land surface could face desertlike conditions, including large swaths of Asia, Europe, Africa and southern Australia. More than 1.5 billion people currently live in these regions. In the U.S., a recent study by Mathew Hauer, a demographer at the University of Georgia, estimates that 13 million people will be displaced by sea-level rise alone by the year 2100 (about the number of African-Americans who moved out of the South during the Great Migration of the 20th century). In Hauer's study, about 2.5 million will flee the region that includes Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Greater New Orleans loses up to 500,000 people; the New York City area loses 50,000. The biggest winners are nearby cities on high ground with mild climates, good infrastructure and strong economies: Atlanta; Austin; Madison, Wisconsin; and Memphis.

"Most people don't realize how much climate affects everything, from their property values to how hard people work," says Solomon Hsiang, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, who led a recent study that predicts, as the climate warms, there will be "a large transfer of value northward and westward." And the wealthy, who can afford to adapt, will benefit, while the poor, who will likely be left behind, will suffer. "If we continue on the current path," Hsiang says, "our analysis suggests that climate change may result in the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in the country's history."

The Southeast will be the biggest loser due to damage from increased flooding, higher heat mortality and lower agricultural yield – in some of the poorest counties in the region, the study predicts, income will fall by up to one-third. In contrast, the Northwest will see increased agricultural yields, lower energy costs (due to milder winters) and higher worker productivity. "The lesson of this study is, the future looks good for the Pacific Northwest, especially cities west of the Cascades, like Seattle and Portland," says Hsiang's co-author Amir Jina, an economist at the University of Chicago. "For the Southeast, it's not a very pretty picture."

There are plenty of unknowns in how this will play out, including unforeseen climate tipping points, technological innovations that help us adapt, and outbreaks of war and disease. But without a doubt, climate change is not only altering the physical boundaries of our world, it is challenging the very 20th-century idea that we can engineer our way out of -whatever chaos comes our way; the big lesson of this century may be that we cannot. As the seas rise and the temperatures soar, we will have to give up ground. We will learn that "retreat" is not a dirty word. And we will become, more and more, a nation of refugees.

At about 5 p.m. on August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina broke through the levee protecting New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. Ten feet of raging seawater tore into this working-class black neighborhood, trapping people in their homes without warning. About 80 people were killed by the storm in the Lower Ninth, the highest flood fatality rate in the city. Virtually every structure in the 25-square-block neighborhood was destroyed.

The Lower Ninth was ground zero, but Katrina devastated a wide area in and around New Orleans. About 1,800 people died; another 400,000 were displaced. This wave of displaced people became known as the "Katrina diaspora," and researchers are still trying to come to grips with exactly what impact it had on the demographics of the city. By most measures, New Orleans is thriving again, but it is a richer, whiter city than it had been before the storm. It is also smaller: The population of New Orleans today is about 390,000, roughly 100,000 fewer people than before Katrina hit.

In the Lower Ninth, rebuilding has been difficult. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, large parts of the neighborhood are still abandoned: empty lots, sidewalks that lead nowhere, trash blowing in the streets. New Orleans' official statistics estimate that the population of the Lower Ninth is 37 percent of what it was before Katrina, but Laura Paul, founder of, a nonprofit devoted to rebuilding the neighborhood, contends the reality is much closer to 25 percent. The federally funded storm-recovery program made it almost impossible for homeowners there to get enough money to rebuild, she says; instead, many people took their measly settlements and started over elsewhere. "Every impediment to recovery that could have been thrown up in the path of low-wealth black families was thrown up," Paul says. "It was basically a form of institutionalized racism."

Still, there are hopeful signs: more than 100 pastel-colored solar-powered homes built by Brad Pitt's Make It Right foundation; 85 or so more traditional houses rebuilt with the sweat of volunteers from organizations like "We are absolutely committed to the long-term future of this neighborhood for as many pre-Katrina residents as wish to return," says Paul. But given the risks that New Orleans faces from rising seas and increasingly intense storms, that long-term future is in question. When I bring this up with Paul, she balks: "Worrying about the future is a luxury for privileged people. My friends here are worried about putting dinner on the table tonight, not what is going to happen in the city 20 or 30 years from now."

The likelihood of another catastrophic levee collapse has been greatly reduced, thanks to $14.5 billion spent in the aftermath of Katrina on bigger, stronger barriers against the sea. But the city has other problems. For one thing, the protective coastline around it is vanishing. Louisiana is losing a football field of land to the sea every hour, due to a combination of subsidence, sea-level rise and reduced sediment flow from the Mississippi River. For -another, large parts of New Orleans, which was originally built on a swamp, have been sinking for 100 years – some parts of the city have subsided as much as 15 feet. As a result, even ordinary rainstorms are becoming existential threats. Last August, nine inches of rain fell on the city in three hours, and it looked like Katrina all over again. "The city is like a big bathtub," says Ed Link, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Maryland who led the effort to rebuild after Katrina. "You can build barriers to protect it from storm surges, but when it rains, you still have big problems."

Back in the 1910s and '20s, a system of pumps powered by steam turbines was installed around the city to help with drainage. Most of those pumps and turbines, poorly maintained and poorly designed for 21st-century mega-rainfall events, are still in operation today. At the time of the flooding last August, only two of the five turbines that power the pumps were working; a week later, a fourth failed.

It will cost billions of dollars to upgrade the system. But city officials can't even find the money to keep the storm drains and canals free of debris and functioning correctly. At a council meeting after the floods, public-works officials admitted the city could afford to clear only 68 of the 1,300 miles of canals in 2017. And as the climate heats up, rainfall is likely to become increasingly intense. "If you are asking me to drain nine inches of rain, I need six times the pumping capacity, six times the drainage pumps and six times the canals," Joseph Becker, the former superintendent of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, told the city council shortly after the August floods. "I don't need three or four more pumps, I need 400 or 500 more."

At a certain point you have to ask: How long can New Orleans, a city already below sea level, keep pumping? Lisanne Brown, director of evaluation and research at the Louisiana Public Health Institute, thinks about that a lot. She moved to New Orleans with her husband 30 years ago and raised two kids there. They bought a historic house in Bywater, a neighborhood by the river that is on slightly higher ground than most of the city, and so less susceptible to flooding. Nevertheless, Katrina had a big impact on how they think about life in New Orleans. "My husband and I talk about leaving more often now," Brown tells me. "We have really come to realize how vulnerable we are. We have more anxiety about rising seas and bigger storms. Hurricane season is six months long now – that's a lot of time to feel stress."

For Brown and her family, the big concern is the value of their home. "It's our one asset," she admits. "We are wondering if we should unload it and move away while it's still worth something." In part because she lives in a gentrifying neighborhood, the value of her home has doubled since Katrina. It's worth $500,000 to $600,000 now. "But my worry is, for how long?"

The decision to move to safer climates is obviously deeply personal, influenced by a person's connection with the community they live in, their financial situation and their tolerance for risk. But for city officials in at-risk cities, homeowners like Brown are terrifying. "Once people start thinking about the long-term value of their homes and how they will be impacted by climate change, that changes the game completely," a county attorney in Florida says. What happens to the value of a house in, for instance, Fort Lauderdale, when the cost of flood insurance triples? "When I think about the future of South Florida, it's flood insurance that scares me the most," Wayne Pathman, a prominent Miami lawyer and board member of Miami Beach's chamber of commerce, tells me. Many officials fear a climate-driven exodus that pushes down property values, which in turn reduces property-tax revenues, which are central to funding city services like police and teachers, not to mention road repair and infrastructure maintenance, at precisely the moment when the city needs to spend more to adapt to climate change.

It's a downward spiral for real estate that's very hard to reverse. "It's just like the dynamic in the stock market," says U.C. Berkeley's Hsiang. "The longer you hold on, the more you have to lose." And, in many cases, the regions of the country where climate-change denial is strongest, such as the Southeast, are exactly the regions where residents have the most to lose. "In many places, climate denial is going to turn out to have big economic consequences," Hsiang says.

Some cities and counties already feel the financial noose tightening. In Monroe County, Florida, which includes the entire Florida Keys, a recent study estimated 150 miles of roads need to be raised in the coming years to prevent flooding. Road-raising costs in Monroe County run as much as $7 million a mile, potentially putting the overall price tag up to $1 billion. In 2018, the budget for all road work and repair in the county was only $25 million. At the same time, the longer places like Monroe County wait to adapt to rising seas, the more it will cost. Moody's Investor's Service, the influential credit-rating agency, recently announced that it will weigh climate risks when analyzing ratings for states and cities, thus making borrowing money more expensive for places that ignore climate risks.

To shore up confidence in the future, at-risk cities like Miami and Phoenix tout everything from LED streetlights to carbon--offset programs. But for some climate-savvy residents of these cities, what's coming is all too clear. "I've loved living in Miami Beach," the poet Chase Twichell wrote recently. "We had a beautiful apartment overlooking the bay, with endless crazy human activity to watch, and astonishing sunsets. But the ecology of the area is so damaged that I can no longer see the beauty. I see impending chaos and suffering. Time to go.

"There were boxes all over Robert Stevens' apartment in north Phoenix. Some were sealed tight with packing tape, marked "kitchen" or "bedroom," others open, spilling out shirts, or piled high with heavy programming textbooks. Stevens, 29, a slightly manic software programmer, was wearing jeans, a T-shirt and flip-flops as he carried his possessions out to a dusty RAV4. "I never realized how much shit I own," he muttered to himself. The next morning, he would be driving to Minneapolis to move in with his sister and do some freelance coding. "I must admit," Stevens said, motioning to the jagged desert mountains, "it's kinda beautiful here."

He had grown up in Buffalo and followed his girlfriend to Phoenix four years ago. He loved the sunrises, and often got up early to hike in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. In fact, it was while hiking that his romance with Arizona ended. "I was out on a trail last summer, and it was ridiculously hot, and I had gone too far, and, I don't know, I just collapsed," he said. "I totally fainted. Banged my head on a rock. Scared the hell out of my girlfriend. She gave me water, and I was OK, but it made me think – what am I doing living here? Maybe it's a genetic thing or whatever, but I can't take it. This heat is dangerous."

Obviously, lots of people feel differently. Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, had the highest population growth in the country in 2016. People come for the jobs, the relatively inexpensive housing, and some, yes, for the weather. In the winter, it's lovely. But in the summer, it's brutal. Last year was the hottest on record in Phoenix. The city's hot season – when temperatures can exceed 100 degrees – starts an average of almost three weeks earlier than it did 100 years ago and lasts two to three weeks longer in the fall. The heat sucks the moisture out of the soil and turns forests into stacks of kindling wood. Great dust storms, known as haboobs, billow in from the desert. The air gets so hot, planes at Phoenix International Airport can't get enough lift under their wings to take off. Forests burst into flames, creating some of the worst wildfires in the nation. In the coming years, researchers expect Phoenix's temperatures to soar. Summer days above 122 degrees, the record high for the area, will become the norm, with the hottest days spiking above 134 degrees, the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth (Death Valley, California, in 1913).

In 2016, there were 150 deaths in Phoenix from excessive heat, hitting people of all ages: Rita Ortiz, 62, died of acute heat stress after the air conditioner in her apartment broke on a day when the temperature reached 108; Katilynn Taylor-Marie Daniel, a 14-year-old visiting Arizona from Washington state, went for a hike with her grandmother on a hot July day and died of heat exposure. "If there were an extended power outage during a hot summer spell, there could be dozens, even hundreds of fatalities," says Gregg Garfin, a climatologist at the University of Arizona. In the urban areas of the city, temperatures are amplified by a phenomenon called the "urban-heat-island effect." Concrete and asphalt absorb and radiate heat, turning the city into a kiln. Depending on the season, urban nighttime temperatures can be as much as 22 degrees hotter than the surrounding rural areas. City officials have launched a tree-planting campaign to increase shade, and designated air-conditioned spaces like community centers and firehouses as cooling refuges. These refuges work fine as emergency shelters during heat waves for people who can get to them, but many of the most vulnerable cannot.

Lack of water is another issue. Right now, Arizona gets 40 percent of its water from the Colorado River, 40 percent from groundwater, and the rest from smaller rivers and water recycling. Arizona's access to the Colorado River is particularly vulnerable, both from declining snowpack that feeds the river and for complex political and historical reasons – California has first dibs on water from the river, leaving Arizona subject to the ever-increasing demands of its western neighbor.

In Phoenix, city officials are not oblivious to what lies ahead. Water planners have made a big push for water efficiency – a typical household uses one-third less water than it did in 1990. They have negotiated complex agreements to "bank" water in underground aquifers, and point out, accurately, that the city may end up recycling water – i.e., treating wastewater from toilets and other sources.

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