Tens of thousands of U.S. residents were displaced by climate change-fueled disasters in 2018. California saw a string of massive wildfires — from the Mendocino Complex in July, which became the state’s largest wildfire on record, to the Camp fire in November, which was the deadliest. Meanwhile, Hurricane Florence, the second rainiest storm in 70 years of U.S. record-keeping, was quickly forgotten as Hurricane Michael slammed into the Gulf Coast, the third strongest ever to make landfall in the U.S.
The survivors of the disasters have resorted to camping in tents in retail parking lots, sleeping on friends’ couches, parking trailers on the lawns of their destroyed homes, or renting overpriced apartments in communities where housing has become increasingly scarce. Safety nets like flood and fire insurance or the Federal Emergency Management Agency routinely fall far short of providing the support needed to keep survivors housed, fed, and on their feet. A climate refugee’s pathway to recovery is determined by their savings, family wealth, community connections, and credit scores.
While storms and wildfires reduced thousands of homes to ash and rubble, or left them covered in mold, slower-moving disasters, like sea-level rise on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and erosion driven by melting permafrost in Alaska, are giving scores of communities expiration dates.
But the climate refugees left most vulnerable live outside the U.S. The yearslong drought in Central America’s Dry Corridor, for example, is quietly driving subsistence farmers and agricultural workers toward the increasingly militarized U.S.-Mexico border. And although the U.S. is responsible for more climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions than any other country in the world, its asylum system does not account for those escaping drought. Indeed, in a world where climate change is already fueling massive movements of people, hardly any nations officially recognize the existence of the climate refugee.
Michelle Teixeira is living in a 300-square-foot trailer with her husband, her father, two daughters, and four dogs. Her husband’s boss owns a residential development made up of empty lots, where the Teixeiras and four other families have made camp, calling themselves the “trailer treasures.” They’re all refugees from the Camp wildfire, which leveled Paradise, California, killing 85 people, including many retirees.
They’ll soon have to find a new camping spot. Four days after the fire, most of the lots had offers from people seeking new homes. Housing was already scarce in the area, and the wildfire, which destroyed 13,792 residences, sent values soaring as refugees attempt to resettle nearby.
According to climate scientist Daniel Swain, the summer of 2018 was hotter than usual in that part of California, and autumn’s fire season-ending rains came late. Communities like Paradise, located on the edge of forested land, are particularly vulnerable to wildfires fueled by climate change.
When Michelle woke up on the morning of the fire, the bedroom, usually filled with white light from the skylight, was glowing orange. She nervously drove her 14-year-old to school, with her 4-year-old wrapped in a blanket in the backseat.
When they arrived, Michelle asked her daughter to check that classes would be in session. The teenager came back with her boyfriend in tow. School was out, and ash was falling from the sky, but there was still no clear warning that evacuation was necessary — that is, until Michelle swung by to check on a friend who struggles with anxiety. The friend’s husband met her as she pulled up. “The fire is three streets down. You need to go home now, grab what you can, and get out,” he said.
Stopping at home would not be an option. The sky went black and the car rocked because of the speed the smoke was blowing. Traffic stalled as people abandoned their cars in the streets, because they’d run out of gas or because they’d jumped into neighboring vehicles. Michelle saw a lone woman who looked to be in her 80s in the car next to her. “I roll down the window, and I’m like, are you OK?” She begged the woman to get in their car. “She told me, ‘I’ve lived a long life. If it’s my time, it’s my time.’”
Soon, houses were burning around them. Michelle handed the kids water bottles. “I tell the kids, ‘You gotta put the water on the blanket and then you gotta use that to cover your face, because the smoke can kill you,’” she recalled. “I had a moment where I thought, would it be fast if we died? Would my kids suffer? Would they die from the smoke, or would they die from the fire?” Finally, the cars moved.
Spot, the bearded dragon lizard, didn’t make it, and neither did the 13 cichlid fish, but Michelle’s father escaped with the two pit bulls, a chihuahua, and a dachshund. And when she was able to return to what was left of her house (ashes, glass, and warped metal), her four ducks and five of the seven chickens greeted them, somewhat skinnier than before.
Since they had insurance, FEMA denied them support, but the policy took more than a month to deliver any funds. Money for their $17,000 trailer was scraped together with help from friends and family.
Her 62-year-old father’s health has declined since the fire. “In a month, his kidney function has dropped rapidly and to the point where the doctors need him to go on dialysis right away,” she said. They’ll need another trailer so that he has space to take care of himself. Her 4-year-old has struggled with night terrors, haunted by a red monster.
Some of the Teixeiras’s neighbors will not be rebuilding, but Michelle can’t imagine doing otherwise. “That’s my home — I’ve never felt OK anywhere else,” she said.
About two months ago, Davíd decided to sell his metal bed with its thick mattress and join the migrant caravan alongside seven others from his community in Lejamaní, Honduras. Things didn’t go as he expected. By the beginning of December, Davíd, whose name has been changed because of concerns for his safety, found himself stalled in Tijuana, blocked by the U.S. from entering the country and applying for asylum. Having lost his friends, the 29-year-old slept in a large red and tan tent with eight other people, sharing a blanket with another man, sometimes two. When rain flooded the tent, the men brought in chairs and tried to sleep sitting up, shivering.
For Davíd’s family in Honduras, life and death is determined by how many sacks of beans the land produces. For the last three years, it hasn’t been enough. The rains come too infrequently, and the plants grow but refuse to flower.
“More than anything else, it’s climate change,” Davíd said, explaining how he ended up joining the migrant caravan. “I’m here because of the drought.”
Davíd’s son is about as old as the drought, and he has asthma. When he was 5 months old, he became gravely ill, and it was only because of the family’s three spare sacks of beans that they were able to afford to take him to a hospital. The doctor told him that if they’d waited any longer, the baby likely would have had a heart attack.
This was when the land was still producing a little. In the good years, Davíd used to get around 10 sacks of beans a year; last year, he couldn’t fill a single one. At times, he sent his 10-year-old daughter to school without having eaten anything at all. The heightened economic insecurity made it easier for gangs to move in, recruiting children and shooting off firearms in the streets.
Davíd’s home is in the middle of what’s known as the Dry Corridor, which runs through Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The area is marked by a dry season, which roughly corresponds with winter in the U.S., then a wet season, which corresponds with summer. In the middle of the wet season, there’s typically a drought known as the canícula. According to Chris Castro, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona, it’s the midsummer drought that has been most impacted by climate change, becoming hotter and drier over the past 20 years.
“What’s really scary,” he added, “is that we’re getting these drier and hotter midsummer droughts during years where natural climate variability would not otherwise suggest that that should be happening.”
The drought falls in the middle of the growing season. “Who is most impacted? It’s going to be subsistence farmers, who have relatively small plots of land in rural areas and function on a very thin margin,” he said.
Back in Honduras, Davíd’s wife was now two months behind on rent, but it had become difficult to communicate with her because a bag with his phone had been stolen. Anxious, he began looking for work in Tijuana and joined a hunger strike relay, to convey the desperation of the members of the caravan to the U.S. politicians that had blocked them from crossing the border.
But things only got worse. When Davíd was finally able to borrow a phone, he learned that his mother had had a heart attack. He decided the only thing to do was to turn himself in to Mexican authorities and go back home.
“If I knew it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have come,” he said. “Now I just have to be with my family, my mom.”
Three months after Hurricane Florence left black mold creeping up the walls of Jamie Johansen’s home, and piles of yellow and white mold growing out of the carpet, her family still hasn’t been able to move into the FEMA trailer that’s installed on their property. The storm left 53 people dead, more than 4,000 residential properties destroyed, and over 74,000 more damaged, with entire neighborhoods decimated, their residents displaced.
The week before Christmas, an inspector came to approve the trailer’s electrical wiring, but water was leaking out of the walls — FEMA officials provided the family with no explanation why. The FEMA trailer had apparently become the source of its own flood. Jamie, her husband, her mother, her 5-year-old son, and her 93-year-old grandmother instead spent the holiday in their rental in a nearby town, away from their five horses and two ponies.
Eight years ago, the three generations pooled their funds and moved to North Carolina from Pennsylvania. Housing was cheaper there, and it would be easier to house their animals. That chapter is over now. “We’re looking into moving back up north,” Jamie said, “because they don’t flood.”
Hurricane Florence, which made landfall in North Carolina on September 14, was the second rainiest storm the U.S. has seen in the past 70 years, falling just behind last year’s Hurricane Harvey in Texas. A study by scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Stony Brook University, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research found that the impacts of climate change had pushed the storm’s rainfall forecast 50 percent higher than it would have been otherwise.
The Johansens, like many of those most impacted by the storm, lived outside the floodplain, so they had no flood insurance. Their neighbors had lived in the area their whole life and had never seen the property flood, so when Hurricane Florence rolled in, they had no plans to evacuate.
When the rain stopped, the neighborhood looked fine. The Johansens rode their horses, surveying the downed trees. But at 3 a.m. the following Monday, when the dog whined to go outside, the world had been transformed. Water was flush with the front porch, which sat four feet off the ground. The overflowing Cape Fear River had flooded their land. Jamie’s mind immediately went to their mini pony, who she knew by then would be chin-deep.
Floodwaters are dangerous in a situation like this — among the hazards are floating fire ant balls, which form to protect the colony when there’s a flood. If you touch one, they can spread over your body, taking you for dry ground. Since the community uses septic tanks, sewage mixed with the rain and river water. Her husband waded into the dark and let the horses free, so they could find higher ground. They settled on a rise in front of the house.
In the morning, a helicopter arrived to rescue the family. A company called Oracle volunteered a hovercraft to save the ponies, Lady and Hook, who were close to drowning. But the horses weighed too much, so they remained marooned on the small hill for 10 days, before the water went down enough for them to get out.
Finding housing proved difficult, especially with pets. Jamie worried that separating her grandmother from her dog would be too much for her, so they settled for seedy motels before they found a bed-and-breakfast where the dogs could stay and finally, a rental home. Rentals that once cost $1,000 a month were now $1,500 or $2,000. They relied on support from community members and settled deep into credit card debt.
Initially Jamie was told that they didn’t qualify for a buyout from FEMA because their home lay outside the floodplain. It was only because she happened to call back that they learned the agency had shifted its policy and now was willing to consider all the homes that flooded. They decided to cut their losses and give the land to the river.
“Going through this again isn’t something we can ever do,” she said. “I can’t ever look out my front door and see my horses almost drowning.”
John Washington contributed reporting from Tijuana.