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How a Summer of Disasters Shows the US Isn’t Prepared for Climate Migration

From hurricanes to flash floods, to increasingly destructive wildfires, climate-driven natural disasters are forcing more Americans out of their homes and triggering waves of relocations as some regions of the country become too burdensome or dangerous for many people to continue living in them. 

Known as climate migration, it’s a situation that scientists have been sounding an alarm on for years. Yet a growing body of evidence, including another summer marred by deadly extreme weather, suggests that the United States is still not prepared to handle it.

For the Holden family, who narrowly escaped one of the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California’s history, rebuilding in their hometown of Paradise simply proved too difficult. The 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed 19,000 structures in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, took nearly everything from the family of seven and reduced their home to a “pile of ash and the chimney.”

After several months of living in a trailer, drinking rainwater, trucking in water when drought conditions worsened, relying on mobile hotspots for internet access and dealing with their children being “filthy constantly” from ash, the Holdens decided to leave California altogether and move to Vermont. At least there, they told The Associated Press, the impacts of climate change aren’t being felt as dramatically.

“When you are left with nothing, you start thinking I don’t want to go through anything like this again,” the family’s mother, Ellie Holden, told the AP. “I don’t want a tornado. I don’t want a hurricane. I don’t want a flood. I don’t want a fire.”

Thousands of other Paradise residents made the same choice to leave and live elsewhere. Similarly, a 2020 wildfire in Oregon drove another family to relocate across the country, as well. And along the Gulf Coast, in states like Louisiana and Texas, hundreds to thousands of families have moved further inland in recent decades in reaction to worsening storms, flooding and rising sea levels. Climate change is even forcing some communities in the frozen Tundra of Alaska to leave their homes, as thawing permafrost and erosion has increased flooding risk and caused the land around their homes to crumble and sink.

Scientists have long warned that climate change would become a key driver in migration patterns in the coming decades—especially for poorer nations that are far more vulnerable to the impacts of global warming and have fewer resources to adapt. But as more stories like that of the Holden family emerge, it’s becoming increasingly clear that even wealthy nations like the United States aren’t properly prepared to handle the demographic shifts already playing out in their own backyards, largely because of climate change.

The federal government’s 2018 National Climate Assessment warned that more than 13 million people across the country may need to move by the end of the century due to sea level rise alone. On top of that, the toll of climate-driven disasters on the U.S. has skyrocketed in recent years. Last year, 20 “billion-dollar” natural disasters in the U.S. inflicted an estimated $145 billion in damage and killed nearly 700 people—the most disaster-related fatalities in the contiguous U.S. since 2011 and more than double the number seen in 2020.

“They are not slowing down,” Adam Smith, the U.S. government’s lead scientist for analyzing billion-dollar disasters, told The Washington Post. “The frequency and the cost of U.S. weather and climate disasters is increasing.”

The U.S. has seen an annual average of 7.7 disasters that cause at least $1 billion in damage over the past four decades, Smith added, but in the last five years alone that average has leaped to 18 events every year—with 2020 and 2021 seeing the highest number of billion-dollar climate disasters on record, at 22 and 20, respectively.

And it’s not just the cost of rebuilding homes and replacing damaged and lost goods. Insuring homes is also getting increasingly expensive, to the point where some people are moving from areas simply because the built-in costs of owning homes there have become too burdensome. One report from an insurance analytics firm found that the overall premium that Americans paid for homeowners’ insurance rose by 8.4 percent between the third quarter of 2020 and the third quarter of 2021. Another report from a different analytics firm found that in 2020, nearly 40 percent of all insurance claims were for weather-related damage—the highest percentage since the company started recording weather-related insurance trends six years ago.

But despite those grim data points, and multiple calls from government staffers to more proactively and holistically address the issue, the U.S. is still largely unprepared for a likely surge in relocations in the coming decades, according to an investigation published this week by the Center for Public Integrity, Columbia Journalism Investigations and Type Investigations.

That report found that there is little organized government assistance to prevent the loss of homes and lives before a disaster, nor is there a comprehensive focus on helping people escape untenable situations. Instead, the investigation says, those who are attempting to relocate due to losing their homes to fire or because of chronic damage from floods and storms must often cobble together aid from across different federal agencies, navigating complicated programs that were never designed with climate change in mind. As always, those most affected by the issue are low-income households and communities of color.

Complicating the situation further is the fact that more Americans continue to move to the areas of the country that are most at risk from climate change. It’s a trend that has been confirmed by both independent analyses and U.S. census data. That means that even as some residents leave their homes to seek haven from storms, fires and floods, they’re often being replaced by those coming from other states who will inevitably run into the same issues and likely require government assistance at some point—an endless money suck.

The federal government has long been aware of these issues, and the Biden administration has taken some steps to better prepare the country for “managed retreat,” the term officials use for assisting people to relocate away from areas as they become less habitable. Last October, the White House issued its first “Report on the Impact of Climate Change on Migration,” which delves into the issues and potential solutions regarding both migration from other countries and relocations within the U.S. 

The bipartisan infrastructure bill that Congress passed last year also provides the Bureau of Indian Affairs with $130 million for “community relocation” and $86 million for “tribal climate resilience and adaptation projects.”

Additionally, existing federal and state-level programs are currently helping many families to relocate in the wake of disaster, though those processes can be difficult to navigate and are often not well known.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is also in the process of overhauling the government’s flood insurance program so that it factors in the impacts of climate change. Experts have long complained about the program’s outdated flood maps, just one factor contributing to the ongoing trend of people moving to flood-prone cities despite the risks.

Still, climate advocates say not nearly enough is being done to adapt. The administration’s climate migration report was received with general disappointment from the activist community, who said it fell flat on ambition. And experts and climate hawks are still urging the Biden administration to make a more concerted and comprehensive effort to handle the problem, including by designating one federal agency to coordinate relocation initiatives across all the different government programs.

It’s a call to action that could be seen all the more urgent as the U.S. continues its summer of deadly and destructive disasters. That includes last week’s Kentucky floods that killed at least 37 people, the ongoing blazes in California that have claimed several lives and burned down yet another town this week and another wildfire in Montana that, as of Wednesday, had torched four homes to the ground and threatened to displace another 150 residents.

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

30 percent

That’s the percentage of Americans who listed worsening weather conditions, exacerbated by climate change, as a reason they moved this year, according to a survey of 2,000 people commissioned by Forbes Homes.

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