Climate change events strike over time and in different places so it can be difficult to make a connection between seemingly disparate events as being one. Unlike the Dust Bowl events of the 1930s when 2.5 million left their homes over a finite amount of time and from one geographic region climate change events are not one single calamity that happens all in one place or at once and, on the surface, can be difficult to quantify. However, when looked at as a trend, the numbers of people on the move reveal a concrete narrative of millions being displaced because of the changing climate.
America's New Migrants
The changing climate does not discriminate in who is affected. In Houston as 30% of the city was under water impacting rich and the poor equally. But, like the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, what was not equal is how the two groups fare after a storm strikes.
The wealthy have the means to remain and fix their homes. For many of the poor and middle class, they lack the ingredients for resilience: savings, insurance and well paid jobs. Lacking those things, they do not have the choice of remaining and must move on creating another great American migration.
EPA Climate Change Migration Map
This map will be animated in the final production to illustrate where people are leaving from and where they're going. The next phase of the project will focus on this statement from the EPA: People who live in poverty may have a difficult time coping with changes. These people have limited financial resources to cope with heat, relocate or evacuate, or respond to increases in the cost of food.
The First Migrants
Roughly 2.5 million people were uprooted by the Dust Bowl, however the number of people uprooted due to climate change is already on par with that and will surpass those numbers soon. So why are we not paying as much attention? One of the key differences between then and now is that the Dust Bowl occured in one geographic area for a finite period of time. The effects of climate change are a bit more difficult to quantify because the storms strike in various locations over a long span of time.
And there's just so much more media out there in so many forms that the difference between a real world event and one that was created are both consumed on a small screen. To the viewer there is little difference between something that actually is happening and one that was created—both events are just as easily swiped away as viewers move on to another piece of content.
The Challenge to Quantify
One of the key differences between the Dust Bowl migrants and today's migrants is that the migrants in the 30's were ever present as they they traveled on covered wagon and erected sprawling shanty towns. By comparison, what is witnessed now is much more quotidian, but no less unsettling for those who have to start all over again as they evacuate though strip malls, sleep in motels along the freeway and then end up in some far away town without community or the status in life that they once had.
A paradox of today's migration is that people flee to well equipped convention centers and are then relocated to motels and to other cities. But that also leaves them out of sight and as a consequence they blend into society, but are still wounded and in need of help.
Then & Now
One of the main differences between the Dust Bowl migrations and Climate Change migrations is that The United States dealt with the Dust Bowl more directly as evidenced by policies that came about as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Great Deal. Stemming from the Great Deal was Farm Security Administration which hired photographers to go into the heartland to see first hand how people were living and what they needed. By contrast, despite the overwhelming evidence of climate change, the current leadership of this country does not even admit that it exists. When people are struck by a storm they are largely scattered to the wind with little aid to help them get back on their feet.
The Most Vulernable
In Harvey's aftermath many immigrants decided to stay in their damaged homes rather than look for other accommodation because they were afraid of attracting attention which would call into question their immigration status. This meant that many remained in unstable and potentially toxic homes which pose a risk to the community at large. Already financially insecure and unable to claim assistance they were dependent on charity and the little savings they had.
On September 5th, a little over a week after the storm struck, the 45th president of The United States revoked Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals a program that has kept Dreamers from being deported. With their their status now in question the people who risked their own lives and saved others live in fear of being deported.
The lives of immigrants on every level were made much more difficult following the storm.
II: The Communities They Left, Fox Beach a Return to Wilderness
Hurricane Sandy cost 65 billion dollars and destroyed or damaged 650,000 homes making it, at the time, the costliest disaster in the US after Katrina. Following Hurricane Sandy the community of Fox Beach on Staten Island in New York were faced with the decision of whether they should return to their damaged homes that were near the shore or seek a buyout and move away. They decided not to rebuild and this once suburban neighborhood has now reverted to its original state as a wetland.
The letters below were written by Fox Beach residents pleading with the government to buy out their properties. The letters originally appeared on the website Fox Beach 165—please note letters are used in this prototype pending approval. Archival photos are not of the neighborhood, however historical photos from the are being sought.
III: New Orleans
Hurricane Katrina uprooted a total 400,000 people in New Orleans, forever changing the demographics of the city. Black middle class professionals and the poor were particularly hard hit—175,000 black residents left the city and 75,000 never returned.
With much of the middle class gone New Orleans was left without one of the most productive segments of society. While 75,000 did come back, many younger people, essential to the cities vitality, did not return instead they sought opportunity elsewhere.