Benny Dardar got terrible news when the phone rang. He listened attentively to the person on the other line and decided to witness the tragedy personally.
It was Saturday, September 4, 2004. Six days after Hurricane Ida hit, he crossed the narrow highway connecting mainland Louisiana and Jean Charles Island. He found the peninsula flooded with debris and despair.
His wooden home, which he shared with Dana, was destroyed by winds gusting up to 240 km/h during one of the most destructive storms in America in 150 years.
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Benny said, “My life is over,” four weeks after the collapse. He was still trying to salvage plates and pots from the rubble to no avail. “After a disaster like this, you can’t do much if you’re 70.”
Jean Charles residents are among the most vulnerable to the US climate crisis. Since Benny’s 1950 birth, 98% of the island’s territory has been lost. This is mainly due soil erosion and rising sea level. Today, it is possible for people to travel from one end of the island to the other in less than three minutes.
The destruction of the landscape is not limited to southern Louisiana. People across the country are losing their homes and businesses more frequently as a result floods, hurricanes and droughts.
For 21 Days Folha traveled through regions suffering from effects of extreme weather phenomena. We covered four chapters: the invasion of water in Florida and Louisiana; the attempts to save Texas’ energy system with wind turbines; Arizona and Nevada’s drought; the unprecedented shortage of the nation’s largest water reservoir; and California’s fire that has decimated forests, wineries, and cities.
It was possible to see the destruction at different levels of the American territory for 10,417 km.
The US has been irreversibly changed by the climate crisis. Almost 35 million people —more than 1 in 10 inhabitants— already live in rapidly heating areas in the country.
This situation will only get worse. If carbon emissions continue rising at an accelerated pace, half the American population will have experienced more heat and less water in less than 50 year. Millions will need to live in areas considered inhospitable.
We arrived in Florida September 21st. Sunny Isles beach, which is 18 miles from Miami, was cloudy and windy. The waves were choppy, and the impression was that they would soon be advancing along the small strip of sand that separates the Atlantic from luxurious buildings by the sea —the tallest of them, opened in 2018, is 51 floors and 200 meters high.
Florida was our starting point because it is one of the most affected areas by the climate crisis in the world.
The 6 million residents of the area are affected by almost every natural phenomenon, including rising sea levels and coastal erosion, hurricanes, heat waves, which can all leave a portion of the region underwater in less than 80 years.
However, the population feels the effects in different ways, which is a reflection of the fact that the climate issue is yet another layer in racial, and social inequalities in the USA.
While some of the most wealthy still prefer living near the coast, builders are looking for land that is more suitable for their projects. This is what is being called climategentrification. These areas were once home to poorer communities, Black people, and immigrants, who now try to adapt to the new reality.
Yoca ArditiRocha, executive director at the Cleo Institute which works to protect climate protections, says that “climate change is racist”. “Building companies move in, communities move out. This is one way in which historically marginalized groups continue be hurt by a racist system in this country that has been in place since colonization.
Louis Cherenfint is one of the victims. He emigrated to the US in 1977, and settled in northern Miami. Little Haiti is the name of the neighborhood because so many Haitians call it home. A little over 20 years later, he purchased a small store that is now surrounded by art galleries and gourmet ice cream parlors.
From behind the counter, Louis’ patient smile precedes the warning that he doesn’t understand English very well —his native language is Haitian Creole. He wants to share his story about how his business and life have changed. “I came to the USA in search for a better life. I had four kids, all of whom graduated and got jobs. […]But everything got more expensive and my shop is getting less and lesser busy.”
Louis knows that many of his clients have moved to areas with lower rents and better services. He also believes there are more Asian and white people living in Little Haiti.
Louis shows his daughter the most attractive items in the crowded aisles of his shop and then calls his daughter asking her to speak to him. Folha. “She speaks English well.”
Manouska is a strong voice and quickly explains what she believes is happening in her neighborhood. “Before his store sold food, but now we have to adapt and add products, as the shopping culture has changed with the neighborhood,” she explains.
“These new developments are driving out old residents, which is bringing in more tourists, who might be of assistance at some point but so far the prices have only risen, and my father makes just enough to live.
Home values in Little Haiti have nearly tripled since 2010, the biggest spike in the Miami area, driven by the arrival of new conglomerates like the Magic City Innovation District, which is less than a mile from Louis Market.
The project, estimated at US$ 1Billion, promises shops, offices and apartments in 18 towers. It is expected that the first one will be ready in a year.
Consultant Joshua Rosa works in one the Magic City’s sales offices. He insists that the ultimate impact on the area will be positive. He says, “There won’t be liquor or cigarette shops.” “The idea is to be less about money, and more about functionality, all within easy walking distance, with a small-city feel.”
The activists pressed the construction companies to offer US$31 million to help the neighborhood.
Experts disagree with this assessment. However, experts believe that it is impossible to determine the impact of the opening to the conglomerate on residents in the past. They do however believe that the changes will continue exiling the most vulnerable.
Rosa states that the Magic City rent cost is yet to be revealed, but he describes the potential residents as “young entrepreneurs.”
Westley Hosey (55) is unemployed. He doesn’t see his self in the new concept. He said he would have to leave Little Haiti, if prices keep rising next year.
He stands in front of the seven-unit apartment building he has lived in for just over 3 years. He claims he used to pay $800 a monthly for a 1-bedroom apartment, but that it has increased to $1200 this year. “You cannot go up $400 overnight. People need to plan. It’s getting ridiculous.”
Residents in the area don’t see the connection between these dramatic neighborhood changes and the climate crisis. This is because the increase in sea level takes many years to be visible. Scientists claim that Miami’s waters rose 6 inches in 31 years. However, the next 6 inches should be achieved in half that amount of time.
Yoca ArditiRocha, Cleo Institute, states that people don’t feel personally affected or affected by the climate crisis. They see it happening in a distant future. “And when they feel an insignificant piece of the chaos they feel, many are silent, and they don’t have any idea what to do. It’s an internal mechanism that humans use to cope with stress.
This may partially explain why many people are so apathetic about climate change, despite polls showing Americans growing fear. A survey released in September by Yale University points out that 70% of the American population says it is somehow concerned about global warming —it was 65% in March. The percentage of Americans who believe the planet is warming up has increased to 76%, as opposed to 70% in March.
Pam Lentz (63), a homemaker, is worried about the crisis but doesn’t think there’s much she can do. “We’re being hit by hurricanes or storms, which keep telling our island that it will be submerged one day. We must accept that we live in paradise. Living here is easy.
Pam has lived for a decade on Big Pine Key, a small island three hours from Miami and one of the last—and most threatened—territories in South Florida. The island is well-known for its large pine trees (“big tree”) and its natural habitat for key deer species. In 2017, the island lost 30% of its trees due to Hurricane Irma.
Some pine trees survived storms. However, salt water has made it hard for vegetation to grow.
Chris Bergh is one of them. He guided us through the mangroves until we could see Big Pine Keys three levels of vegetation.
The scene was instructive: the plants where we were were were brown, flooded, and dead from the ocean. It was possible to see some greenery in the middle of the land, which was protected from salt water. However, at the highest point of the land (1.5m) there were healthy trees with access to freshwater.
Bergh, 48 (South Florida program manager at the Nature Conservancy), an international organization that protects the environment, said, “It’s just the beginning of a ghost forests.”
Bergh, who has lived on the island for the past nine years, explains that tourism is the most important activity in the region. The majority of the population are white (78.7%), middle and retired, and they seek mild winter temperatures.
During the hurricane season —from June to November— everyone needs to stay on alert, ready to leave the island in case of an emergency. Even though official warnings require residents to leave the island before the storms arrive, not all have a place to go.
Bergh says he used to stay in Big Pine during hurricanes, but in 2005, when he began studying the impact of the climate crisis —and his house was hit by two storms— he decided to change his behavior.
However, the most effective way to get people’s attention is to do so at a low cost. “We explained how the property values here are falling as the water level rises. While the area is still desirable, it is less attractive if the sea level rises at an increasing rate. To get to our homes or to eat, we will have to swim in the water below our knees.
Bergh states that the island has been protected by several organizations in addition to the local, state, federal governments. However, society cannot buy time to realize that something must be done.
These measures include banning the hunting and removing key deer, restoring land via freshwater, removing clearings for fire control, and purchasing land through the government to prevent the construction of new homes.
Our last mission in Big Pine Key was the search for an endangered deer. It was not difficult. It was easy. They multiplied between houses and in the middle of roads, eating grass from the gardens, as soon the rain stopped.
Pam, the homemaker, said that the animals are used to her presence and look like dogs. She used to live on the opposite side of the island with Randy in a wooden house. However, she felt it was not strong enough for hurricanes. They purchased a concrete property in this year’s real estate.
“My children keep telling me that one day, this house will be swallowed up by water. And I tell them I don’t care. I’ll die when that happens.
Jean Charles, Louisiana was our next destination. Residents know that it is becoming increasingly difficult to stay on the island. Most of them are of indigenous origin, from the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, and have seen the place lose 98% of its territory in 66 years—of around 89 km², only 1.3 km² are left.
Albert Naquin, 75 years old, is the tribal head and welcomed us to Canada. He sat in sweatpants, sneakers and a cap in front 12 miles from Jean Charles in a battered rocking chairs to explain why he left the island in 1995.
“We realized something was changing. We understood that water was rising and that eventually we would lose this piece of land. It will all become water.”
He says that the 2002 passage of Hurricane Lili was the turning point for many residents. Jean Charles was at its peak in 2002, with 350 residents. Today, there are just 20 registered. “It was unsustainable to remain there, rebuilding everything every hurricane.
Worst of all was that a hurricane had passed in less than a month prior to our conversation. Ida, which struck the island on August 29, ravaged several towns in the area, including Montegut, where Naquin resides. “I have been here for a while and I can tell you that Ida is the worst of them all. She decimated the island. There were 25 houses in the area before her. Seven of them remain. A complete disgrace.”
Winds from the Ida gusted to 240 km/h for almost eight hours, leaving approximately 100 people dead and 1,000,000 without electricity in the state. Naquin states that the recovery was slow and that Jean Charles had not yet been repopulated on September 25th. He was right. We arrived on the island to find less than 10 people strewn along Island Road. This was the only street on the peninsula. They were sorting through the rubble, fighting mosquitoes, and wearing thick clothing.
Benny Dardar, the person who opens this series, wet his arms with alcohol to try to ward off insects while clearing a space in the wreckage where his home used to be, to plant a flag —a stylized design of a US flag with an indigenous insignia in the middle of it.
Kayly Ober is Refugees International’s climate displacement manager. “People displaced due to the climate crisis suffer almost the exact same consequences as people displaced from conflict,” she says. “Leaving your culture, your heritage, and your ancestry is a serious matter. It can have a very serious psychological impact.”
Jean Charles was the US’s first territory to receive federal funds for the displacement and rebuilding of entire communities as a result of the effects of climate change. Barack Obama’s 2016 government pledged $48 million to build a new community for residents of the island. The plan—which provided for 40 houses by 2019—is far from being completed.
Benny declined to accept the offer. He does not want to live on a mainland far from his friends and the possibility to fish every day. Even though he doesn’t have enough money to rebuild his house, he prefers to live with his wife in a trailer on the island.
“Moving an entire community to a new place is difficult because you get so caught up in the little details like “who will be my neighbor?”, “what am I going do after I move in?” and “what kind of work am i going to do?” Ober says. Ober: “It is a plan that must be avoided because it brings many more problems than solutions.”
The novelty of the program has earned the residents of Jean Charles the imprint of the “first climate refugees from the United States,” a nomenclature that many of them do not like—they say it was invented by the American press. Ober states that the term is controversial because refugees have been recognized since 1951 as those who cross national borders in cases of persecution.
International organizations recognize internal migration that is caused by extreme weather conditions. In September, the World Bank released a report that said that 216 million people would be forced to leave their country by 2050 because of the environmental crisis. If carbon emissions can be reduced quickly, this number could be cut in half.
Louisiana has seen a lot of people abandon their homes because of weather problems. It’s not difficult to notice that two states are at stake.
New Orleans, the birthplace for jazz, was almost normal one month after Ida’s passing. Hotels were full of people who had lost their homes and those who helped rebuild the city. Tourists also flocked to the downtown streets, which are famous for their buzz and for the law that allows them to consume alcohol in public places.
Katrina killed 1,800 people in New Orleans in 2005 when it flooded 80% of the city. This time, the city was not in the eye of the hurricane, and its new levees—reinforced at a cost of US$14 billion—were essential in containing the heavy rains and winds that caused the reversal of the course of the waters of the Mississippi River, a phenomenon considered very rare.
However, the investment was not made in the islands south of the state and the signs of destruction increased as we climbed towards them.
Hurricane Ida touched down in Louisiana 18 miles from Grand Isle, around the port of Fourchon. Fourchon is the largest US offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. It was there that we witnessed some of the most horrific scenes of our journey four weeks later: houses buried in sand, with scattered wood and shattered furniture, as well as the destruction of cars and other vehicles. All by the sea.
The island serves as a natural protective barrier to the mainland of Louisiana, but with one of the largest relative rises in sea level in the world —in 100 years, the water has risen nearly 3 feet there— the barrier needed a barrier.
The burrito is a cylindrical levee that was filled with clay and sand, and it measures nearly 12km long. It was constructed in the 1980s. It was reinforced in 2010. It ran along the coast and had been damaged by almost every storm but was still strong. The structure was almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Ida, which took no prisoners.
According to official figures, up to 50% of the Grand Isle was destroyed by the hurricane—the city has nearly 1,500 inhabitants and many holiday homes, frequented on weekends.
Burt Schexnayder and his family were one of them. They collected the remaining swing set that his father in law had built for his daughters many decades ago.
The house was built on wooden logs that were saved from the storms of Katrina & Rita years ago. However, it couldn’t withstand this time: clothes and photos, as well as furniture, were all destroyed. The toilet was the only part of the structure that survived, and it is now without a roof.
Burt stated that he doesn’t believe climate chaos, despite the fact that the remains of the house his family lived in for almost 30 years are still there. Burt believes that the increasing strength of hurricanes is the work “mother nature” and that he plans to rebuild the house at the same location.
He doesn’t know how many of his neighbors will be willing and able to do the same or how long it will take to see the city again.
“The ability of people to overcome the effects of climate change is what determines how they face and deal with them.” Kayly Orbe, Refugees International, says that if you are poor, you will have less resources to do so.
Rich and poor cities, just like their residents, can protect themselves and recover from climate-related disasters in different ways. This depends on the extent of the destruction, but it mainly relies on private and public investments.
While those with the fewest resources disappear more quickly amid physical, economic and social collapse, those with more money have—or buy—time.
The measures include strengthening levees (as in New Orleans), putting more sand onto the beaches, and building large condos on higher ground like in Miami.
These solutions are however not sustainable long-term and don’t guarantee that these cities will still be in existence in a few decades.
Translated and done by Kiratiana Freelon