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Editor’s note: Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events in the years to come, and as we have highlighted in previous posts, some communities are positioned better than others to adapt to these changes. However, despite the inherent risks of living in hurricane country, or close to wildfire zones, some brave souls have no plans to move, while others have already left. For this piece, we wanted to highlight the individual voices of families who have no plans to participate in the “Great Climate Migration,” and better understand why they choose to live how and where they do. Conversely, you will hear from others who were forced from their homes due to climate change, who adopted an alternative lifestyle, or who moved to mitigate risk.
Living in a hurricane zone
Life in Louisiana prepared me for driving in the rain. Here in New Jersey, we don’t get rain like they do in Franklin, LA, a place I lived when I graduated from college many years ago.
In Franklin, the houses sat on stilts and the sidewalks were so high from the roads you had to take a giant step to reach them. When you drove your car in a storm, water covered the headlights. Stalling out was a common occurrence. I fantasized about owning a pair of oars to row my way home.
Hurricanes pulled trees so large out of the ground that if you and I put our arms around them, our hands couldn’t touch. It was sheer luck if a tree didn’t hit your house.
Meteorologists rank hurricanes from categories 1 to 5. Don’t be fooled by a low rank. All categories cause damage. Higher ranks results in more damage, especially if your house is a few feet from the bayou. In the aftermath, I drove by houses covered in water and the only visible part were the roofs. Water is destructive.
Why are you still living here?
A good number of people in southern Louisiana stay. “People here have a deep understanding of life on the water,” Windell Curole, general manager of South Lafourche Levee District, says. “We know the risks of living here. I’m fourth generation. One thing everyone knows is life on the bayou means you’ll never go hungry. Even during the Great Depression, the Bayou provided food. This area is full of food. The only people who go hungry are the ones on diets.”
“This is a working coast. We have people who shrimp, oyster, crab for a living and others who work for big oil. We’re building the levee as far as we can afford right now. If it will get too expensive to raise, we’ll have to move out.”
“We’re 30 miles south of New Orleans,” Curole says. “In the last storm, everyone around us flooded. We didn’t.” He credits raising the levee as the reason why.
“We haven’t flooded since 1985. I can’t ever guarantee we won’t flood.”
The problem of flood insurance
According to Curole, many people don’t have flood insurance because the price is too high. “Flood insurance rates were raised and it prices people out,” he says.
Years ago, homeowners built houses directly on the ground and didn’t worry about flooding. “Now you have to elevate the houses,” Curole explains. “The land you could once walk on evolved into marsh and now it’s open water. The land’s sinking.”
Since the 1930s, Louisiana’s coast has lost over 2,000 square miles, which is an area larger than the state of Delaware. Sea level rise is a direct result of global warming.
It’s unlikely insurance companies will continue to issue policies for areas like this that are so prone to flooding.
Moving to escape wildfires in California
Candy Harrington lived in the Sierras for many decades, “and even though wildfires were always a threat it was part of life,” she says. “We lost our place in the Creek Fire in September 2020, and opted not to rebuild there. We left the state and are living in Spirit Lake, ID, and are building 20 miles away in Newport, WA.”
“It’s an area my hubby and I feel at home in.”
Her new home on “a beautiful 5-acre forested parcel,” she says gets a lot of rainfall, which makes the area a low fire-risk zone.
Fire insurance was another reason not to stay. “It has easily tripled in price in California,” she says. “Most of the folks I know that survived the fire have to go on the California Fair Plan, which is the last resort plan; it’s really poor coverage because it only covers the structure not the contents. You have to buy another policy for the contents.”
Living in a New Jersey flood plain
Joy Landa and her family live in a New Jersey house close to a brook. “Our house flooded during Hurricane Ida,” she says. “We’ve been here for 20 years and the brook has gotten high many times, inundating the property and surrounding roads, but never entering our home until September 1, this past year.”
She and her family love the beauty, the wildlife, and the ability to swim in the brook. “We accepted the risk that we could flood one day,” she says. “We purchased flood insurance and hoped for the best.”
“So when the flood happened, while we were insured, the recovery process is much more taxing than we ever thought possible. Having to throw out keepsakes, food, brand new furniture, appliances, and seeing crews gut the walls, tear out the tub (because it had motors) and the kitchen sink, and then cleaning the mold was too much.”
Finding help was next to impossible because everyone in the renovation business worked other jobs. Two months after the flood, the electricity needed repair and the mold was an on-going problem.
“We love our property, the quiet, and the easy access to everything we enjoy, but knowing we could go through all that again is too much,” she says. “We’ll probably move in a few years. It will break my heart. Every time flash flooding is called for, we get so nervous. It’s no way to live.”
Jennifer Melick, who also lives in New Jersey, says she chose her home based on the FEMA flood map, “and other factors, but definitely that.” She;s a half-a-mile from the ocean, but not close enough to be seriously at risk.
Leaving the Bay Area due to Earthquake risk
Annie Logue and her husband used to live in San Francisco. One reason she left is “we could not afford to buy a house,” she says, “in part because my husband is a geologist. He refused to look in certain neighborhoods because of seismic risk. And in neighborhoods where he was willing to live, he checked every house for bolting and bracing. Real estate agents do not like it when a California-registered geologist gets into crawl spaces to check out foundations. And braced and bolted houses in seismically stable areas cost way more money than those in other places.”
They left in 2000 and are currently living in Chicago.
Choosing a nomadic life
On her Facebook page, Severe Weather for Nomads, Mary Shafer has a sign that reads, “Keep Calm and Use Your Weather Radio.” She started the group for people who live and travel throughout the country in RVs.
“We often talk about the weather,” she says “It’s beneficial not having a rooted foundation. In an RV, you can load up and leave when necessary. You’re not stuck in one place. I can’t imagine a better way to live.”
She gets to experience the beauty of the country without the disasters.
Perhaps the northeast?
Climate has changed several areas. I never thought flooding would be a problem in northern New Jersey. The last big rainstorm closed roads and several houses flooded.
What about Rochester, NY? “It’s not being impacted by floods, hurricanes, wildfires, or earthquakes,” Marcia Layton Turner says.
It’s one of many reasons she stays put. “I like that it’s inland and less likely to be affected by rising coastal waters,” she says. “And sure it has snow, but snow melts.”