On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, resulting in a still-unknown number of deaths—likely near 5,000—and the forced displacement of at least 130,000 Americans, nearly 5 percent of the island’s population. Now, nearly five years to the day, Hurricane Fiona is bearing down on Puerto Rico, with the island already experiencing catastrophic flooding and power outages. Another devastating hurricane marking the anniversary of Hurricane Maria is a timely reminder that the mass destruction and displacement Hurricane Maria caused was not an isolated event.
Today, more than 60 percent of displacements globally are the result of hurricanes, severe storms, and flooding—all environmental disasters increasing in severity, intensity, and frequency because of human-induced climate change. About 1 percent of the world’s land mass is currently uninhabitable because of extreme heat, and by 2070, that share could increase to nearly 20 percent. As temperatures rise, hurricanes and severe weather activity are expanding toward the poles and critical water sources are drying up, placing hundreds of millions of people at growing risk of catastrophic storms, flooding, severe drought, and megafires.
With new climate disasters inevitable, millions of people will become climate migrants, but where will they go? No community is immune to the effects of climate change, so municipalities must prepare for mass population displacement, an influx of climate migrants from elsewhere, or both.
Five lessons for municipal policymakers and planners to prepare for climate migration
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Florida became a receiving community and recovery destination for thousands of Puerto Ricans. A Multi-Agency Resource Center was established in Orlando to coordinate response efforts, and from October to December 2017, it served approximately 30,000 evacuees.
As part of a larger study of community capacity and response to climate migration across the US Gulf Coast, we examined how central Florida communities, institutions, and service agencies responded following Hurricane Maria. Our findings will be released in 2023, but on the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, we want to elevate five key lessons for other municipalities to advance equity and community capacity in preparing for climate migration.
- Prioritize reducing inequities in disaster impacts and outcomes. It’s well established that existing social and economic inequalities are often exacerbated in the aftermath of disasters. Many people, especially people of color, people with low incomes, people who speak languages other than English, women, children, older people, and people with disabilities face disproportionate risk from environmental disasters because of the ongoing effects of unequal or racially biased institutional and government policies. Planning for climate migration must take these different exposure levels into account. Municipalities can plan to target these populations for short-term emergency supports and longer-term assistance to integrate in new places, including developing income, language, culture, disability, age, and gender-specific resources. Municipalities can also work to alleviate existing disparities in access to lifesaving resources, such as expanding health care access, emergency preparedness education and resources, and socially, culturally, and linguistically appropriate disaster planning and communication tools.
- Understand community population trends, as they will likely influence the pathways migrants go to for help. After Hurricane Maria, many Puerto Ricans sought recovery assistance in central Florida where family and friends already lived, and migration unfolded as a continuation of longer-term population trends. This pattern parallels those of other climate-related disasters. Many displaced by the ongoing California wildfires choose to move where they have existing familial or economic ties. In recent years, Puerto Rico has experienced multiple environmental and social crises that have caused significant population loss on the island and population gain in Florida. In addition to formal support networks, many climate migrants displaced by Maria relied on informal or community-based networks that have developed over years of familial and economic integration. Municipalities can identify existing population trends and community networks and can coordinate with these groups early on support plans.
- Develop relationships now between government agencies and community groups. Disaster research consistently finds that strong predisaster collaborations between government service agencies, first responders, and community organizations result in more effective emergency responses and faster recoveries. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, many government organizations and service agencies in central Florida had prior relationships with organizations with strong community ties, like the Hispanic Office for Local Assistance. This existing connection meant resources were available and were deployed in linguistically and culturally appropriate ways.
- Prepare for chronic and acute climate migration. Many communities are already experiencing the effects of climate migration and have for many years. Whether it’s worsening hurricanes hitting the same regions year after year or decades-long coastal land loss—many regions will face both chronic and acute effects of increasingly frequent and intense displacement events. Communities will need to plan for both: the singular events that drive mass climate migration—like catastrophic hurricanes or wildfires—and their compounding effects, like severe repetitive losses from flooding or rising property taxes and insurance rates. Escalating climate disaster events will exert ongoing pressure and drive migrant populations over longer periods. Although not captured in most disaster data and not eligible for most disaster relief funding through FEMA or HUD, people who move as a result of these slower but ongoing effects are still climate migrants, so municipal planning and federal and state recovery investments should account for them.
- Adopt “all hazards” planning and a comprehensive strategy for resilience. Looking to the future, Florida and other receiving community regions can adopt an “all hazards” planning strategy to advance climate resilience. This 360-degree approach includes collaboration between governmental decisionmakers and nongovernmental actors at the frontlines of emergency response; meaningful engagement with community members, particularly vulnerable populations; and planning for acute shocks like hurricanes, extreme weather, earthquakes, and ongoing stressors that can compound the severity of disaster events, such as inaccessible transit, unaffordable housing, and socioeconomic inequalities. Resilience planning also integrates policies and plans across jurisdictions to enhance regional resilience, which entails enhanced collaboration between sending and receiving communities to ease the effects on migrants.
Planning for climate migration is just one component of institutionalizing community climate resilience. As the impacts of climate change worsen, it’s vital that communities act on the lessons learned in places like Florida to better mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from environmental disasters.