Stories about dramatic and ever-intensifying climate disasters, like the wildfires in California, loss of power in Texas after winter storms, and decimating hurricanes across the South, often monopolize the news cycle while they’re happening. But what happens in the weeks, months, and years after tragedy strikes, when national attention turns elsewhere?
A lot of the time, “recovery” from climate-related disaster is a fallacy. People who are affected by these climate events are left to deal with ongoing emotional, physical, and financial after-effects, rarely with the help of the government, and certainly not with meaningful accountability from corporations that profit off of their contributions to climate change. So, when those who might help you have moved on, where does that leave you?
VICE spoke to six people who have been directly impacted by climate change about the natural disasters that changed their lives and the aftermath of those events.
Interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity. Some names have been changed for privacy reasons.
Amdynn Isbrid* (he/she/they), 20, Portland, Oregon
During the West Coast fires in September 2020, I was working at a moving truck/storage rental place. I spent a majority of my work day outside: cleaning trucks, parking them once they were cleaned, and retrieving them for customers. I also spent some time inside a building that had sliding doors that let in outside air, as well as a door to the garage where my coworkers attached hitches to cars. Once the fires started, all this meant that we had no way to escape the smoke.
Since we spent a lot of time outside, we expected to receive some sort of PPE so that we could do our jobs safely. At least some N-95 masks. However, our manager left for vacation as soon as the fires started, and we had no substitute. No higher-ups checked in on us or provided masks.
On September 13, the Air Quality Index rose to seven times the previous record in Multnomah County. That day, the AQI was measured at 477 micrograms per cubic millimeter, and none of my coworkers showed up to work. My vacationing manager was somewhere without cell service, and I had no one to contact to get help. I considered going home instead of working my open-to-close shift, but since we offered free storage for evacuees, I couldn’t leave without it weighing on my conscience. A majority of my customers that day were evacuees, either trying to get storage or looking for vehicles or trailers to move their belongings with. I worked for nearly 12 hours—seven of which were spent outside hooking up trailers and cleaning trucks—with layered surgical masks as my only protection against the pollution. By the time I went home, I’d developed an awful, dry cough that tore up my throat, and it took over a week after the pollution faded for it to subside.
I quit the job during the fires due to how little care my employers showed for the most vulnerable employees. It shouldn’t have been surprising, but I had still expected better. I’m still recovering physically from the fires. The cough caused by the smoke still shows up in cold weather or if my throat gets irritated, and it doesn’t go away for weeks. I’m not sure if I have any lung damage, but, to be honest, I can’t afford to go to the hospital and have it checked out, so I don’t know.
When it came to helping the people affected by the fires after they had died down, the government left much to be desired. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is supposed to help people who have lost property—such as their houses—in a natural disaster, has denied a higher percentage of claims every year. Seventy percent of claims from Oregon residents were denied in 2020, and 86 percent of claims by Californians were denied. The FEMA application process is extremely complex and doesn’t offer good support for people who don’t speak English as a first language. They say that their automated screening is to weed out fraudulent claims, but what it really ends up doing is preventing people who need aid from getting it.
Now, I always have a bag packed in case of an emergency. Whenever I smell smoke outside, my first instinct is to look at the sky and see if it’s orange. (In the past, I would simply think that perhaps someone was having a barbecue.) I can’t even describe a sunset the same way after seeing the sky thick and heavy with orange-gray smoke for days on end. Maybe my cough will fade and my lungs will be fine, but the psychological effects will still linger.
Gina (she/her), 41, Chico, California
Two days shy of my 38th birthday, a wildfire known as the Camp Fire ripped through my community. I lost everything.
It was November 8, 2018, and unlike past Novembers in Northern California, the ground was completely dry, the lakes and rivers were low, and the winds were picking up. Eighty-six people in and around the town of Paradise lost their lives. My husband, two kids, dog, and two cats survived, but our home burned to the ground that day, as well as the homes of my parents and in-laws, and the majority of everyone else’s that I knew. The high school where I worked as a librarian and aide was gone. Everything was essentially wiped off the map in one awful day, in a month that was historically safe from fire danger.
Growing up, I never feared wildfires. I knew that they had the potential to occur, like earthquakes, but I never once spent a moment actively preparing for them. That all changed in 2008 when the Butte Lightning Complex fire burned through the neighboring town of Concow and my family and I spent several hours trying to evacuate from Paradise. After that fire, people in the community became aware of the need to prepare for wildfires—although, in the end, it didn’t seem to make that much difference.
Throughout the summer preceding the Camp Fire in November of 2018, my parents had "ready boxes'' that sat next to their front door filled with photo albums, precious mementos, and important files. Those boxes had been put away by November 8 because they believed fire season in Paradise was over. We’d cut down all of the trees on our lot that were potential fire hazards. Our house still burned.
I now look at my life as split into two periods—before the Camp Fire and after. Sometimes I still find myself looking for an old book or an old sweatshirt, only to realize that those were things from my old life. I still miss all of my books from college. I miss the photos I'd saved from my childhood, the ultrasound pictures of my babies, the letter from my Italian grandfather with the hand-drawn map to his childhood town of Bozzano from the train station in Lucca. I quit my job a year after the fire, because the school where I worked had relocated to a temporary site above the burn scar (where a wildfire has decimated forest systems that once held soil in place), and I could not bear to drive through my old town and relive that day on my way to work.
We’re extremely fortunate in that we were homeowners, so we received an insurance settlement for our house and belongings pretty soon after the fire. We were also the beneficiaries of Red Cross assistance, and my sister-in-law set up a GoFundMe account for us. Others that I knew, who were either renters or didn’t have decent insurance coverage, didn’t fare as well. Lots of people are still financially struggling.
The diaspora that occurred as a result of the fire still blows my mind every day. Friends and neighbors scattered, some as far as Puerto Rico. Some people I know, including my in-laws, have chosen to return to Paradise and rebuild. Most, like us, have relocated and have had to start over in new towns and schools and jobs.
We just experienced the third anniversary of the fire, and the pain felt more acute than ever. We’re still all trying to piece back together our lives and to deal with the trauma. Losing everything in one fell swoop is difficult to recover from. Losing everything, while simultaneously thinking that you and everyone you know might die by being burned alive in your car as you're trying to get out of town, empties you and deadens you. I miss a lot of things about the before time, but, most of all, I miss the feeling of living without the sometimes debilitating fear that every single thing can change for the worse in an instant. I worry about my kids.
Joseph Matt (they/he), 22, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
You know how people say the rain is relaxing to listen to? Living in south Louisiana my whole life, I’ve never understood that. I’ve been stuck inside for days listening to the rain pound on the roof.
Hurricane Ida hit a week after I moved to Baton Rouge in late August 2021. When I moved to Baton Rouge right before Ida hit, I got a really good job opportunity working for a job in my field. I worked there for a total of four days before the hurricane hit. My work was able to give me paid leave for three weeks because I couldn’t physically get to work. I was told that I couldn’t be scheduled for two or three weeks after the last paycheck because the hurricane had impacted business so much.
Three days ago, I got the news that the position I had looked forward to for months was no longer available because they could no longer afford to have me on. I’m honestly still extremely upset. I understand it’s not the business’s fault, because hurricanes happen, but now I have to keep job-hunting while working at another job which leaves me in pain every shift from standing or walking on uneven floors for long periods of time. It also pays me a lot less.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever recover emotionally just from how often hurricanes happen. It’s a yearly threat. It’s exhausting. I feel like a lot of people seem to think that once the hurricane hits and is gone, that’s just the end of it for us. The truth of the matter is that it’s not! It may be the end for the news, but it’s not for us down here.
Peter* (he/him), 24, Brooklyn, New York
My two roommates and I moved to New York City on September 1, 2021. We arrived around 3 p.m. after a four and a half—hour drive. By 10:30 that night, our basement, where we’d unpacked boxes, furniture, and food, was flooded under two feet of sewage water coming from a backed-up tank.
As we moved the essentials out of the basement to save what we could, water started to pour through our back door into our living space. We had nothing unpacked to help with our situation, so we had to bucket water away from the door and create a makeshift flood barrier out of 2x4s, couch cushions, and cardboard to prevent our home from flooding. Though we managed to stop the water from coming into our ground-level living space after a few hours of bucketing, the sewage remained in our basement for a day or two before finally draining.
We weren't prepared for this at all. Moving across states is already a huge undertaking, and it occupied most of our thoughts for the month before. We knew there was a storm coming that day, but we thought we might have a couple soggy boxes at worst, since the forecasts for most of the day leading up to Hurricane Ida indicated a potential for flash floods, but didn’t indicate it would be anywhere near as severe as it was. It's a bit hard to prepare for the worst flooding event in NYC history—which this was, seemingly out of nowhere—but it seems like weather of this magnitude is going to become commonplace as human-caused climate change progresses.
We’re still recovering. We lost about $7,000 of personal items and furniture. Our apartment reeked of sewage for a month afterwards, and we've so far dealt with two rounds of black mold removal from the basement, which I’m not convinced has been fully removed. I waded through a ton of raw sewage while trying to save my cat, so I worry about what that means for my health, since my legs were itchy and tingly for days after the flood. For the first two weeks after the flood, we spent every day cleaning, sorting through damp boxes, and helping out contractors. We’ve only just been able to put basic furniture in the basement. Renters’ insurance covered nothing because ours doesn’t include flood insurance.
We are extremely lucky to be educated, employed, and have support systems in place. It isn’t possible to recover from a disaster like this without significant resources or flood insurance, which is not affordable to everyone. We’ll only recover because we are individually fortunate—not because there exists any sort of accessible safety net for people who suffer from climate warming–induced disasters. Lower-income folks are always the ones that will pay the highest price for our systemic failure to combat climate change.
Macy Callais (she/her), 23, Lockport, Louisiana
Initially, Hurricane Ida was reported to hit as a Category 2 hurricane, but when it rapidly intensified to a Category 4, my boyfriend and I made the decision to leave. Preparing to leave your house while a devastating hurricane is supposed to hit feels unreal. It’s one of the worst feelings—you don’t know what you’ll be left with when you eventually return from evacuating. We did as much as we could to protect our uninsured possessions. We put everything we could fit into a closet and hoped that it would be OK whenever we returned. There wasn’t enough time to properly save and put away everything that we wanted to before we had to evacuate. Lots of our belongings were destroyed.
The hurricane made my house uninhabitable. It became clear that there was no way to move back into our house, which was a lot to process. My boyfriend and I are thankful that we have a place to stay temporarily, but we’ll have to find a new place soon. I thought I would be eligible for FEMA assistance, but I was denied because I was a renter and FEMA said only one person per household qualified. When I appealed the process, it only got more complicated—I had to refile my appeal, even after waiting over a month to hear back about the first one.
With no income due to the ongoing pandemic, and no help coming soon from FEMA, it’s going to be tough to find a place to rent. Often, apartments are listed for much higher in price than they were prior to the hurricane. It’s definitely going to be hard for a lot of people who have lost their home to find a new, affordable place to live in—that also wasn’t damaged. People are moving away from the area for this reason.
We’ve had to pay out of pocket for every expense from the hurricane with help from family, but they can only do so much, as they’re also struggling to recover. I’m quickly losing all of my savings. It was expensive enough to evacuate—it was $700 just to stay in the hotel we evacuated to for about a week. Now, trying to move has created more expenses. We’ve had to buy food, toiletries, gas, and pet food and supplies for our cat, plus rent and necessities for our new temporary place. We’ve had to rent a moving truck. I’m trying my best to adjust and keep positive, but it really feels hopeless sometimes, because I just don’t know what the next step is.
Orville Black (any pronouns), 26, River Falls, Wisconsin
One day in June 2020, I was away from my family’s meat and dairy farm in Wisconsin. The next morning, I got a panicked call from my dad telling me that our farm was underwater and he needed me there as soon as possible. My dad is Jamaican and likes to exaggerate, but it was clear this had not been a normal storm.
The water had washed more than 20 car-sized bales of hay several hundred yards from the farm and across the interstate. Pigs washed away, too. Recovering them was the most time consuming thing. Some, we recovered over a mile downriver in the days following the storm. Some, we didn’t. Tractors and equipment were waterlogged and in need of repair. You can’t plan for this kind of damage to a farm—plus, ours was just starting out. We had only just begun accumulating the early essentials.
The previous owners had shown us pictures of an extreme weather event many, many years before, so we knew it was a possibility. In 2015, when we bought the farm, there was a smaller “100-year storm,” so we wrongly assumed we would be OK for a while. We’ve always been cautious about the weather, but now, we deal with the constant worry of another extreme weather event that could wash away everything we’ve worked for and rebuilt. There's no realistic way to prepare outside of getting up and moving. The land is in a flood zone, but it is our land. As first-generation immigrants, we’ve already picked up and started a new life once, and we don’t want to do it again.
Gabriela Ramos-Tavárez (she/her), 24, Atlanta, GA
In 2017, I was beginning my third year of college. I had struggled with anxiety and depression since graduating high school, but I was finally doing well: I started taking antidepressants over the previous summer break. I loved my new class schedule and was excited to start the semester.
Days into the semester, a break was announced in preparation for Hurricane Irma. It was a false alarm, which is common in Puerto Rico during hurricane season. We had learned that storm and hurricane warnings aren’t precursors to tragedy. During that two-week break, I received an email from a professor about another hurricane that was nearby, but its route was unclear. He wrote, “It’s probably nothing, but it’s good to be cautious.” That was Hurricane María.
My father is very big on preparedness, so by the time the storm came, we had enough food, water, coolers, and medication to last us the first few weeks after it hit. We had batteries, plenty of flashlights, and an old radio that would be our only news source for weeks.
The night of the storm, my room flooded through its only window. The window was closed, but the wind was so strong that it pushed the rain in around the sealed glass. My room was typically warmer than the rest of the house because there were no trees in front of it. The heat, combined with the humidity, the darkness, and no electricity to fix either issue, caused mold to grow over my entire bedroom. No matter how much it was cleaned, it always grew back, and it was everywhere. I slept on an air mattress in my parents’ room for over two months.
There were things we weren’t prepared for. We underestimated the number of batteries we would need. We had very little cash at our disposal at a time where only cash was being accepted due to telecommunication issues. Like most of the country, we found ourselves in long lines at gas stations, supermarkets, and ice factories.
Weeks after, a family member called to offer to lend us his generator, as he was leaving to stay with family in the States. The generator could only be on between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., but we were able to do laundry, charge electronics, and keep food cold long enough that it wouldn’t spoil overnight. Most nights, we spent hours at gas stations getting fuel for the generator.
The air quality in my home was terrible, but we didn’t dare keep our windows open in case something or someone attempted to get into the house. Nights were very warm, and for me, it meant less or poor sleep. I woke up many mornings feeling exhausted, no matter how many hours I slept. My mental health suffered greatly. I was having anxiety attacks and panic attacks just like before I began medication. It was ironic that, as someone with anxiety, I often envision worst-case scenarios, but something like this never came to mind.
About a month after the hurricane, I received an offer to apply to visit Brown University for the entire academic year as part of a relief program for students at my university. I was accepted and was given about four days to pack for a private plane to Providence, Rhode Island. I didn’t return to the island until winter break.
My situation was very different from that of most Puerto Ricans. By some miracle, the water in my neighborhood never shut off. I lived in the metropolitan urban area of the island, which had a better aftermath than more rural, landlocked areas. Immediate repairs were made in the surrounding areas of the street where I lived. I had extended family with access to power, medication, and even the internet. Even with all these advantages, I’m not sure that I would have been able to survive if I had had to stay longer.
The federal government’s response was dreadful. Puerto Ricans cannot vote for the president in the U.S., but Trump’s indifference after the hurricane cost us so much. On top of that, the local government mismanaged all the funds they received. The government’s efforts were largely publicity stunts that hoarded and unfairly distributed supplies for months. Years later, storage spaces rented by government agencies that were filled with water and expired food were found. Mutual aid is common in Puerto Rican culture. Whenever there’s a catastrophe, my people are always quick to offer whatever help they can. Even though we were all struggling, people still did their best to help one another.
I’m not sure when Puerto Rico fell off the radar in the American news cycle. I do know that the anger at the lives lost, at the funds stolen, and at the federal and local government’s indifference is still with me. The Puerto Rico I lived in before and after María is definitely not the same. I believe it was Yvonne Weekes who wrote in her memoir Volcano that the catastrophe isn’t the event itself, but the response. I think that the poor response was a very big part of our catastrophe.
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