Climate Change Is Already Rejiggering Where Americans Live

Some Hurricane Ida survivors may have no choice but to leave. Sooner or later, people across the country will be in the same bind.

An image of a man in front of a damaged home after Hurricane Ida.
Johnny Milano / The New York Times / Redux

When I met Flynn Hoob on Monday, he was standing in front of his home. Or rather, what was left of his home. It was the day after Hurricane Ida, and Hoob’s one-story house in Bourg, Louisiana, had fallen off its concrete pilings and sunk halfway into the nearby bayou. He had ridden out the storm inside until his house had tipped over, at which point he fled to the flooded-out bar next door and waited out the storm there for eight hours.

I asked Hoob about what happens now: Did he plan to relocate? Find a new house farther off the bayou, or maybe farther inland, where the hurricanes weren’t as bad? “Nnnnnope,” Hoob said. “We rebuild and we keep going; that’s what we do. We love the bayou, man. We’re not going anywhere.”

Ida has destroyed likely thousands of homes in Terrebonne Parish, the coastal area that includes Bourg. As I toured the area in the immediate aftermath of the storm, I saw damage that was hard to comprehend: Roofs had been ripped off, facades had been torn apart, and homes had been pushed off their pilings. The worst-damaged properties were the prefab trailers that house many low-income residents—most of the trailers had been flipped over or smashed to rubble. Those who lived in these totaled properties were not around to answer my questions, because they didn’t have homes that could be repaired, but everyone I met said the same thing: They planned to rebuild where they lived, and no one was considering moving someplace else.

The urge to rebuild is common after major disasters, but for many people in Terrebonne Parish, hometown devotion may soon lose out to the cold, hard logic of economics. When a disaster leaves a community homeless, many of its members wind up moving rather than sticking around for the next calamity. These moves can take place across short distances, and sometimes they start out as semi-permanent relocations, but over time, they add up. Many Americans still think of “climate migration” as a global phenomenon, one that would displace the residents of low-lying Bangladesh or scalding Yemen, but even before Ida hit, distinct migration patterns were taking shape in the United States too. In most cases, these moves are involuntary—the product of economic displacement—but climate change is now playing a role in voluntary movement as well: A recent study from Redfin found that about half of Americans who planned to move in the next year said natural disasters were a factor in their decision.

Residents of towns like Bourg are dealing with a set of questions no one ever wants to have to ask themselves: Do I have to leave? Where do I go? They are facing these questions now, but sooner or later, all sorts of Americans will have to confront them—even people in temperate cities such as New York, where hurricane remnants are flooding subway stations and seeping into houses. Leaving your home behind is terrible and tragic, but the brutality of climate change sometimes means it really is the only option.

In Louisiana, climate migration started decades ago, as living on the state’s coastline became more dangerous: The destruction of the marshland ecosystem that protected bayou towns from storm surge has made flooding much more common and much more severe. In towns such as Pointe-aux-Chenes and Dulac, where until recently the federal government had not completed large storm-surge levees, these floods forced many residents to move to higher ground. Thousands of residents have moved north and inland, migrating from the small towns of the lower bayou up toward cities such as Houma and the New Orleans suburbs.

This pattern of movement, which reached a crescendo after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is so entrenched that the state more or less facilitates it. In 2016, when the Obama administration awarded Louisiana a $90 million climate-adaptation grant, the state spent almost half of it on a program called LA Safe, which allowed residents of various communities to design and fund their own climate-adaptation projects. In Lafourche Parish, residents chose to fund new affordable-housing units for climate movers heading to areas of the parish less prone to flooding. Meanwhile, in Plaquemines Parish, residents chose to fund a mental-health center that would help their neighbors cope with the gradual loss of their community.

The northward migration in Louisiana is only going to become more common, says the Florida State University geographer Mathew Hauer. “Areas that were declining before the storm are likely to decline after the storm,” he told me. Hauer’s projections show that as coastal areas even outside of Louisiana become more vulnerable, residents will move inland toward the closest midsize city, so that Gulf Coast residents may end up in cities such as Dallas while migrants from South Florida may end up in Orlando or Atlanta. But climate migration won’t touch everyone equally: The first people to leave are younger and wealthier residents, Hauer said, which leaves behind an older generation of people who may lack the resources required to move away from the coast.

That’s exactly what already seems to be happening after Ida. The storm ripped apart 72-year-old Milton Thibodeaux’s roof and caused water to leak into his house, but he told me he’s not leaving. Thibodeaux resides in the town of Pointe-aux-Chenes, and he said he likes the privacy and tranquility of living down the bayou. There’s another reason he’s sticking around, though: He’s close to retiring from his security job, and he’s not sure where else he can afford to live. “I got this house for about $100,000, but if I went to Houma, to the city, it might cost three times that,” he said. “At my age, I don’t know if I could start over again.”

However, the tens of thousands of residents who evacuated the area have largely not yet returned to the homes they left behind. When they do come back, though, they will need a place to stay, and they may not be able to find one where they lived before. They may have no choice but to leave. Others who are fortunate enough to still have a home will take advantage of the disjuncture to relocate, perhaps to a bigger city or to a place farther away from the water. The destruction caused by Ida seems poised to supercharge the long-term process of inland movement, and with each future storm, the population of bayou towns like Bourg may continue to dwindle.

For the rest of the country, Ida is a warning. As natural disasters grow more severe and more frequent, they will destroy more property, turning life in the U.S. into a massive game of migratory musical chairs. It will cleave populations along the lines of class and race. The story will be the same in burning California, flash-flooded New York, and drought-ravaged Arizona as it was in Louisiana: When the storm passes and the skies clear, many people will not be able to stay. Where can they go next?