I was in Dallas in late August 2021 when I first heard about a tropical storm system called Hurricane Ida, which was gathering strength as it pushed up through the Gulf of Mexico toward Louisiana. I had just spent two weeks along the Louisiana coast, writing about how indigenous fishing communities in the area were struggling against shoreline erosion and depopulation, and I was supposed to drive to Phoenix the next day.
Instead, I decided to turn around and head back. I drove south down I-49, past thousands of cars going in the other direction, and holed up in a hotel in the city of Lafayette, where the staff had tarped up all the windows to protect against the wind. The storm barreled through the next day with winds of almost 150 miles per hour, leveling entire towns along the coast and overtopping levees along the Mississippi River around New Orleans.
When the skies cleared the next morning, I drove two hours to the village of Pointe-aux-Chenes, driving over downed electrical wires and swerving to avoid fallen trees. There was no phone service, electricity, or gasoline. I stopped along the way to talk with the hardened bayou residents who had stuck it out through the storm, ignoring the state’s mandatory-evacuation warnings.
At the time, the thesis of my new book, The Great Displacement, was that climate change was already forcing people in the United States to leave their homes, because it was now too expensive or too risky for them to remain in vulnerable areas such as the Louisiana coast. When I had visited the bayou two weeks earlier, the conversations I had seemed to confirm that thesis: the decades-long toll of erosion had split many families apart as younger generations moved away in search of better jobs, and many of the old folks who had stuck around were weighing their options as floods got worse. Even the local elementary school was about to close down due to low enrollment.
I drove two hours to the village of Pointe-aux-Chenes, driving over downed electrical wires and swerving to avoid fallen trees.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, the mood flipped in the opposite direction. The devastation of the storm seemed to deepen the sense of attachment that people in Pointe-aux-Chenes felt for their bayou town. As I toured the smashed-up trailers and shredded gas stations, everyone I spoke to said they intended to stick around and help rebuild the town, no matter how difficult or expensive that turned out to be. Staying would mean having to endure months in a FEMA trailer and tortuous disputes with insurance companies, but no one seemed to have any doubt about what they wanted to do.
The experience of being in Pointe-aux-Chenes after the hurricane didn’t change the thesis of the book, but it did complicate it. It’s true that climate change makes it far more expensive to live along coastlines and in wildfire zones, and that the economic burden of climate disaster is already pushing people away, but it’s also true that people don’t always act in their own economic self-interest.
Even after witnessing how exposed their town was to a hurricane storm surge, the residents of Pointe-aux-Chenes still wanted to stay there. The devastation only made them love it more. In the long run, not everyone will be able to stay, but there was a lesson in there that I wouldn’t soon forget: migration is messy, it’s chaotic, and it doesn’t always make sense. We can’t make binary divisions between those who leave and those who stay, because everyone is always a little bit of both.
Jake Bittle’s The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration is out now from Simon & Schuster