These Families Experienced Unthinkable Natural Disasters Because of Climate Change and the Psychological Aftermath Is Tremendous
"Inertia is not our friend," renowned climatologist Jim Hansen once told me. He was referring to the slow-moving nature of our climate crisis: By the time we see the full effects of our fossil fuel use, we will no longer be able to prevent the most catastrophic outcomes.
Hansen took his concerns to Congress more than 30 years ago, but the warnings largely went unheeded. Now, we are racing against the clock. Last year, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told us that in order to prevent the most catastrophic outcomes, we have about 12 years to cut greenhouse gas emissions to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) beyond pre-industrial levels. The number sounds misleadingly tiny (we are currently at 1.0 degrees Celsius), and yet it's getting impossible to ignore the evidence of our eyes and ears—record-breaking temperatures, an increase in frequency and intensity of superstorms, flooding of biblical proportion, and deadly wildfires exacerbated by drought.
Months before parents began calming children's nerves about the looming COVID-19 pandemic around them, I spoke with four families about how our climate crisis impacted their lives. These families are from areas across the United States and its territories that have endured life-threatening climate-related disasters and these parents were pressed to usher their families to safety under the dire circumstances. All faced the challenge of helping their kids understand the severity of what was happening while keeping nerves at bay, as many of us are trying to do today.
It seems like just overnight, news on the spread of COVID-19 grew more alarming, and our collective anxiety went through the roof. While the origins of COVID-19 remain murky, scientists have warned that we can expect to see infectious diseases ramp up as the earth warms. As I considered my family's best course of action to navigate this pandemic, I drew on lessons from the parents I interviewed: mindfulness of the reality, decisiveness, calm, preparedness in the face of looming scarcity, and perhaps most importantly, an eye toward resilience.
Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Threat of Tsunami: Vieques, Puerto Rico
When an earthquake hit the southwestern mainland of Puerto Rico on January 7, 2020, bartender Marilys "Suca" Rivera and her family were asleep. It was a little after 4:00 a.m. and they did not feel a thing from their home on Vieques, a lush island seven miles off the coast off mainland PR. At 4:45 a.m., she got a terrifying call from her sister: Puerto Rico was on alert for a tsunami. The power was out all over the PR mainland and their island. Rivera woke her husband and two kids. They scrambled to make emergency backpacks and walked in the dark to her in-law's house, farther from the water.
While Rivera's house was not directly impacted by the quakes, her family and community have been left far from unscathed by the disasters and severe weather patterns that have befallen the island. Category 5 Hurricane Maria hit them hard in September 2017. Rivera is no stranger to tropical extremes, having lived through Hurricane Hugo as a kid. So when the warning came to brace for the savagery of Maria, she knew what to expect.
"We are going to be without power and water for months," she told her children—Luis, 15 at the time, and Francelis, then 13. Her oldest son, now 25, was in the States with Rivera's mother.
As the storm approached, the normally idyllic view of the ocean from their home turned ominous. The sound of fierce winds against glass windows became like "a monster in the air," Rivera recalls. "We were sweeping water out of the living room." At 3 a.m., Luis helped move the refrigerator in front of the living room window—which was violently shaking—to keep water at bay. Throughout the night, their house was pummeled. The back aluminum door shook, as plywood and large objects from neighbors' homes flew into their yard—including a big sink that hit their house, knocking out a piece of concrete. "Every moment I told the kids: nothing bad is going to happen. We're all here as a family. We're going to get through this."
As scary as it was, the aftermath was worse. Stores were empty. They waited for military food rations. Municipal and National Guard trucks brought water every three to four days; they drank some, and saved a bit for cooking and cleaning. For four months, they were without power, until family sent a generator from the States. Communication lines were down.
It took "forever" for the kids to get back in classes. The same thing happened in the months following the recent earthquakes on the mainland. Vieques schools—some still in disrepair from Hurricane Maria—have been closed since the first string of earthquakes started in late December as a precaution.
Rivera says her kids are good, emotionally, but sad because they see in the news how people are living in south Puerto Rico with the quakes. "People are afraid to live in their houses, so they're living in camping tents with small kids." Her family also remains mindful about what can happen closer to home. "We know that a big, big earthquake or tsunami can happen anytime," she adds.
Be Vigilant and Volunteer
Her advice to other parents navigating severe weather patterns in their communities: "Always tell them the truth so they know what is going on. It's very important to be prepared because if you don't listen to the news—to the people who are telling you to be prepared—then you can lose your life."
Despite living under threat, this mom projects positivity and the family has channeled their energy in the direction of helping others. After the hurricane, Rivera's sister shipped a huge container of supplies from Jacksonville, Florida. Family and friends on Vieques spent weeks sorting and distributing food, water, diapers, and more. "My kids worked very hard," she says. She remembers how Luis and Francelis saw an 83-year-old woman in bad condition. They gave her medicine, a flashlight, incontinence items, and a chair. "I saw the tears coming out of my kids' eyes when we were giving out the help to people, because they really felt it."
At Rivera's house, windows remain broken since the hurricane; she was told she is not eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance because the security of the house is not in danger. "We always try to think positive," she says. "There's always somebody who's doing worse than us. We're going to help as much as we can. We're going to stay safe as much as we can."
Keeping Calm in High Waters: Kearney, Nebraska
July 8, 2019, started out like a regular summer night in Kearney, Nebraska for Amber Watson, a teacher and preschool director, as well as a mom to three children, three stepchildren, and three young foster girls. The kids had been running in the rain on their dirt road. Watson had just put her three foster girls to bed when her son said, "Mom, there's a little bit of water in the basement."
By 10 p.m., the house was surrounded by water. It was as high as the trampoline in the yard that the kids had been jumping on hours earlier. Watson called 911. She knew she had to wake her youngest children—the girls she was fostering who had already seen trauma in their lives, and who only had their first taste of big water the day prior, on a family fishing boat trip.
"We're going to leave the house, because it's not safe for us here because of the water," Watson calmly told them. As she continued talking with the 911 operator, water began pouring into the egress windows in her sons' basement bedrooms—windows under which they would normally be sleeping. Suddenly, the glass popped. The water gushed in with a powerful "whoosh," knocking out a closet wall.
When the second window broke, she turned to her husband: "This is not good." The couple knew they had to get out.
Watson, her husband, their six children—her stepchildren were out of town—and dog Hazel, huddled in the laundry room while the house continued to fill with water. The family moved to the garage, where water was already high as the car tires.
"I'm a little scared," Watson recalls quietly saying to her husband, Steve. "If it gets higher, I'm going to barely be able to keep myself afloat, much less everyone else." Watson, paralyzed from the waist down since a car accident, uses a wheelchair. "I don't know what we're going to do."
She spotted the five life jackets they had used the day before on their boating trip. Her son, Braden, now a high school sophomore, braved a crawl over a car to get a one-person kayak from across the garage. They loaded up the three girls and younger boys, along with diapers and necessary seizure meds that Mom had managed to carry with her.
Watson was scared, but set the tone that would be an anchor for the family in the hours to come: "We're going to be OK. God's watching over us ... The fire department's coming. They're going to come rescue us." She kept the kids singing, and reminded them that they were safe in the kayak, just like they had been the day before on their boat trip, life jackets on. "I forgot my doll," one of the girls told Watson. "It's OK," Watson reassured. "We'll get you a new one."
It took firefighters two and a half hours to reach them, ultimately abandoning their truck and trekking 1.5 miles with equipment and a blow-up boat. They made several trips to safely remove the children from the flooded property. Watson was the last to go. "By the time they rescued me, sitting in my wheelchair, the water was up to my lap," she says.
The following morning, farmer friends brought pumps. The kids helped with the extensive cleanup, occasionally finding an old medal or trophy in the water. Friends, church folk, and even strangers showed to help haul out 11 trailers of ruin—wreckage from a basement submerged by water, mattresses, torn-out rolls of carpet, sheetrock, and more. The most precious thing, their lives, were preserved. Still, the older kids felt the loss of cherished toys; the younger foster girls, the sense of a stable home.
Rebuilding and Restoring Hope
Now when it rains, Amber continues to remind her children that they are safe. Her suggestions for navigating a harrowing situation: "Stay calm. Reassure [your kids] that you're there to protect them and keep them safe. Try to find a distraction so that everyone's mind is not concentrating on the disaster at hand. "There are different obstacles in life," she counsels them. "We'll get through this."
But as parents, the couple privately asks: What if this happens again? Do we rebuild? Move? What do we do?
Aaron Mangels, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Hastings, Nebraska, notes that south-central Nebraska saw about 5 to 11 inches of rain across the regions that night. "The six-hour totals were estimated to be a 1-in-500 year or maybe even 1-in-1,000 year event for areas just west of Kearney," he says. Families in Nebraska have noticed an increase in the frequency of flooding lately.
The family decided to rebuild, though Watson says, "It is scary because we never had anything like this [before] in Nebraska.
"Unfortunately, what these families have seen so far is only the tip of the iceberg if we fail to rein in carbon emissions," notes Michael Mann, climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. "The atmosphere will get warmer, meaning it can hold more moisture, and the floods get worse."
Rising From the Ashes: Seminole Springs, California
Cindy Ventrice, a jewelry business owner, and her son Hunter Blaze Pearson, now 19, live in Seminole Springs Mobile Home Park in Agoura Hills, California. Nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains, the history-rich property once served as a retreat for 1920s city-dwellers drawn to the hot springs.
The mom and son had been through many evacuations over the years and always quickly returned home. On the night of November 8, 2018, they heard there was a fire close by their mobile community, but they figured this one would be like the others. But when a red alert call woke Ventrice at 1:30 a.m., she knew they needed to evacuate immediately. She woke up Pearson: "It's right here, we've got to go." She proceeded to wake more than a dozen neighbors. "You've got to go now," she told them. "People didn't know—that was the scariest part ... they didn't believe it."
The Woolsey fire—fanned by the Santa Ana winds that reached more than 60 mph—would scorch 110 of the 215 mobile homes at Seminole Springs, taking a position among California's most devastating fires. Balls of glowing embers blew ahead of massive flames, wreaking a path of destruction between Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
After evacuating, Pearson remembers the stress of not knowing whether their home had burned down. For days, police blockades prevented them from getting back on site; from the safety of friends' homes, he saw footage of helicopters flying over the park, surveying the damage. "It was very crazy and definitely sad," he said. Pearson, a devoted artist, lost the majority of his artwork. His mom was devastated by the realization that she was left with "not one moving video of my son as a child." She said, "I always took all my photo albums, but for some reason [this time], I didn't."
Anxiety in the Aftermath
In the nine months that followed, Pearson began to experience chest pains. After a battery of tests, including electrocardiograms and a heart monitor, doctors concluded that anxiety was the culprit. Pearson found help through his pastor who provided spiritual support and advised: "When you're starting to feel that way, get out in the fresh air. Get out in life."
Seventeen months later, Ventrice, Pearson, and other Seminole Springs residents remain uprooted. They have spent countless hours navigating FEMA, insurance, and the innumerable logistics involved with repairing and rebuilding the infrastructure that must be in place before they can return. "In our community, we have single moms who are nurses, teachers, chiropractor, yoga instructors, lawyers, bookkeepers, and so on, whose lives have been turned upside down," explains resident Cynthia Novak, a mother and grandmother and former professor at Pepperdine University who has worked closely with Cindy Ventrice to secure resources, grants, and donations to help with recovery and the rebuild. "We also have families who saved for years to buy into our affordable community but who lost everything. We have seniors who have been displaced."
Finding Refuge in the Rebuild
Hope flows from many sources. Spring 2019 saw the scarred earth of the Santa Monica Mountains birth a super bloom of wildflowers. Novak recalls, "swarms of Angel Volunteers who donned protective gear sifted 110 homes looking for any treasures they could find." Last month, a visit from Calabasas's Mini Therapy Horses brought a respite of joy to displaced residents who gathered for the occasion. The Malibu Foundation's gift of a new playground has gone a long way to lift spirits and continues to inspire an ethos of resilience. Novak describes the importance of having one beautiful space that draws people—a symbol of hope, strength, and resistance.
Ventrice and Pearson recently received their new mobile home. From now on, they will keep two trunks of important items packed at all times. The trauma has been extensive, and the loss, incalculable. Even so, Pearson says he finds solace in remembering what he does still have: "For me, the most important thing is that my family and friends are there, because it's not even fun to have the things if you don't have people to share memories with. That's the main thing. It's your community, it's your family, it's your friends and whatever might get burned down, or flooded ... it's sad that it's gone but you can always start afresh with the people around you."
Losing Ice and Food Security: Native Village of Savoonga, Alaska
Delbert Pungowiyi, the former tribal council president for the Native village of Savoonga, lives with his daughter, age 7, and son, age 6, on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. They are feeling the effects of our warming planet in many ways. Situated on melting permafrost, houses hooked up to the water/sewer system are tilting as utilidors, made of aluminum, melt in the summer heat, and sink into the earth, causing serious structural damage.
In late 2016, the village had an electrical disaster when atypical hurricane-force north winds sprayed saltwater throughout, causing ice buildup on the power lines—they were cut off for over two weeks. More than 400 folks without wood stoves, or other means to heat up, evacuated to a high school. In the extreme cold, water lines burst and flooded homes. The experience rivaled the two times they were hit with south winds—130-plus knots (150 mph) per hour, that ripped off roofs and whole sidings off houses.
As for erosion, there is some, though not as grave as in a few Arctic areas, like Noatak and Shishmaref—a village that will surely perish if they can't pull off relocation to the mainland; that Inupiat community is about 220 miles from Savoonga—an island north of the Bering Strait sitting on collapsing permafrost ground, already losing homes to the rising sea.
If that's not enough, Pungowiyi says that the coordinator for tsunamis in Alaska is warning that it's not a question of if Alaska will get struck with tsunamis, it's a question of when. "We have no evacuation roads. We have no evacuation shelters," adds Pungowiyi. The shelter they do have is not high enough up on the island to be practical should such catastrophe strike.
Pungowiyi filters out the scariest details for his young children, but his daughter is very aware, and afraid of the changes that are taking place: natural disasters, displacement, and food security.
"They're really concerned about what our future holds," he says.
Arguably, the greatest threat is the threat to their livelihood, the way of life that has served them beyond memory. It's about the ice.
"Our winters are not the same anymore," says Pungowiyi. "The polar ice that has been around since the last ice age—it would come and sit the winter ... huge behemoth ices." It used to be that before they would become visible, they would know they were near because the water and weather would become real calm. "That polar ice does not reach us anymore."
Over 90 percent of their food security comes from the Bering Sea, a bounty of bowhead whale and walrus. It has served them since time immemorial. Their hunting has become greatly impacted.
"The spring hunt always has been our main food source ... If we have a good spring hunt, we're going to eat well for the whole year. If we have a bad spring hunt, it's going to be a tough year so we have to try to gather other subsistent resources to help us through the winter," he says.
He helps his children by teaching them to take care of Mother Earth. He is leading by example, addressing their fears by taking action; it is the legacy he will leave them.
Spreading the Message to Prepare Others
In 1983, Pungowiyi's grandfather prophetically told him what we are now seeing today. "The message he wanted me to relate to the world: that we must protect what little eco-systems we have left. And if we continue in the path of the destruction of the environment, the consequences are just going to continue to magnify and to quantify."
Pungowiyi carries the message of his grandfather across the globe. Most recently he spoke at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland. He accepts invitations from the National Science Foundation and organizations that understand the value of Indigenous voices and knowledge. He has been calling on the United Nations, international leaders, and decision-makers to listen: "If there is one thing that should unite the world together, it is this climate change crisis. We are in a state of emergency."
Pungowiyi reflects on the time that he prepared to travel to the House of Lords in London. His daughter said, "Dad, you're going to speak to the world?" "Yes, I am," Pungowiyi replied. "You're going to go speak for me—right, Dad?" "I said, 'yes, I am.'"
"She's very aware of what's going on, and she's encouraged me to continue to do whatever I can for her ... They are my most powerful inspirations ... While I'm still here on Earth, trying to make a difference for them so they'll have a fighting chance for their future."
Rory Kennedy, Evelin Weber, and The Malibu Foundation; Judi Sickler and Kearney Area Community Foundation; Charley Friedman, Nancy Friedemann; Kelly Thompson, and ViequesLove contributed to this article.
Featured Image: The railing and boardwalk of the Malecon in Esperanza crumbling under the force of the storm surge following Hurricane Maria on September 21, 2017. This view is looking SE toward Cayo de Tierra and the Caribbean. Photo by Elliott Anderson