Climate Migrants Find Home in the Great Lakes Region » Yale Climate Connections -

Climate Migrants Find Home in the Great Lakes Region » Yale Climate Connections

Category 5 Hurricane Maria was hitting Puerto Rico. In Buffalo, New York, people watching the news were worried. Many of them had loved ones on the island, and many of them even spent time living there.

When the storm made landfall on September 20, 2017, the losses were catastrophic. About 3,000 people died — or even more, according to some estimates, and total damage to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands combined ranged around $90 billion. Almost all of Puerto Rico was without electricity and cell phone service, and much of it was without clean water. They didn’t know it at the time, but by the end of 2017, half of the island’s population will have no leverage.

Buffalo community leaders came together to formulate a plan. The Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York has been one organization leading the charge, working with the city, religious groups, veterans groups, news outlets, and even a theater company to help.

In addition to collecting money and supplies to send to Puerto Rico, residents also opened their arms to welcome hurricane survivors to their hometown. The community came together to help people find apartments, pay rent and security deposits, and provide new residents with “fresh starter kits” with necessities for a new home, from pans and blankets to curtains. They helped people find work and prepare them for the cold, snowy climate by providing warm clothes, coats, and shoes, as well as baby items, school uniforms, supplies, food, and more.

“It was a very difficult effort and mission, but it was all on deck with all the different local organizations to be able to help these families through this trauma of fleeing (their home) to seek refuge because they had lost everything,” says Casemiro Rodriguez, Sr., President Emeritus and Founder of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York.

In all, about 5,000 people came to the area from Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the storm, according to one estimate cited in the Buffalo News article, joining the already strong community of 35,000 Puerto Ricans.

More people will move to escape climate change

As climate-fueled hurricanes, wildfires, and other climate-related disasters become more intense, climate migration is on the minds of communities and researchers. Worldwide, more than 216 million people could be forced to relocate due to climate change by 2050, according to the World Bank’s 2021 Report. By 2100, 13 million US residents could be displaced by sea level rise alone.

The topic of climate migration leads to many questions, from “Where will people move?” to “How can communities prepare for new residents?” As researchers grapple with the scale of climate-related migration and work to study potential migration patterns and implications for social justice, many are also asking questions like, “What does home mean?” and “What does it mean to be from a place and live there?” Uprooting and moving to another location is often not an easy option.

After Hurricane Maria, some Puerto Ricans who had moved to Buffalo eventually returned to the island, but many remained in western New York. The Buffalo area had been losing population for decades, so in many ways the new influx of people has been a boon. The 2020 Census showed a population increase in Buffalo for the first time in 70 years. The surge in new residents has also helped create a more vibrant community, with collaborations on everything from Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations to exhibits at a local children’s museum that highlight culture and life in different countries, as well as more resources and services locally.

“I see it as affecting, in a positive way of course, all factors, jobs, culture, and how things are done on a day-to-day basis,” says Esmeralda Sierra, president of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York. Sierra, who is originally from Puerto Rico and has several family members on the island, notes that several new businesses have popped up in the area, especially restaurants.

“They’re part of the fabric of Western New York now,” Rodriguez says. “They live in homes, work, take care of their families, and in some cases, help their families back home who have chosen to stay.”

Great Lakes planning ahead

Although many Puerto Ricans move to Buffalo because they have family in the area, the Great Lakes region as a whole has recently received media attention for its potential as a climatic haven. The Great Lakes region includes eight US states, including New York, as well as the province of Ontario, Canada. Although some view the region as a place less affected by climate change than others, some believe it is not the climate utopia that it is portrayed. Case in point: wildfire smoke from the Canadian wildfires blanketed parts of the region in the summer of 2023.

“We have to think about the challenges we’re going to face from climate change as well,” says Derek Van Berkel, assistant professor at the University of Michigan. Our cities are not immune.

However, the region is not as prone to climate-related disasters as some parts of the country are facing typhoons, massive wildfires, and sea level rise, and it has ample water as well as amenities such as beaches and nature.

Van Berkel and his colleagues recently published an article in the scientific journal Earth’s Future examining the Great Lakes region and how communities in the region might want to start planning for a potential influx of new residents. “While we don’t know if people will come, how many, who they might be, and where they might settle, it is important for Great Lakes communities to prepare and plan for a possible future that will include new residents,” the authors write. They noted that working toward a just and sustainable future “will increase opportunities for both newcomers and current residents of the Great Lakes region.”

The Great Lakes Climate Adaptation Network was formed in 2015 and includes a number of regional partners working to address regional climate challenges. Van Berkel’s work involves using web-based tools, models and scenarios to help plan for the future.

During the summer of 2023, van Berkel and his colleagues are working with city planners and practitioners to develop a model for land change.

Van Berkel describes his model as a city simulation video game — “Sim City is driven by the actual urban form of the city” — and addresses questions such as “What happens if 250,000 people come to your city? What happens if 25,000 people come to your city?”

Researchers stress the importance of focusing on addressing current inequalities and taking into account future inequalities when focusing on climate migration. The authors write, “If migration is approached as an adaptation strategy—integrated into community climate action and planning—rather than as a hazard, there are several ways such efforts can cultivate desirable and equitable outcomes for both current and potential future residents.”

However, migratory potential can cause a variety of effects, and the authors note that knowing more about climate migratory potential, including going through a number of different scenarios, could be beneficial. Analyzing these possibilities is important to avoid making existing inequalities worse. One way to work toward this goal is to make sure all stakeholders have an opportunity to participate in the conversation.

Back in Buffalo, Sierra says that in her experience, planning ahead, preparing for natural disasters, and coordinating well in advance are key. “I’d like this to be, in a way, an example of how we can work together and support our fellow citizens,” she said. “The conversation must continue so that we are better prepared for possible future situations.”