American Climate: A Shared Experience Connects Survivors Of Disaster

Nov 26, 2019

Four months after the Camp Fire incinerated his home and the entire nearby town of Paradise, California, Randy Larsen sat on the steps of his RV and struggled to process what he'd survived.

He remembered seeing the smoke and fire in Paradise across the canyon and the traffic streaming down the Skyway.

"I still hadn't pieced it all together," he said. "I mean, I think I realized that there was an evacuation from Paradise, but I didn't assume it was on fire. I assumed it—I don't know what I assumed that day. The idea that the town had burned up ... was nowhere in my imagination."

His inability to comprehend the disaster he'd endured—a wildfire that jumped the length of a football field each second—was echoed by survivors of Hurricane Michael, the first Category 5 storm to hit the Florida Panhandle, and some of the most destructive flooding to inundate the Midwest.

In the year-long documentary project American Climate, InsideClimate News reporter Neela Banerjee and videographer Anna Belle Peevey found shared experiences in the aftermath of extreme weather and climate-related disasters.

 


In dozens of interviews, victims and survivors used a common language of loss, describing their communities in terms normally reserved for war zones. Sounds evoked what they'd lost—exploding propane tanks, beeping smoke detectors in piles of rubble, chainsaws cutting through downed trees.

Often, they drew strength from the animals they cared for. As emergency planners learned in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, some Americans love their animals so much they're willing to risk their lives for them.

A country accustomed to taking in refugees from around the globe now found itself dealing with climate refugees made here in America. The sheer destructive force of wildfireshurricanes and river flooding had rattled assumptions about the limits of disaster as climate change has increasingly eroded people's sense of security across the American landscape, the interviews showed. 

Read the essays on the Common Language of Loss, the Sounds that Trigger Trauma and the Bonds Between People and Animals.

And there was a relentlessness to calamities: As reporters found victims of Hurricane Michael and the Camp Fire still in the throes of recovery in March, the devastating floods struck Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.

Some survivors acknowledged climate change as a influence in the disasters. Others didn't.

Randy Larsen saw the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people in Butte County, as an obvious consequence of a warming planet.

"I grew up in California," he said. "We've never had wildfires in November. We can fix all the power lines that PG&E was perhaps negligent in dealing with, we can fix all of those things, but we're still going to have this tinderbox of a forest. Unless we do something about climate change."

Louis Byford, a farmer in Corning, Missouri, whose home fared only slightly better in the flooding than Larsen's had in the fire, was having none of that.

"There's been changes taking place since God created earth," he said. "We are simply kidding ourselves if we think we can control anything. It's just part of God's creation. The cycle. The come and go, the ebb and flow, whatever."

Still, Byford found himself haunted by the calculus of loss, struggling to rebuild a farmhouse his wife wouldn't live in anymore. "Where does that leave me?" Byford asked. "I told you I'm a determined man. I'll give this compassion and patience. I may be a bachelor living here. It's a burden that I can't get rid of, every day."

Scientists point out that there is broad consensus that global warming will fuel more wildfires, floods and intense hurricanes.

Research shows that climate change has made California hotter and drier and more prone to wildfires. Summertime average temperatures in the state have risen 3.2 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 1800s, nearly all of it over the last 50 years.

The northern Great Plains are expected to see more drought, intense rainfall and flooding as the planet warms. The 12-month period leading up to February 2019 was the fifth-wettest stretch of weather in Nebraska since 1895.

The oceans are now warmer than they have been in 125,000 years, providing more energy to fuel the destructive power of hurricanes like Michael. 

Perched on the steps of his RV in Butte Creek Canyon, Larsen sees little reason for optimism over the long term. 

"I wish I could say this is the new normal, but that would be profoundly optimistic if it stayed at being just this bad," he said. "And I haven't seen any research that suggests that it's going to level off. The best research says maybe what? Two degrees (Celsius) increase by the turn of the century? That's super optimistic. I think these are the good ol' days, in terms of wildfire in California, and that's a bit heartbreaking."

Explore the American Climate project.

In the InsideClimate News documentary project American Climate, reporter Neela Banerjee and videographer Anna Belle Peevey share the stories of people trying to rebuild lives splintered by three weather-related disasters. Explore the videos and essays here