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This story was originally published on April 27, 2020

When Chris and Kelly Noyes stepped out of their house after Hurricane Isabelle, the first thing they noticed were the trees. 

“Just the amount of trees that were down, it was overwhelming,” said Kelly, describing the damage in their neighborhood. “When we walked outside after the storm, it was like you didn’t even recognize where you were.”

“It was overwhelming in that the whole area was like that,” Chris added, thinking about how far the storm reached. “So you couldn’t like, drive out, ‘oh there’s a nice place’. [It was] just everywhere.”

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Damage outside the home of Chris and Kelly Noyes. Photo courtesy of the Noyes family.

Two years after moving to Chesapeake, Virginia, Chris and Kelly Noyes were struck by the hurricane in September, 2003. It caused more than $5 billion in damage through North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and into Pennsylvania. In Virginia, the storm surge was much stronger than predicted — flooding further in than people expected. For Chris and Kelly, they were left stranded for 11 days with their three year old daughter and no power. 

“You’re trying to get back to normal, but you don’t realize what a loss like that just for days and days…” Kelly trailed off. “When it is catastrophic like that, it’s really terrible. It’s really, really difficult.”

The Pittsburgh natives moved to the East Coast from Las Vegas in 2001, hoping for “the beach life.” With Kelly working in the public school system and Chris managing a local hotel, they figured the small town would be a prime place to raise their daughter. But in the wake of the storm, it became clear that it would be too hard to make Virginia feel like home again. The Noyes lost hundreds of dollars in food, their heating system, and access to water. 

The uncertainty of the situation was what scared them. In the days that they waited for help, a curfew was placed on the community, making it difficult for Chris to work. As the night shift manager, he had to make a daily choice of driving to work to get paid — risking the heavy fine if he were caught — or not make any money at all by staying home. He said that driving back to the empty house in the darkness, with no streetlights and no windows lit up on the drive back, was disorienting and frightening. 

“Although you would not experience a storm to that degree every year, on a yearly basis you would have that worry because you’re right in the hurricane zone,” Kelly said. “So I think that’s what had us starting to think, like, maybe in the long term this beach life is not really what we had planned for.”

A few months after the storm, Chris and Kelly began searching for a new home. They wanted to stay somewhere by the ocean, but up and down the coast, cities were either too expensive or didn’t have the right jobs. So they decided to come back to Pittsburgh — a place that was familiar to them, but also, in their minds, was more environmentally secure. 

The Noyes new home in Pittsburgh is on top of a hill to avoid flooding. Photo courtesy of the Noyes family

Climate Migration on the Rise

This move the Noyes made — fleeing hurricane-hit Virginia for inland Pittsburgh — is what some experts are calling climate migration.

Though there is no formally recognized definition, climate migration broadly refers to people who have been displaced, permanently or temporarily, from their homes from natural disasters or averse, long-term impacts of climate change. 

More than 15 million people worldwide have been displaced by weather disasters every year in the last decade. In 2018, more than a million Americans were forced to leave their homes because of natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, all of which are expected to get worse and more frequent due to climate change. In these situations, people often return to their homes. 

But people are also being displaced because of more gradual climate change impacts, like sea level rise, which is predicted to displace nearly 13 million Americans by the end of the century, according to a University of Georgia study published in Nature Climate Change

Dr. Jack DeWaard, from the University of Minnesota’s Population Center, said in these situations, which are often more permanent, it’s difficult to tease out whether people move because of environmental reasons, or because of economic situations, or a mixture of both. For example, jobs that depend on environmental conditions, like agriculture, may be lost if those environmental conditions change. 

“In those situations, you can’t necessarily tease out the role of climate and environment from the economic livelihoods that are sort of giving people pause about whether they might stay in an area, how long they would stay in that area, or whether they would migrate away,” DeWaard said. 

But people mostly try to find ways to adapt and stay before making the decision to leave. “What we also know from the literature is that people migrate — they utilize migration as an adaptation option often of last resort,” DeWaard said. 

Becoming a Climate Haven in the Rust Belt

Understanding how people move after natural disasters can help cities better prepare for new populations. A new study in the journal PLOS ONE predicts that most climate migrants will move just inland of hard hit communities, staying close to friends and family. But others will relocate further from the coast, to the Rustbelt and Midwest.

Even though this region will experience extreme storms, flooding, and temperature rise, it may be more tolerable than the South or along the coasts. And, it boasts freshwater access and infrastructure meant for larger populations before manufacturing declined in the 1970s.

Some cities in the region are already positioning themselves as climate destinations. 

Byron Brown, Mayor of Buffalo, New York, said in his 2019 State of the City Address that Buffalo has “a tremendous opportunity, as our planet changes. Based on scientific research, we know that Buffalo will be a climate refuge city, for centuries to come.” 

A Harvard researcher dubbed Duluth, Minnesota, “Climate proof Duluth”.

And Cincinnati stated in its 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan that they intend to promote the city as a climate haven for people and businesses, in hopes of growing their economy. 

Cincinnati resilience officer Oliver Kroner said this idea was inspired by the 2,000 people who moved into the city after Hurricane Katrina. He said the city, so far, has focused on greening infrastructure and, in particular, restoring empty housing stock. 

“Largely, we believe that it will really be a test of infrastructure that will be most challenging,” Kroner said. “And if we provide a solid foundation for people to live here and move here, we’ll be better prepared, to handle an influx of people.”

Pittsburgh has decidedly not described itself as a climate haven. Chief Resilience Officer Grant Ervin said this isn’t because it’s unimportant — just that as an inland city, they have more time to respond to potential climate migration.  “We’re seeing what like a 2050 could look like in terms of coastal cities,” he said. “For an inland place like Pittsburgh, that’s going to affect us.

Inland cities, Ervin notes, are in a very different position from coastal communities, which face immediate dislocation.

“Inland cities are thinking very much in terms of like, ‘okay, so this is going to happen, how are we going to absorb a growing population,’ ” said Ervin. “They’re different questions and they require different policy responses.” 

According to Ervin, many of the actions Pittsburgh is taking to address climate change would also help handle an increase in new residents. The city’s climate plan addresses obvious issues like energy efficiency, encouraging the use of public transportation and renewable energy, but also things like fixing vacant properties and increasing demand for local food. 

But Kroner said implementing social initiatives necessary for in-migration has proven to be hard for governments when it comes to climate policy. 

“I think the infrastructure piece is better understood and is being addressed in a more meaningful way right now,” Kroner said. “That is in part due to the fact that that is typically where government focuses and what we can control to some degree. The social component is harder to understand, harder to manage. It’s more complicated.”

Embedding Social Sciences into Climate Policy

But cities need comprehensive social support systems that go beyond environmental or climate actions, said DeWaard, especially because migration won’t be fair for everyone. Typically, people who can afford to move will move. 

“If everybody with means leaves an area and they all migrate to Duluth, Minnesota or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, maybe what we’re going to start seeing are housing costs going up,” said DeWaard. “Maybe what we might see is changes in inequality within that specific place, if those who are migrating in are very different, socioeconomically, for instance, from the folks who are already there.”

When people with means leave a climate-hit area, it leaves behind poorer families, concentrating poverty in vulnerable communities. 

On the flip side, lower income families who decide to resettle may need additional support in their new homes. DeWaard said that social programs to help people adapt can ease the strain on cities like helping people find housing, jobs, or even healthcare.  Otherwise, inequality may get worse as climate migration increases, “because disasters are inherently social phenomenon, that require us to think about place vulnerability and social vulnerability,” he said. “And indeed there has been growing calls, even by natural scientists to embed the social sciences in climate policy.” 

The Noyes, who left Virginia’s “beach life” for the social and environmental security of Pittsburgh, may be an example of what many Americans could face in the future. For Chris and Kelly, it was easy — they had family here, they knew the area, and they bought a house on top of a hill, just to avoid flooding. But Chris still thinks about friends and family along the coast, and the storms they might face. 

“Being close to the Outer Banks, there’s parts of the Outer Banks where the road washes away and people are stranded,” Chris said. “And I look back now and say ‘I’m just glad that’s not me’, you know? I don’t ever want to have to go through that again.”