Since he purchased his 311-acre property in Cameron Parish, Louisiana, in 1998, John Allaire has watched 60 acres of it disappear. He has witnessed a series of climate disasters rapidly wash away Louisiana’s coastline, devastating already-overlooked communities like his.
In 2005, he lost his home to Hurricane Rita. He applied for federal assistance to rebuild his home but was rejected. Instead, he was compensated with a temporary trailer, which he then lost to Hurricane Ike in 2008. He has been moving between Texas and Lafayette, Louisiana, for work since then.
Climate events like these are becoming more frequent and higher in magnitude across the U.S. Gulf and Coastal South, and they’re displacing more and more people—especially BIPOC folks, who have been disproportionately affected by climate change across the globe.
“We have to acknowledge that disaster outcomes exacerbate sociopolitical inequalities,” says Sara McTarnaghan, senior research associate at Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Underserved communities are already at a disadvantage from the inception of a climate event, and the institutions set up to provide relief often aren’t accessible or relevant to their particular needs.
In the aftermath of the 2020 Hurricanes Laura and Delta, for example, Allaire says the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) came and did an assessment but offered no direct relief. “It was all community organizations,” Allaire says.
In 2021, 59.1 million people were internally displaced worldwide by the climate crisis, and there will be more than 200 million climate migrants by 2050. Yet institutionalized protections for climate-displaced people are not guaranteed.
In the U.S., the national apparatuses for disaster and displacement management—the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development—are marred by discrimination scandals and perpetually stuck in the dysfunctional dynamics of determining the jurisdictions of state versus federal government. Globally, climate migrants can’t be granted asylum and have no legal protections under international law.
Operating outside the limitations of these institutions, community organizers are tackling climate displacement from all angles—advocating for climate-displaced people, providing them with resources, and making their communities more climate-resilient.
The Limits of Institutional Support
Right before Hurricane Ida struck his community in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, in 2021, Justin Fitch of the United Houma Nation—the largest state-recognized tribe in Louisiana—made the decision to stay in his home with his wife, and used the family’s funds to have their children stay in Texas, away from the storm.
Fitch is an activist who works for the nonprofit Healthy Gulf and says that those hit hardest by climate disasters and who most need to leave are usually BIPOC like him. “People do not have an extra $4,000, $5,000 to leave,” Fitch says. “That’s the reason I didn’t leave.”
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Fitch says residents turned to groups like Gulf South Rising and The Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (now Taproot Earth) for help. Mutual aid can help mitigate some of the financial stress that affects homeowners dealing with buyouts, or help unhoused people who have lost access to shelters and resource centers impacted by climate events. Hotel assistance, for example, can provide a person with a few days of shelter, but it requires an application and is often an outright cost to be reimbursed later. That makes this option out of reach for many.
To combat this exclusion, Roishetta Ozane has been helping temporarily shelter people in disaster-prone areas. Her organization, The Vessel Project of Louisiana, put an estimated 300 people in hotels across Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi during the winter storm in 2021.
“I started Vessel because I realized a lot of organizations had a lot of red tape,” Ozane says.
Instead, her organization meets folks where they’re at: no demands for documents or proof. It works to provide emergency shelter, food, oxygen tanks, and document recovery. It even helps folks apply for more traditional forms of aid.
In her work, Ozane has assisted undocumented people, unhoused people, and other marginalized folks who are sidelined by restrictive assistance. Her no-questions-asked policy is key to establishing trust while providing support.
The approach is based on her own experience: Faced with a series of climate events and the pandemic, Ozane struggled to support herself and her children after their home became unlivable in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura in 2020. She tried to obtain a mobile trailer from FEMA but didn’t receive it until a year later. So she knows how hard it can be and how individualized the struggles are.
“I can’t tell you what’s an emergency to you,” Ozane says.
Around 7,500 people in Louisiana live in FEMA’s interim mobile shelters, many of whom have received temporary housing assistance since 2021. Some people are there because they have nowhere to go, others because they were renters before the storms, and still others are facing an unstable housing market that is particularly tumultuous in a climate-unstable environment.
Others are awaiting assistance to rebuild or relocate. Those who choose to relocate may find themselves in an endless web of insurance companies, lawyers, government officials, and protocols. FEMA runs buyout programs that allow residents in disaster-prone areas (particularly flooding) to sell their homes to the government and relocate to areas with lower risk.
Buyouts can be risky, they require extensive paperwork, the requirements are inaccessible for many, and there’s no guarantee of success. The median wait time from the aftermath of the disaster to the completion of the buyout can be as long as five years. And oftentimes, people are pursuing buyouts for uninhabitable homes, which means this effort is on top of finding a place to live.
Other residents are shut out of traditional systems altogether, including homeowners without insurance, homeowners with heirs’ property, renters, and undocumented folks. These populations don’t typically have access to a dignified move that utilizes traditional modes of assistance, though their immediate needs are still ever-present.
Thirteen months after Ida made landfall, Fitch says, “I still have friends and family that are homeless, living in FEMA trailers.”
Lacking a Legal Framework
While folks in climate-unstable areas are making decisions in reaction to climate change, “climate change might not be how people conceive of their experience,” says Ama Francis, climate displacement project strategist for the International Refugee Assistance Project, “even as they are experiencing climate change.”
In many parts of the world, people still don’t consider their negative climate experiences as catalysts for their migration. Unfortunately, neither does the law.
“One of the constraints that I work with is that people need to fit into frameworks to access a legal benefit,” Francis says. “We have asylum law, for example, and for that framework, you have to experience harm or persecution from a human.”
Currently, there is no legal framework that denotes climate change as a driver for migration. Not only does this make a pathway to asylum for climate migrants cumbersome, but it also creates difficulties for climate migrants trying to receive resettlement assistance.
Part of systemic advocacy like Francis’ is to bring awareness to this fact. So, while the International Refugee Assistance Project champions the expansion of temporary protected status, new Department of Justice opinions, and other legal recompenses to help climate migrants, the organization is also working to document the experiences of those displaced by climate change and sociopolitical events surrounding it. These stories can then inform policy recommendations.
For this reason, equitable access to climate education is imperative to address climate displacement. It enables people to correlate their experiences in the larger context of the global issue. In the context of the U.S. South (and the Global South at large), anti-climate-change propaganda is rampant, even as these communities are impacted by its effects.
Resource extraction and manufacturing put food on the table. Talk of climate change signals a possible disruption to even basic needs being met, especially to those who don’t speak the “highfalutin language” in which these issues are explained in policies.
“That’s the case in impoverished communities that have been exploited,” Rev. Michael Malcom of The People’s Justice Council explains. “They just want to get out of [poverty].”
Speaking to folks’ priorities is the best way to get people to engage with climate change as a concept. Local southern organizations, like the Partnership for Southern Equity, are running programs to combat the effects of the climate crisis on public health, focusing on communities that have been excluded from equitable access to health care. The People’s Justice Council promotes solar buybacks and weatherization programs, and the Athens Land Trust’s invasive-plant removal program has encouraged buy-in from communities. The programs are economically advantageous while making people environmentally conscious.
Organizers are already seeing the benefits of climate education in their efforts to mobilize communities: The People’s Justice Council received an estimated 90,000 signatures on its “No Dirty Deals” collaborative petition to reject the contradictory climate actions in the Inflation Reduction Act that it says would disproportionately impact already marginalized communities.
Standing With Community
After Hurricane Ike destroyed John Allaire’s FEMA trailer in 2008, he was lucky enough to have the means to relocate temporarily. Since 2020, John has returned and is working toward building a home on his property in Cameron. Allaire talks of the good life he and his family have there, close to nature and his community of friends—a community he refuses to give up on.
Discussions on climate displacement often focus on the simple facts of who leaves or stays, and they exclude the real connections people have to their homes—their ties to the land, their livelihoods, and their communities. The overarching goal of efforts to address climate displacement, therefore, should be to provide a range of possible solutions: solutions to curb climate change, solutions to help facilitate safe and dignified migration, and solutions to support those who stay in climate-unstable areas.
“Some people do need to move, and we want to facilitate and ensure that people do so with dignity,” Francis says. “For some people, the right to stay is important, and we need to support that as well.”
Oisakhose Aghomo is an Atlanta peach transplant by way of Nigeria. She graduated from the University of Georgia with degrees in International Affairs and Romance Languages. She enjoys traveling, writing and eating copious amounts of icecream. She can be reached through Substack - thewobblysoapbox.substack.com