A massive Category 5 hurricane, Hurricane Maria, was bearing down on Puerto Rico. In Buffalo, New York, people watching the news were worried. Many had loved ones on the island, and many had spent time living there.
When the storm made landfall on Sept. 20, 2017, the toll was catastrophic. About 3,000 people died — or even more, according to some estimates, and damage totals for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands combined hovered around $90 billion. Virtually all of Puerto Rico was without power and cellphone service, and many were without clean water. They didn’t know it at the time, but by the end of 2017, half the island’s residents still would not have power.
Buffalo community leaders came together to formulate a plan. The Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York was one of the organizations leading the charge, working with the city, faith-based groups, veterans groups, news outlets, and even a theater company to help.
Beyond raising funds 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 start kits” with essentials for a new home, from pans and blankets to curtains. They helped people find employment and equipped them for the cold and snowy climate by providing warm clothing, coats, and boots, as well as baby items, school uniforms and supplies, food, and more.
“It was a very challenging effort and task, but it was all-hands-on-deck with all the different local organizations to be able to help these families through this trauma of fleeing their [homeland] to seek refuge because they had lost everything,” says Casimiro Rodriguez, Sr., president emeritus and founder of Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York.
In all, about 5,000 people came to the region from Puerto Rico in the storm’s aftermath, according to one estimate cited in a Buffalo News article, joining the already-strong community of 35,000 Puerto Ricans.
More people will move to escape climate change
With climate-fueled hurricanes, wildfires, and other climate-related disasters intensifying, climate migration is on the minds of communities and researchers. Around the globe, more than 216 million people could be forced to move due to climate change by 2050, according to a 2021 World Bank report. By 2100, 13 million U.S. residents could be displaced by sea level rise alone.
The topic of climate migration leads to numerous questions, from “Where will people move?” to “How can communities prepare for new residents?” As researchers grapple with the scale of climate migration and work to study potential migration patterns and social justice implications, many are also asking questions like, “What does home mean?” and “What does it mean to be from a place and live there?” Pulling up roots and moving somewhere else is often not an easy choice.
Following Hurricane Maria, some Puerto Ricans who moved to Buffalo eventually returned to the island, but many stayed in western New York. The Buffalo area had been losing population for decades, so the new influx of people was a boon in many ways. The 2020 census showed a population increase in Buffalo for the first time in 70 years. The surge in new residents also helped create an even more vibrant community, with collaboration on everything from Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations to exhibits at a local children’s museum highlighting culture and life in different countries, as well as more resources and services locally.
“I do see that it has affected, in a positive way of course, all the factors, the jobs, the culture, just how things are being done on a daily basis,” says Esmeralda Sierra, president of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York. Sierra, who is originally from Puerto Rico and has many family members on the island, points to many new businesses springing up in the area, especially restaurants.
“They’re part of the fabric of western New York now,” Rodriguez says. “They live in homes, they work, they’re taking care of their families, and in some cases, they’re helping their families back home that elected to stay.”
Great Lakes Region planning for the future
Though many Puerto Rico residents moved to Buffalo because they had family in the area, the Great Lakes Region as a whole has recently received media attention for its potential as a climate refuge. The Great Lakes Region includes eight U.S. states, including New York, plus the province of Ontario, Canada. Though some perceive the region as a place that is less impacted by climate change than others, some believe it is not the climate utopia that has been portrayed. Case in point: wildfire smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketed parts of the region in the summer of 2023.
“We have to think about the challenges that we will 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 isn’t as susceptible to climate-related disasters as some parts of the country that face hurricanes, massive wildfires, and sea level rise, and it has ample water as well as amenities such as beaches and nature.
Van Berkel and colleagues recently published an article in the science journal Earth’s Future examining the Great Lakes Region and how communities in the region may want to start planning for a potential influx of new residents. “While we do not know if people will come, how many, who they might be, and where they might settle, it is important that Great Lakes region communities prepare and plan for a potential future that includes new residents,” the authors wrote. They noted that working toward a just and sustainable future “will increase opportunities for both people coming and currently living in 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 colleagues are working with planners and city practitioners on developing a land change model.
Van Berkel describes his modeling as a simulated city video game — “Sim City driven by the actual urban form in a city” — addressing questions like “What happens if 250,000 people come to your city? What happens if 25,000 people come to your city?” The simulation model focuses on different options for where people could live, from dense urban areas to suburbs, while also addressing challenges related to infrastructure and other factors.
Researchers emphasize the importance of focusing on addressing current inequities and accounting for future ones when focusing on climate migration. The authors write, “If migration is treated as an adaptation strategy — incorporated in community climate action and planning — rather than a hazard, there are several ways that such efforts can cultivate more desirable and just outcomes for both current and potential future residents.”
However, the potential for migration could cause a variety of effects, and the authors note that learning more about the potential for climate migration, including running through a number of different scenarios, could be useful. Analyzing these possibilities is important to avoid making current inequalities worse. One way to work toward this aim 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 having good coordination well in advance is key. “I would like this to be, in a way, an example about how we can work together and support our fellow citizens,” she said. “The conversation needs to continue so we are better prepared for possible future situations.”