On August 24th, 1992, Hurricane Andrew slammed into Miami. They called it “the Big One” with winds recorded at 177mph. At the time it was only the third category 5 storm to hit the U.S. since 1935, making it a precursor to the category 4 and 5 storms that now make landfall in the southeast every year thanks to global warming. It forced climate displacement for 250,000, including my family, and arguably altered the outcome of the 1992 presidential election as a consequence of George H.W. Bush’s failed response, which left South Florida without aid for the first week following the storm. It was the costliest storm in U.S. history up to that time with damage of $27.3 billion (equivalent to $57 billion today) and 65 lives. It was before the internet and cellphones as we know them. With no power, water, or way to communicate with the outside world, most of Miami was off the grid.
The days leading up to and following the storm are still fresh in my memory 31 years later. Our area was one of those hardest hits, located in the storm’s eyewall. The storm made landfall around 4am. We sat for 4 hours fearing for our lives in the laundry room as the roof tore off in sections and every window in the house broke as water shot under the door next to us like a firehose. We heard a loud creaking sound. Thinking the carport had torn off, it turned out to be the two large oak trees that once stood on either side of our house falling to the ground.
My brother and I sat in 3 inches of sea water as our ears popped from the pressure. My mom made us wear bike helmets and forced us down under a king size bedspread, worried the leaking ceiling above might collapse or that the nearby kitchen window might break as it bowed inward. I still have claustrophobia to this day as a result. My dad would step away to do damage checks as he and my mom considered whether we might have to somehow evacuate the house in the middle of the storm.
The storm finally passed, and we ventured beyond large shards of broken glass floating in our living room to check on our neighbors. We had no way of knowing if the rest of our family across town was safe. The scenes and stories from those few days would probably fill a book. We saw looters and “looters shot last night” signs. We had to hitchhike with a couple kind strangers after being stranded with two flat tires. We climbed through a block of downed trees that resembled a jungle and past downed power lines to reach my aunt and grandmother. We trespassed into a blown out Little Caesars restaurant with a few others to reach a phone. We watched the National Guard march down our street. And we came together with neighbors sharing food and information through word of mouth. Those were scenes I could have never imagined a week prior.
Family disruption and displacement.
We were very lucky to have our family in New York who arranged plane tickets for my brother and I to get out of town to safety. Most kids don’t have the ability to get away from danger like we did. Our parents stayed behind, living without power for a month, and without a phone for 3 months. Undocumented families face an even more difficult struggle after such disasters.
My brother and I started the new school year with our cousins in New York. Almost 12 years old at the time, I just wanted to get back home. I missed my pets. I hadn’t yet processed the loss of our home, our hometown, and nearly all of our possessions. And I was distressed at the idea of my friends starting school back at home without me – lifelong friends I hadn’t seen since before the storm and desperately wanted to be with after going through a shared trauma.
But that had to be put aside to adjust to a new school, far from anything familiar. The stress still affected my school performance. Because of the instability I was experiencing losing my home and being separated from my parents for months, I didn’t take school in New York seriously. Their curriculum was also far ahead of the curriculum in Florida. I barely followed along and my grades dropped from my usual As to Cs.
Thankfully, my parents were able to visit during Thanksgiving. I had hoped that my brother and I could finally go home. But that was not possible. The house was still condemned. Insurance and contractors would be behind for a long time to come. My parents both lost their jobs as a result of the storm and put their focus into getting things back in order. Every week I hoped for news about coming home. Christmas passed and I was let down again. A few months to an adult feel like a year to a kid and it took an emotional toll. At the end of January, after five torturous months away from home, my brother and I finally were able to return to Miami to stay at my grandmother’s house while my parents continued to rebuild ours. Though I was very glad to be back in my hometown, it was still far from normalcy. The place we came home to was barely recognizable.
Friends and neighbors in Miami had a difficult recovery as well. Some were forced to move into FEMA trailers in their front yard. Some relocated. The stress of the aftermath took a toll on marriages, and a number of my friends’ parents divorced.
It can take communities years, and in this case, more than a decade to rebuild. My family relocated and started our lives over in a town three hours away. The aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina, Ian, and countless others forced displacement as well. The population displacement from New Orleans to Houston following Katrina was reported to be the greatest U.S. migration since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.
“A decade after Katrina, thousands of the hurricane’s victims have yet to return to home. In 2005, an estimated 1.5 million people from Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana fled their homes in the face of Katrina.” – Center for American Progress
Lives along with the physical landscape had been permanently altered. Hundred-year-old Banyan trees that were uprooted in the storm had left behind an uncomfortable, empty brightness where they had previously enveloped long stretches of roads with dark canopies. Portions of the landscape around the city were flattened. It was a jarring loss that we were all too shell shocked and overwhelmed to mourn. Wildlife also suffers significantly, forcing displacement as habitats are lost. Our natural surroundings are something we take for granted. But it alters your sense of place when it’s gone, in addition to ecological damage incurred by the loss of biodiversity.
Losing everything can result in lasting mental health impacts. For a time, my panic would be triggered by a windy day, as I braced for the gusts to get worse. I also frequently feared that something terrible would happen. I have since mostly recovered from the many years of hurricane PTSD. But I still sometimes battle anxiety about leaving home when a trip is more than a car ride away. Our next-door neighbor experienced agoraphobia and was afraid to go outside for a long while. Disasters affect people for life. Everyone I know who experienced Andrew still remembers it on the anniversary.
That is a horrific prospect. And it’s already underway. A recent UN report found that 43.1 million children were displaced over the six-year period between 2015 and 2021, linked to weather-related disasters. 95% of the child displacements were the result of storms and floods.
Whether it is hurricanes, floods, drought, extreme heat, wildfires, sea level rise, or any other climate disaster, the effect on children is severe. Immediate and lifelong adverse outcomes include malnutrition, increased risk of exploitation and trafficking, abuse, disruption to healthcare and immunizations, disruption to education, violence, and poverty. My family was lucky. Most of the world’s children who are in danger will never have the resources or security to withstand and overcome a climate disaster the way we take for granted here in the U.S. Even in a developed country with resources for aid, kids are irrevocably impacted.
Reports have found that the lower a child’s socioeconomic status, the greater the risk for climate impact. Those in the global south are particularly vulnerable. Those inequalities and adverse childhood experiences affect children for life.
Climate displacement is one of the greatest crises threatening children today. The world must act by demanding that we ensure safe, stable, and sustainable conditions at birth for every child to protect them from the worst of the climate crisis. We didn’t find ourselves in the climate crisis by accident. It was directly caused and concealed by those who control wealth and power. Now they owe climate reparations for the trauma they have sentenced to the next generation. Those reparations are needed for climate resilience infrastructure, voluntary migration, and birth equity investments for the safety and security of children.
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