The Common Language of Loss

On the morning of November 8, 2018, as the Camp Fire advanced quickly into Paradise, California, burning huge swaths of dry forest in seconds, Wally Sipher urged his disabled sister, Judy, to evacuate. She resisted, because she was still getting over the flu. At 68, suffering from congestive heart issues and needing an oxygen tank and a walker, leaving posed all sorts of problems. 

So Wally jumped in his car and started driving the 20 miles up the mountain from his home in Chico to fetch her. But he never made it to her home. The roads were crammed with evacuees fleeing down the mountain to Chico as he started heading up, and he had to turn back. Still, he assumed Judy would get through it. 

Wildfires are a fact of California life. There was a logic to things that Wally Sipher and other people caught up in the Camp Fire had expected to hold, because it always had in the past: Fires don’t start in November, because by then the rains have come. A fire doesn’t take just one second to move the length of a football field, igniting your yard only minutes after you see smoke on a ridge miles away. Fires don’t consume an entire town of 26,000 people between breakfast and lunchtime. And siblings like Judy always somehow manage to survive, despite disabilities and traffic jams. 

Climate change has upended all that now.

InsideClimate News videographer Anna Belle Peevey and I travelled to California, Florida, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri earlier this year as part of a documentary project, American Climate, to tell the stories of people trying to rebuild lives splintered by weather-related disasters. In the aftermath, the experiences of victims and survivors around the country echo each other, no matter what form of disaster they faced.

In the burn scar of Butte County, California, the hurricane impact zone of the Florida Panhandle, and the flood plains of northeastern Nebraska, people reach for the same vocabulary of war to describe their communities, saying that “it looks like a bomb went off.” That makes sense. It’s the only language we have so far to approximate the vastness of the loss that climate change has started to bring. 

It was the lexicon I reached for, too. I’ve reported from war zones, and the devastation I saw in different parts of the United States and the desperation people expressed to Anna Belle and me reminded me of places whose experience, until now, seemed so different from our own. When we sat with people in a leaky RV in California church parking lot or in a little tent city in the Florida Panhandle, I’d look at how they’d crammed entire lives into a few trash bags and think, I’ve seen this before. I saw it in Tbilisi, where refugees were created in the wake of a low-grade civil war in Georgia; I saw it among families squatting in abandoned warehouses in Iraq after the American invasion. I never thought I would see it in this country. 

Refugees are supposed to come to the United States; they aren’t supposed to be made here. But I don’t know what else to call these people who have had everything stripped away from them. Climate refugees aren’t only the residents of a remote Pacific island that’s gradually being swallowed by the ocean. They are the Californians who rushed down burning mountain roads, wondering if they would ever see their children again. They are the people left homeless by a storm surge in Florida or river flooding in Iowa. Now, with increasing frequency and soberingly similar losses, the refugees are Americans.

The scale and fury of wildfires, hurricanes and catastrophic river flooding rattle assumptions about the natural order of things and the limits to disaster damage. If Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of great swaths of New Orleans felt like an aberration in 2005, climate change in the last few years has routinely carved away at the security of people scattered across the American landscape: New York, Texas, Puerto Rico, Florida, North Carolina, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa and the annual burning of California that has now come to feel like an inescapable ritual. 

After Climate Calamities, Communities Start to Vanish

In the hours after the Camp Fire fire burned away nearly all of Paradise, Wally had called the sheriff’s office, hospitals and shelters, again and again, looking for anyone fitting his sister’s description. Two days later, a sheriff’s deputy finally made it to the apartments at 1005a Village Parkway to look for survivors and called Wally to double-check Judy’s address. 

The apartments had been charred down to drifts of ash, overturned washers and stoves, and fist-sized chunks of the tan brick that had once made up the 10 or so buildings of the development. In the otherwise-empty parking lot sat a lone 1994 green Chevrolet Blazer, untouched and undamaged. The only evidence of the searing heat that had surrounded the car during the Camp Fire was that the plastic handicap tag hanging from the rear view mirror had melted. The car belonged to Judy. The deputy told Wally he was sorry. 

“I really expected her to be in that apartment two days later,” Wally told me from his tidy living room in Chico four months after the fire. “We’d get up there and get her out of there. She’d be dehydrated and that’d be the worst thing.” 

He sat in a brown leather recliner, the spring sun dappling the tall redwood tree outside his big picture window. He stopped, looked down, and pressed his lips into a hard line. When he spoke again, his voice was thicker. “It was a good 48, 58 hours after the thing started that we realized that she was … that she was gone.”

Two weeks after the deputy’s call to Wally Sipher, cadaver dogs found evidence of human remains in the rubble of Judy Sipher’s apartment. What was left of her was so scant, and the DNA so badly degraded by the intense blaze, that four months later, the coroner still hadn’t conclusively identified those remains as Judy.

Those who survive these climate catastrophes often lose everything: their loved ones, homes, jobs, animals, cars, clothing, furniture, the Christmas stockings and baby blankets their grandmothers made, every possession from toothbrushes and razors to computers and social security cards. Pretty quickly, the communities they considered home start to vanish, too, despite all the slogans about rebuilding as good as ever, because people leave for places where there’s housing and work. 

In Paradise, four months after the fire, blocks stretched like lakes of ash out of which the remnants of people’s lives surfaced: big appliances, metal girders, mobile home frames twisted like straws, coffee mugs, stone birdbaths. Plastic signs dripped like pizza cheese. Glass that exploded out of buildings and cars covered the ground, and one shard the size of a small pink eraser was cracked into perfect rectangles, like city blocks on a map. 

People had moved to Paradise because they felt safe there. They left their front doors unlocked and waved hello to everyone they would pass on the street. Mayberry, folks called it. The Camp Fire erased that sense of safety. It turned everything upside down. The tall pines whose shadow and scent had sheltered people’s homes had dried over the rainless summer into kindling for the fire. The neighborly cul-de-sacs that made up much of Paradise became burning chutes residents couldn’t escape when the whole town tried to evacuate at once.

In Mexico Beach, ‘Piles and Piles and Piles’ 

Three weeks after our time in Paradise, Anna Belle and I went to Mexico Beach, Florida. The town of Paradise was nearly erased by fire; by contrast, Mexico Beach, which hugs the Gulf of Mexico, was flattened by water. Before the storm, the town was “old Florida,” as Mayor Al Cathey liked to say—a collection of 50-year-old bungalows and newer vacation homes on stilts. On any given day, the water would go through all the shades of blue, and people would walk for miles on the white sand beaches scattering the gulls and piping plovers at the water’s edge. 

The quiet village, located about 30 minutes east of Panama City, was shattered on October 10, 2018, one month before the Camp Fire in California, when Hurricane Michael made landfall on the Panhandle with 160 mile-per-hour winds and a 15-foot storm surge. The little town that Cathey managed, whose biggest problems used to be things like potholes, was now little more than “piles and piles and piles,” he told us when we arrived in March 2019. The insides of people’s homes were outside, the hurricane having tossed DVDs and muffin tins and shoes and TVs through weedy yards all over town. 

The aftermath of Michael and other disasters is a relentless cutting away of everything that made a place home, even when the winds and ocean have quieted. 

Tan Smiley was born and raised in Port St. Joe, a village just east of Mexico Beach, in an African-American neighborhood that endured generations of segregation—a legacy that, as one longtime resident put it, meant the neighborhood “looked like a hurricane hit it even before the hurricane hit.” 

Tan, 54, grew up in a big family, and like his father, he had an entrepreneurial knack. Over time, he started a daycare center in the village and a car detailing business. Four years ago, he added a fried chicken shack, where he made chicken based on his mother’s recipe. It became a popular, funky one-stop-shop a few hundred yards from the beach.

Tan met Anna Belle and me one afternoon at this small cluster of cozy yellow and blue buildings on Port St. Joe’s main strip. He said he had lived through hurricanes and took them seriously. The wind you can survive, his father had always told him; it’s the water you have to be careful of. As Michael brewed in the Gulf, Tan came to the detailer and the chicken shop to raise the fryers, fridges and other equipment onto milk crates in case of flooding. Then he and his wife evacuated.

That was on October 9, 2018. The next day, the hurricane made landfall and pushed the ocean through the doors of Tan’s shop, submerging tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment that he couldn’t possibly have raised up high enough to save. The storm surge carried a small outbuilding on his property two blocks away, just like it drove homes off their foundations all over the Panhandle and into buildings across the road. The wind snatched the roof off the double-wide trailer Tan and his wife LaWanda lived in, drenching it in endless rain. In just 12 hours, Tan lost his car detailing and fried chicken businesses and his home. 

Allstate had canceled insurance on trailers like Tan’s in Florida a few years earlier, he said, so he had no insurance money for repairs. Mold bloomed through the walls and made his home uninhabitable. He had finally hired a crew to demolish and cart away what remained of his mobile home. 

Tan and LaWanda have exhausted their life savings. The hurricane spared some places while destroying others, and it left Tan’s daycare center only lightly damaged. But the business is now shuttered because so many families with kids relocated after Michael. The chicken shack and car detailing businesses are closed, too. Tan walked the property with Anna Belle and me, pointing out what Hurricane Michael had done to the building that housed his businesses. The roof above the detailing bay was shredded. The walls inside the kitchen were freckled with black mold. The big freezers were still outside, and fryer baskets rusted in the tall grass. He said he was applying for a federal loan to start the shop again. 

“Very seriously, we have considered leaving St. Joe,” Tan told me. “It’s just like when you got your roots in the ground, they’re too deep. Just it’s hard to get up and leave.” Everything in his life has taken blows from Michael. “My faith was really tested, but I’m at the age now I know there’s a God. Can’t nobody change my mind on that. He said He’ll never leave me, nor forsake me. And I believe Him.”

I watched Tan’s efforts to hold on to hope, the way he walked around the empty buildings with a determined lumbering gait. Two middle-aged tourists in an SUV with a kayak strapped to the roof stopped next to Tan’s shop and asked if it was open. He shook his head and smiled. “Soon,” he said, a word that seemed vaguer and broader than usual in the aftermath of a hurricane and spoken in defiance of all he’d lost.

After the Winter Thaw, Flooding Devastated the Midwest

There’s a relentlessness now to climate-driven calamity, with just weeks often elapsing after one disaster before some other part of the country gets chewed up. While Anna Belle and I were in Florida in March, reporting on the devastation that was still evident six months after Hurricane Michael, a new catastrophe was unfolding in the Midwest: intense rainfall and a rapid thaw leading to catastrophic flooding in South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.

We flew out to the Midwest where the Missouri River breached levees in multiple places, scouring farmland and dumping tons of cornstalks and corn cobs, logs and sand in homes miles from its banks. Locals blamed the flooding on the federal government’s mismanagement of dams and levees, but that wasn’t the whole story. Extreme weather brought those structures to a breaking point. An unusually wet year that culminated in a bitterly cold winter had frozen the earth and the rivers several feet deep. When the rain and thaw came, all the excess water ran off into rivers and creeks. They jumped their banks and drove ice chunks as big as semi-trucks into pastures filled with cattle, and into businesses and homes. 

In Nebraska, the flooding destroyed a dam, washed away bridges and roads, and drastically changed the contours of waterways. In Iowa and Missouri, dozens of levee breaches allowed the Missouri River to spread miles from its banks. The flood also remade many people’s lives, taking their homes, their animals, and the sense of security they cherished amid their quiet farmland. 

Just as the people in Butte County thought they knew wildfire, Louis Byford of Corning, Missouri, hoped the flood would be like the others. “We could come in, clean up and put our lives back together as best we can and go on. In five years, you can’t hardly tell there was a flood. Other than up here, you know,” he said, tapping his forehead. 

It hadn’t worked out that way. Byford, a flinty man with a bushy white beard beneath a camouflage hunting cap, stood on the front lawn of his gutted, white, wood-frame home. Half his belongings were heaped in a sodden pile out front as the wind blew ripples on the receding water in the side yard. He saw it all as part of God’s plan, not something caused by man-made carbon emissions warming earth’s atmosphere.

“Man-made climate change: I think that’s horseshit. I really do,” he said. “There’s been changes taking place since God created earth. 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. He’s been living in Corning for 49 years and isn’t going anywhere. That much is clear. “I live here, this is my home,” he said. “And I’m going to continue to live here.” 

His wife, though, is done. She’s had enough. She’s lost whatever fortitude she’d had for coming back and starting over. “Where does that leave me?” Byford asked. “I told you I’m a determined man. My gift is compassion and patience. I may be a bachelor living here. It’s a burden that I can’t get rid of, every day.”

Top photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images