Our team gathered around a conference table in Brooklyn on the second Tuesday after New Year’s Day in 2019, the temperature outside just above freezing, and circled our heads around a central question of our time: How do we explain the accelerating extreme weather events and disasters striking every part of the country?
We could see the pattern. A disaster strikes. The news reaches every home for a few days, perhaps a week. A debate erupts over whether climate change is to blame. Victims are profiled. There’s a tally of lives lost and property destroyed, and then the disaster is forgotten.
But by connecting the dots, we could discern the contours of a very big story hiding in plain sight: Tens of thousands of Americans whose lives had already been upended by climate-related disaster. Or was it hundreds of thousands? Or millions? In thirty years, would there be tens of millions?
To help us make an approach to unimaginable catastrophe, we had begun the project in an unusual way, each of us on our own watching all nine hours of Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 magnum opus on the Holocaust. Lanzmann’s methods were intriguing—in particular, his decision not to use a single frame of archival footage. He refused to exploit the pornography of genocide. Instead, he built his film around long interviews with people you have never heard of—survivors, witnesses, even perpetrators—seen in the vulnerable act of unpacking their memories. You hear their spoken words, and your mind supplies the moving images. The past becomes continuously present with every watching.
Could we, too, transpose time, I asked, and make the future of climate change a present reality?
It was a strange assignment—report on the future?—and a tall order. Lanzmann took eleven years to make his film. Given the climate crisis, who could afford that kind of time? We talked for hours about Shoah, and about every climate-related disaster we could remember, about attribution science, about weather data, about schedules and logistics. The terrain before us was enormous.
Two recent disasters rose to the top of the list—a massive wildfire and a Category 5 hurricane, separated by a continent. So in February, Anna Belle Peevey, our videographer, and Neela Banerjee, our senior investigative correspondent, set off for Butte County, California, where the Camp Fire had incinerated almost the entire town of Paradise and killed 85 people . A few weeks later, in mid-March, they traveled to the Florida Panhandle to talk to survivors of Hurricane Michael, whose 15-foot storm surge and 160 mile-per-hour winds erased most of the village of Mexico Beach. While they were still reporting in Florida, historic flooding tore through the northern Great Plains. So off they went in April to Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.
They found places erased in ways implausible for a rich nation: a fire turning a California town to fields of ash, a hurricane smashing a Florida hamlet into splinters, and floods leaving in their wake sodden roadside berms piled high with mattresses, furniture, clothing, television sets and carpet. And in all these places, rising from the devastation, billboards advertising disaster relief and insurance claims.
Anna Belle and Neela spent more than a week in each of these communities struck by calamity and interviewed dozens of survivors, often for hours at a time. Even though the three catastrophes were wildly different, flung across varied landscapes, they saw that Americans share sobering commonalities once their lives are undone by disaster.
For one thing, men and women talked of the disasters using the same words — “like bombs going off,” they said. For another, they were astonished at how quickly their communities had been utterly destroyed, often in just a matter of hours.
Anna Belle and Neela also found that the people of these disasters are now bound together by emotions uncharacteristic of the American dream. They are steeped in loss rather than abundance. They are beset by uncertainty and confusion rather than hope. From their safe havens they were forced to flee wildfire, hurricane winds and rising floodwaters. Neighbors, friends and family left and didn’t come back because they feared the catastrophes would repeat. Their communities will never be the same.
On a white board in our office, there’s still an initial list of places Anna Belle and Neela were going to visit. They weren’t able to go to most of them, and as time passed, new disasters kept arriving, making the list longer and longer. We came to realize that American Climate could not be turned into a project with an ending.
We put together the essential elements to start the storytelling—videos, essays, science, data—and an open invitation to other people and other news outlets to continue the conversation and help us face the future that’s already here.
David Sassoon, Publisher