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Should I stay or should I go

My World's on Fire
Should I stay or should I go
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #43 • View online

Thanks for reading my World’s on Fire, a weekly newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you found this dispatch interesting, I hope you’ll subscribe!
ICYMI – I announced that this newsletter will be moving off of Substack, and I launched a Patreon for those interesting in supporting My World’s on Fire through this transition! Patreon subscribers will get their first ~exclusive~ post tomorrow, so now’s a great time to join for just $3/month. Not going to lie, I was pretty scared no one would sign up, so to those who already did/are about to click the button below, please know I am so incredibly grateful!
A few days back, the New York Times published an article about how the pandemic impacted where Americans moved in 2020. It’s an interesting read, particularly after months of hearing that my home state of California was on track to be deserted (TLDR: it’s really not). But there was a piece of context that seemed strangely absent in the section about which cities actually saw the largest shift of residents leaving. As investigative reporter Sam Karlin pointed out on Twitter:
Sam Karlin
NYT looked at postal service data (which has some limits) and finds Lake Charles, Louisiana had the biggest change in net out-migration in 2020. Unsurprising considering the horrific hurricane season the city experienced. #lalege #lagov
While the article details some of the reasons metros like San Francisco and New York City might have lost residents, such as the repercussions of remote work, it fails to provide that same level of analysis for Lake Charles. Like Karlin pointed out, there’s no mention of the two hurricanes that hit the city, just its name placed at the top of the “biggest change in net out-migration” column.
This post-disaster population loss isn’t unusual – after the 2018 Camp Fire destroyed much of Paradise, California, the neighboring city of Chico became the nation’s hottest housing market. Residents who had lost their homes and relocated to the town could sense the locals’ frustrations.
“Just be patient with us, and know that we won’t be – we’d love to go home if we could,” Shasta Hawkins, a Camp Fire survivor, told me for the BBC. “We’re doing the best that we can.”
More than two years after I filmed that interview, many Paradise residents still have not made it back, or at least not back into homes. This was a topic of concern in a recent Paradise Town Council meeting, as officials talked about the potential impact of the 2020 census. Undoubtedly, it will reflect a lower population than the previous count, which could cause the town’s funding to take a hit as it’s still in the thick of resiliency and rebuilding efforts. The conversation later shifted to regulations around the mobile homes many fire survivors still reside in. It turned into a heated exchange over how to regulate these units, with one official growing noticeably frustrated.
“I guess it’s nice to be really wealthy,” he finally said to the others sitting alongside him.
An empty lot with a “For Sale” sign in Paradise, California. March 2021
An empty lot with a “For Sale” sign in Paradise, California. March 2021
This issue, again, isn’t unusual – disasters in the U.S. are known to change the demographics of impacted areas. Grist recently reported on a survey that found 49% of respondents planning to move had been motivated by the “increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters” – a trend that some experts see as further disadvantaging lower-income populations:
“If people flock to the areas least impacted by climate change, prices in those communities will skyrocket because the homes are in higher demand, said Redfin’s chief economist Daryl Fairweather. That means lower-income individuals will increasingly only be able to afford property in areas plagued by dangerous climate risks.”
The Guardian offered an example of this in a feature this week on Hurricane Sandy recovery in Far Rockaway, calling it “climate gentrification:”
“As natural disasters grow more severe owing to the impacts of the climate crisis, there is mounting evidence in the US that while many white residents receive ample government help to rebuild and recover, some members of racial and ethnic minorities are instead being pushed out of places they once called home. Activists are warning that ‘climate gentrification’ in places like Far Rockaway is on the rise.”
Because it’s not just who chooses to move back, but who can move back after disasters – or who could even afford to leave in the first place. Those questions remain open-ended somewhere like Lake Charles, still fresh off dealing with a winter storm, but they’re also part of the conversation in Iowa. In Texas. In California. And it’s quite likely this summer will see a new slate of communities added to this list.
Earlier this week, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection hosted a webinar to help homeowners prepare for the upcoming wildfire season. While officials shared a number of practical tips, commenters began commiserating over the cost required to be “safe.” Then, one woman who was displaced by last summer’s wildfires spoke up, saying that as she sees it now, any one of these changes could have been enough to save her home – making them well-worth the price if you’re going to live in high-risk areas. 
Another commenter chimed in after her, adding that, from her perspective, disasters are pretty much a given now – something you’ll encounter wherever you go. Wildfires, at least, she’s familiar with.
Read more:
  • How “a disaster can redraw the map of which local real estate is most desirable,” with a focus on Austin, Texas following the winter freeze. (Curbed)
  • An important feature on the relationship between disasters and homelessness. (NBC News)
  • Also feels like a good time to revisit this earlier newsletter on the language around climate migration. (My World’s on Fire)
As always…
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Now, here’s a little something for reading to the end (this is a cool one – happy Earth Day everybody)!
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