Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 hurricane, hits Puerto Rico. In Buffalo, New York, people watching the news felt uneasy. Many had loved ones on the island, and many spent time on the island.
When the storm made landfall on September 20, 2017, the damage was devastating. About 3,000 people were killed, some estimates say more, and the total damage in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands totaled about $90 billion. Virtually all of Puerto Rico had no electricity or cell phones, and many areas lacked clean water. I didn’t know it at the time, but as of the end of 2017, half of the island’s residents still had no electricity.
Buffalo area leaders came together to develop a plan. The Western New York Hispanic Heritage Council is one of the leading organizations, working with the city, faith-based groups, veterans’ organizations, media outlets and even theater companies to help.
In addition to collecting funds and supplies to send to Puerto Rico, residents opened their arms to welcome hurricane survivors home. The community banded together to help people find apartments, pay rent and security deposits, and provide new residents with “Fresh Start Kits” containing everything they needed for their new homes, from pots and blankets to curtains. They helped employ people 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, and food.
“This was a very difficult undertaking and a challenge, but various local organizations worked together to do everything in their power to help the family overcome the trauma of living as an evacuee. [homeland] I sought refuge because I had lost everything,” says Casimiro Rodriguez Sr., honorary president and founder of the Western New York State Hispanic Heritage Council.
According to one estimate cited in a Buffalo News article, a total of about 5,000 people from Puerto Rico came to the area in the aftermath of the storm, joining an already strong Puerto Rican community of 35,000.
More people will migrate to escape climate change
As climate-driven hurricanes, wildfires, and other climate-related disasters intensify, climate change is of growing concern to communities and researchers. According to a 2021 World Bank report, more than 216 million people worldwide could be displaced by climate change by 2050. By 2100, sea level rise alone could displace 13 million US residents.
The topic of climate change leads to many questions, ranging from “Where will people go?” “How can communities prepare for new residents?” As researchers grapple with the scale of climate change and study potential migration patterns and implications for social justice, many are asking questions like, “What does home mean?” “What does it mean to be born in one place and live there?” Uprooting and moving to another place is often not an easy choice.
After Hurricane Maria, some of the Puerto Ricans who moved to Buffalo eventually returned to the islands, but many remained in western New York. After decades of population decline in the Buffalo area, the new influx was a boon in many ways. The 2020 Census reveals Buffalo’s population growth for the first time in 70 years. The surge in new residents has also helped create an even more vibrant community, working together in everything from Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations to exhibits at local children’s museums showcasing the culture and life of different nations, to local resources and services.
“I think that, of course, affects all the elements, the work, the culture, the way we do things in a positive way,” says Esmeralda Sierra, president of the Hispanic Heritage Council in Western New York. Sierra, who is from Puerto Rico and has many families on the island, notes that many new businesses, especially restaurants, have sprung up in the area.
“They are now part of the fabric of western New York,” says Rodriguez. “They live and work at home, take care of their families and, in some cases, help those who choose to remain in their hometowns.”
Future plans for the Great Lakes region
Many Puerto Ricans moved to Buffalo because their families were in the area, but the entire Great Lakes region has recently received media attention as a potential climate reserve. The Great Lakes region includes his eight US states, including New York, and Ontario, Canada. While some perceive the region to be less affected by climate change than others, others believe that it is not a climate utopia being portrayed. Case in point: In the summer of 2023, wildfire smoke from the Canadian wildfires blanketed parts of the area.
“We also have to think about the challenges that climate change will face,” says Derek Van Berkel, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. “Our city is not invincible.”
However, the region is not as susceptible to climate-related disasters as some parts of the country facing hurricanes, massive wildfires and rising sea levels, and has abundant water, as well as amenities such as beaches and nature.
Van Berkel and colleagues recently published an article in the scientific journal Earth’s Future examining the Great Lakes region and how its communities want to begin planning for the potential influx of new residents. “While we do not know if people will come, how many will come, who will come, and where they will settle, it is important that communities in the Great Lakes region prepare and plan for a potential future that includes new residents,” the authors write. Working towards a just and sustainable future, they said, “will increase opportunities for both those who come to the Great Lakes region and those who currently live in it.”
The Great Lakes Climate Adaptation Network was established in 2015 and includes many regional partners working to address climate challenges in the region. Van Berkel’s work includes planning for the future using web-based tools, models, and scenarios.
In the summer of 2023, Van Berkel and colleagues are working with planners and urban experts to develop a land change model.
Van Berkel describes his modeling as a city simulation video game. He’s a “sim city driven by the city’s actual urban form,” addressing questions like “What would happen if 250,000 people came to your city?” What would happen if 25,000 people came to your city?” This simulation his model focuses on the different options people can live in, from dense urban areas to suburbs, while also addressing challenges related to infrastructure and other factors.
Researchers stress the importance of focusing on addressing current inequalities and considering future inequalities when focusing on climate change. The authors write, “If migration is treated not as a disaster but as an adaptation strategy embedded in community climate change responses and planning, there are ways such efforts can produce more desirable and equitable outcomes for both current and potential future populations.”
However, potential migration can lead to different impacts, and the authors point out that learning more about potential climate change, such as running different scenarios, could be helpful. Analyzing these possibilities is important to avoid exacerbating current inequalities. One way she works towards this goal is to ensure that all stakeholders have the opportunity to participate in the conversation.
Back in Buffalo, Sierra says from her experience that it’s important to plan ahead, prepare for natural disasters, and make the right adjustments in advance. “I hope this is in some ways an example of how we can work together and support our fellow citizens,” she said. “We need to continue our dialogue to prepare for what may happen in the future.”