Hurricane Delta at the human scale (with interviews from Cancun and Lake Charles)
(Welcome everyone, this is my first “real” post at The Phoenix! So happy you’re here with me.)
Hurricane Delta is just hours away from landfall in southern Louisiana.
When it hits, Delta will be the record-setting 10th named storm to make landfall in the mainland United States in a single year, the record-setting 5th named storm to hit Louisiana, and the 2nd major hurricane (Category 3+) to hit the city of Lake Charles in the past six weeks. (Hurricane Laura made landfall on August 27th.)
But beyond those headlines and statistics, there are hundreds of thousands of real people whose lives will be changed forever by this storm.
Earlier this week, Delta hit Cancun, Mexico at roughly the same strength it will hit Louisiana today. Over the past few days, I’ve spoken with people in Cancun and in Lake Charles, asking them what they’re going through this week, how their lives have been changed by these devastating storms, and what kind of world they’re working to build.
Today’s post will help tell these incredibly personal stories about what it’s like to be on the front lines of climate change.
Hurricane Delta is a product of centuries of white supremacy and extractive capitalism
Hurricane Delta is a perfect example of the intersectional nature of the climate emergency, and how decisions over hundreds of years led up to acute tragedy for people and their families this week.
The back-to-back landfall of Laura and Delta is an incredibly tragic example of what Mary Heglar calls a “crisis conglomeration” – the trauma upon trauma that the climate emergency afflicts on the people who did the least to cause it. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened – Cyclone Idai and Cyclone Kenneth hit Mozambique about six weeks apart in 2019 – and it won’t be the last.
For hundreds of years, white settlers have colonized and forcibly displaced Indigenous people in the Americas, practicing extractive capitalism and accelerationist exploitation of fossil fuels and the natural world to make themselves rich. Carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at any point in Earth’s history over the past 23 million years. The oceans are storing most of the heat that’s trapped by that extra carbon dioxide, and day-by-day, that heat is being stored and circulated throughout the climate system, where it will linger for hundreds of years.
This week, the swirl of clouds that became Hurricane Delta passed over some of the warmest waters on the planet, in the Western Caribbean between Jamaica and the Yucatan Peninsula. Water that warm provides explosive fuel for thunderstorms, and warmer air can hold exponentially more water vapor, creating a cascading effect that makes thunderstorms even stronger. In that environment, Hurricane Delta strengthened at the fastest rate in history for a storm so soon after its formation.
Just hours before its landfall near Cancun, Mexico, Delta became the first storm in recorded history to rapidly strengthen from tropical depression (less than 30 mph winds) to Category 4 (greater than 130 mph winds) in about 30 hours. It’s not a stretch to say that Hurricane Delta was directly fuelled by centuries worth of injustice.
Lake Charles is at the frontlines of climate change
Lake Charles, Louisiana is a “majority minority” city of about 200,000 people, and a working-class hub of the fossil fuel industry’s natural gas export business on the Gulf Coast. When Hurricane Laura hit in August, it brought an “unsurvivable” storm surge, tore off the roof of almost every home in the region, and ignited a toxic chemical fire that spewed chlorine gas across the city. It also hit during the middle of a pandemic, a racial uprising, and the most acute economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Laura was Louisiana’s worst hurricane since Katrina and the state’s strongest hurricane landfall in history. Still, with everything else going on (and the fact that the storm didn’t hit a well-known tourist city) the national media was almost silent. In the week after Laura struck, it was covered only 93 times on all major TV networks combined. Just once was climate change mentioned.
Before 2020, in all of recorded history (since 1851), only four hurricanes as strong as Laura had hit the Lake Charles area. Then came Laura. And now, Hurricane Delta.
Lake Charles is going through a lot rn
(Here’s a list of organizations who are conducting relief efforts in Lake Charles.)
Before its landfall in August, Hurricane Laura broke the all-time record for the fastest-intensifying hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, strengthening from a Category 1 to a strong Category 4 in less than 24 hours.
Damage sustained during Laura was immense and it has absolutely not gotten better in the past six weeks.
About 75% of the homes in Lake Charles don’t have a functional roof right now (that’s what those blue tarps are in the video below). Piles of debris – the remnants of people’s livelihoods – are neatly stacked, waiting to be hauled off. Delta’s winds are sure to scatter them again, creating additional danger and a sense of futility during an incredibly hard time.
I spoke with three people last night in Lake Charles about what it feels like there right now:
Well it’s pretty discouraging, a large portion of the city is still displaced or waiting on their utilities to come back on. All of the hard work people are doing to rebuild their homes may get completely destroyed by Hurricane Delta. Combine that with the fact that prior to the storm, COVID-19 has left a lot of people without steady employment. Insurance hasn’t helped...Financially, it’s a huge burden for most families.
My family home is under construction still, myself and the rest of my family have been displaced for over a month now. I’m lucky enough to still have my job, so I’ve been working remotely. I’ve been hotel hopping a bit - back and forth from Houston to Jennings, La. The first few weeks were rough bc hotels were booked up until October, so we just moved whenever there were vacancies. I’m working out of coffee shops and hotel lobbies, so basically anywhere with good wifi. My family is all safe as well, but it’s just exhausting all around.
- Kayla Semien, graphic designer
One word— exhausted. We are fatigued. 6 weeks was the perfect amount of time for most of us to make our homes somewhat livable, or to find a new place to live, and to try to begin a routine again. Now we can throw that all out the window. My roof was fixed last night. Debris picked up on my street a few days ago (I’m one of the lucky ones). I moved back two weeks ago on Saturday. Evacuated for 4 weeks. Came back to work last Monday... started a new routine. Now it seems like all the hard work we accomplished is ruined. The debris + wind is going to be what gets most of us. I have several windows in my house that were thankfully saved from Laura because of a nearby fence (that’s now destroyed). Now, I really don’t think they will survive this storm. There’s just so much surrounding our homes.. most of it neatly piled up. Trees, furniture, roofs, you name it and it’s in our front lawns and will likely be in our neighbors living room come Friday night. It’s just exhausting. I know so many people who are considering leaving for good.
- Kathryn Shea Duncan
I was in Baton Rouge & came home to Lake Charles to visit family, we were planning on staying out when we thought we were just getting rain then we heard that the hurricane changed course & was headed to Lake Charles so we immediately evacuated West.
I feel like we’ve already lost everything from Laura & at that time we already weren’t receiving enough coverage so this tike I’m hoping a second hurricane will open the eyes of the media, & allow them to see that we aren’t just “little Lake Charles” we go through worse predicaments than larger cities.
2020 as a whole has been both a financial blessing and very overwhelming with a new tragedy every.single.day. My family is strong & we can get through anything. 2020 has torn us apart as individuals but it’s definitely brought us closer together as a family. In summary, we’re just tired. Tired of 2020.
What the media has covered so far about Lake Charles does NO justice because of all the videos & reports it is most definitely worse in person. There is so much debris & blue tarps, it is truly tear jerking.
- Jayden McDade
Cancun is at the intersection of extractive capitalism and the climate emergency
(Donate to support the Rainforest Alliance’s work with ejidos in the Yucatan or directly to the communities themselves.)
Scientists worry that the trend toward rapid intensification fuelled by climate warming is making hurricanes harder to predict and much more dangerous. That happened this week in Cancun.
Just a few days before Hurricane Delta, Tropical Storm Gamma hit the same region just shy of hurricane force, bringing flooding rains.
Because Hurricane Delta strengthened so quickly, people in Cancun had only a few hours to prepare for landfall this week. Shops were closed with little warning, and local families were forced to make due as best as they could while much of the media focus was on getting tourists to safety.
Over the past 40 years, the population of the Cancun metro area has increased 40-fold. Nearly 1 million people now live in the region that Mexico’s government hand-picked and built as a destination for US tourists. That explosive economic growth has come at the expense of the local ecosystems and has fostered an extractive neocolonial relationship between wealthy foreigners and working class Mexicans.
This year, during the coronavirus pandemic, Cancun’s international airport was one of the first in the world to re-open to Americans, but not before tens of thousands of people lost their jobs and the local economy was devastated.
I spoke with Elena Ríos, who lives across Mexico in Hermosillo, Sonora and whose dad, Miguel Arturo Ríos, lives near Cancun:
(translated from Spanish)
My dad took the time to talk to me and tell me that he’s okay, that even if the news looks very bad, that I shouldn’t worry. Right now I spoke to him again and they are covering the windows. They have water, food and a generator. I think that I am not worried because I have not seen the news.
My dad has a little house in Puerto Morelos and he says he can't do anything to take care of it. They still haven't recovered from the pandemic and now this.
My dad doesn't work for health reasons, his wife works for a brand of yachts, motors and that kind of thing. The yacht industry isn’t doing very well this year as you might imagine.
Hours before Delta made landfall in Mexico, the government voted to raid the nation’s disaster preparedness fund for extra money to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Ríos expressed dismay at this decision, and also at the government’s decision to go ahead with building of the Maya Train over the objections of Indigenous people in the region, in an effort to expand tourism on the coast and further dispossess native people.
Hurricane Delta was the region’s worst hurricane since 2005’s Hurricane Wilma, so people who have recently moved to the region, like Rubén Omar Del Angel, a landscaper working in condos who I spoke with earlier this week, had no experience with storms like this before.
The whole city is closed, all the shops, nothing is open. Today in the morning there was a bit of panic because it was a very short time that the news of the hurricane was released and people made quick purchases.
Personally I am waiting for it to be my first hurricane, I just moved here 3 years ago. For now I do not have a job because of the covid 19 but I just hope that it does not affect so much or decrease its strength so that there are no more job shortages.
Another resident of Cancun, Alonzo Falconi, was also concerned he didn’t have enough time to prepare for the storm.
(translated from Spanish)
Right now it is quiet, there is little wind and it is not raining, a few hours ago it was raining a little hard! In the city there was total chaos! Everyone buying food, gas, gasoline! Many were unable to buy food, gas or fuel! All shopping centers closed at 5pm.
Tourists and low-income people are being taken to hostels in the city. I think they are doing a good job at it, but there are many people who could not buy food.
As Delta made landfall that night, Alonzo sent me these messages:
People in Lake Charles and Cancun are working towards a better world
I asked the folks I spoke with about what their vision of a better future would be, for Lake Charles and Cancun, for the United States and Mexico, and for the world:
Our coastline is disappearing rapidly, Louisiana is technically no longer shaped like a boot. The hotter it gets, the worse the effects of the hurricanes/floods..which in turn is driving out most of our La. natives. If we keep going at the rate we’re going, our population will decrease significantly and it won’t be “home” anymore. The people are really what makes Louisiana so unique. We could do better as individuals, but ultimately it’s up to the billion dollar corporations to care enough about us to ignite change. It starts at the top.
As far as the future, there’s a huge disconnect between the people in our country. History seems to be repeating itself. Our working class has been failed by poor leadership in a global pandemic. Black and brown communities are working twice as hard to survive right now due to discrimination in our healthcare system, the justice system, education and overall daily lives. People are literally begging for basic human rights in 2020. I would say it’s leaving me discouraged as well, but our next generation of leaders is going to be so educated and powerful. I’d like 10 years from now to look like...Unity. I’d like to look back on 2020 and say “wow, that really happened and we survived it and we’ve changed so much because of it.” Not, “here we go again.”
- Kayla Semien, graphic designer
I hope everything improves, that we raise awareness and we can help the planet. I would like that they no longer cut down so many trees or fauna. I also hope to find a job soon and have stability.
- Rubén Omar Del Angel, landscaper
I hope that Lake Charles, and Calcasieu Parish as a whole, will embrace meaningful, innovate change. I’d like to see a greener, more eco-friendly city. Our infrastructure already needed tons of work before Laura and Delta, and here’s our time to think outside of the box and reinvent what could be. I would love to see fiber internet throughout the city. Internet is something we lack so badly, mainly because one of our internet providers who basically has a monopoly on the city (SuddenLink) has left us stranded. I would love to see more lakefront development— we already have a few things planned and I hope these storms don’t halt those projects. If we want this city to thrive and grow in the next 10 years and beyond, we need to appeal better to my generation (millennials) and those coming after me. We are more concerned about health and environmental issues than those before us and we need a city that reflects those needs. And, of course, since I’m in tourism— I think we could really use more locally-owned restaurants and eateries. I think, in some ways, this could be our time to rebuild better than it was before. I believe in our Mayor to lead us into a new Lake Charles. A Lake Charles 2.0. We have the potential to achieve all of this. I do believe that.
- Kathryn Shea Duncan
I think we ourselves are going off a cliff. We have no respect for Nature. I believe that all this is the consequences of our actions and of the corruption that prevails in Mexico and the world. Our leaders prioritize the interests of a few and misfortune for many. It's very alarming. You cannot think of a future if there is no consciousness in the present.
For starters, there should be better decisions from those who represent us in Congress and better leaders.
- Elena Ríos
Climate change is a very serious issue that effects all walks of life & all living organisms big and small. It’s an issue that isn’t talked about often enough. Something needs to be done ASAP. That’s why I am going into Biology, because I want to change the conversation.
In 10 years, I don’t want Lake Charles to be perfect, I just want the Lake Charles I grew up with. After the hurricanes & the racial uprising I want my home. That’s it. That’s all.
- Jayden McDade
I think Jayden’s words here are so important. All any of us want is a home, a safe place where we can thrive with the people we love the most. And we can all work together to make that dream a reality.