(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:
Cancun is at the intersection of extractive capitalism and the climate emergency
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:
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.
Another resident of Cancun, Alonzo Falconi, was also concerned he didn’t have enough time to prepare for the storm.
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:
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.