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Climate Refugee: An old term gaining in popularity as extreme weather changes how people live

Ft. Myers church continues to rebuild after Ian
Damage from Hurricane Ian in Southwest Florida.
Posted at 5:32 AM, Jan 30, 2023

LEE COUNTY, Fla. — No one wants to become a climate refugee. But, recent survivors of Hurricane Ian tell ABC Action News that is what they've now become.

A climate refugee is "a person who has been forced to leave their home as a result of the effects of climate change on their environment," Oxford Dictionary.

On Sept. 28, Hurricane Ian made landfall near Cayo Costa in southwestern Florida as a dangerous, high-end Category 4 storm. Winds and storm surges wiped parts of Ft. Myers Beach off the face of the Earth.

"What's life been like for you since the storm?" ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska asked Ken Cook.

"You're just kind of in a funk," Cook responded. "You don't know what to do, and you don't know where to go."

We interviewed Cook on a crisp morning at Southwest Baptist Church in Ft. Myers. The sky was piercing blue with not a single cloud. In the Fellowship Hall, surrounded by exposed electrical wires and walls ripped to the studs, Cook recounted his harrowing story of survival.

"We were gonna leave, then the eye of the storm was right on us," Cook said. "And, we looked out the window, and it was already raising water coming down the road. So we were just stuck, and we knew we had to stay. So I had a saw, I had a battery operated saw up in the attic once the water started coming up on the cars and pool floats, lifejacket, rope to tie my wife and me together; lights and food water went up in the attic and literally watched the water come up in our garage."

Cook never had to cut through the roof to safety, but the water took everything he owned.

"What's it like to be a climate refugee now?" Paluska asked.

"It is like being a refugee," Cook said. "It can happen to anybody, whether it's a river next to you; like I said, we're three miles inland. We're not right on the beach. A lot of people think of people losing houses. They lost their home because they were living on the beach. No. We're in the city. So it was very, very unexpected."

"Do you feel differently about weather and climate and what we're dealing with?" Paluska asked.

"I know that the world is warming," Cook said. "My concern is will everybody follow along? I mean, you know, if America does what they're supposed to do, then will other countries follow along? And then they weren't? Well, we'll still be in the same boat."

Cook is luckier than most. While he waits for his home to get repaired, he is renting month-to-month nearby. But, for other parishioners, their retirements in paradise are over.

"From what we can tell, as of now, between 80 and 90 members are gone, they're gone," Associate Pastor Stephen Kasten said.

Kasten said the church was severely damaged in the storm. Repair costs exceed a million dollars. In addition, the church's steeple was ripped off during Ian, the sanctuary flooded, and the pressure from the winds damaged all of the windows. For Kasten, life hasn't been the same.

"It's very unreal; it's a thing where you can't understand the feelings. It's because your heart goes out, and you wish you had the money and the effort to help them rebuild. But just the church here alone, you know, is what we must do to rebuild."

Many parishioners didn't have flood insurance or were dropped by their providers in the months before the storm.

"What is the feeling that you get from those folks?" Paluska asked.

"Devastation. They worked all their life to move down here," Kasten said. "This church, they say, was their family, their friends, it was, you know, their fellowship, everything was done here at the church. And they lost their home; I just can think of one family. She was such a big help to the church. And now she's up in Kentucky cold, and you know, they're not happy there."

"Do you worry about them being able to live the life they should have lived in retirement? Do you worry about their mental health?" Paluska asked.

"That's why I try to keep in contact with them as much as I can," Kasten said. "They weren't just members of the church. They were family. You know, they were loved. And losing them is just a devastating thing. And my prayer is always that somehow they are safe, that they have a place that they can find to because you can have a home wherever you are. But can you accept it? Can you live there and be satisfied with the situation? And that's my prayer that the Lord will give them new friendships, help them find a new church that they can get involved in, and do the same ministries and different things that they did here. That was such a huge help for us here at this church."

When the steeple ripped off the sanctuary's roof, more than a dozen people were hunkered inside. Edelgard Frazee heard the boom and looked up to see the heavens above.

"Well, we laughed, we cried. There were 17 of us in there," Frazee said. "I know some people said, how can you be so calm? I said I know who to trust. I wasn't nervous. I wasn't afraid."

Frazee doesn't own a smartphone, so with her old-school point-and-click digital camera, she went outside and began documenting the storm.

"And I love to take pictures. So I was out front because the trees were bending, I figured I'd take a picture. By that time, we had about three feet of water," Frazee said. "And this man came floating down the driveway, I mean, just fighting the waves. And so he finally got to our little sign. And I just kind of reached out and helped him up. I mean, he could have made it. And, so the water kept coming up and up and up until we had five inches of water in the church."

"How difficult has this been for the church for your friends that have had to leave?" Paluska asked.

"Very difficult," Frazee said. "I talked to a friend just yesterday, and she said oh, I wish we were down there. But their house got moved off the foundation, they lost everything, their house, their car, and we've lost a lot of people that will not be moving back down. Yeah. Which is a shame because we love a loving church."

According to a report by Zurich Insurance Group, "there could be 1.2 billion climate refugees by 2050."

"That term will be much more popular in the near future because of the climate change crisis," Dr. Feng Hao, Associate Professor of Sociology at USF, said.

Dr. Hao studies how human activities are leading to climate change and what the social and economic impacts are on humanity.

"Are you extremely worried about the future? Given the research you do?" Paluska asked.

"Well, personally, yes, I'm worried about the climate crisis," Dr. Hao said. "And when I teach you the courses about climate change and environmental sociology, I try to connect the knowledge in the book with what happened. In reality, you say you see climate change in terms of the book, but you also see the impact of your real life, right? You see the hurricane; you see that damage; you see Hurricane Ian and the people who lost power for weeks. So those are the real consequences of climate change, not only something you wanted to read in the book."

According to the Red Cross, just for Hurricanes Ian and Nicole, the disaster team provided more than 60,000 overnight stays for more than 6,800 residents across 85 emergency shelters. But, Dr. Hao said globally, the numbers are much higher.

"The number is about 20 million (climate refugees) annually, but that number is definitely underestimated. More than a billion people by, say, 2050 because of climate change events, they had to have to leave, abandoned their homeland," Dr. Hao said.

"What do we do with a billion people fleeing one place and going into another?" Paluska responded.

"Well, that's a very, very challenging assignment for any nation for any government. How do you relocate those many people and provide them with basic living conditions? So that will be challenging," Dr. Hao said.

The long-term impacts of Hurricane Ian and Nicole will be felt through generations. And, for many senior citizens, there must be more money to help everyone rebuild.

"If a senior citizen becomes a climate refugee, they need triple the amount of help that maybe someone such as myself that works every day would need," Paluska asked Erin McLeod, President, and CEO of Senior Friendship Centers.

"Right, exactly. So you have the capacity to bring in income," McLeod said.

"And in this storm, they feel like they've been forgotten. I mean, we see the debris and the destruction, but how much do you need now for your nonprofit to help them?" Paluska asked.

"You hit the nail on the head there," McLeod said. "Because they're very invisible, a very invisible segment of the population, once they stop being viewed as contributors to, you know, the community. They're very marginalized. And as a result, they don't really get their fair share of support or resources. But I always remind everybody they're still paying into the system. They're still paying taxes. And they've contributed to the community for many, many decades."

The nonprofit serves Southwest Florida. McLeod said many of their members lost everything during Hurricane Ian. As a result, McLeod noted many of their members moved away.

"When those people evacuated at the last minute, they evacuated them to Kissimmee with one suitcase. Imagine you're told you have two hours to put whatever you want in one suitcase. Let's go; everybody gets on the bus," McLeod said. "When they came back, the whole building was demolished. So it was their whole life was in that apartment. And all they had was the suitcase in their hand. So for a lot of those folks, they've been displaced. We're going to try to help them, you know, settle back into some sort of living arrangement.

The reality of what their employees witnessed also impacted their employees who went above and beyond during the storm.

"We even had a staff member down in Fort Myers that got a call from one of our guiding clients, the person that would come in and have lunch every day. And this woman called, and then the phone stopped working. So she looked up the address and drove to the woman's house. The woman was sitting in a plastic chair in the middle of her flooded living room with a dead cell phone."

As parishioners file into church, there is one thing they are all grateful for — their faith. One thing the storm couldn't wash away.

"How important is that connection to keep that Sunday service? And what is it like now when people come in, and they're able to pray and see progress? What does that feeling give you?" Paluska asked Kasten.

"Hope. It is showing that there's another day that we've survived, we're rebuilding, and that there is a future, the first service that we had here was unbelievable. The tears and the joy of just being able to meet, people were ecstatic that we did that it was a little uncomfortable, it was a little smelly, because of the fish and all that stuff that were out there, it smelled bad here, and just to have a place to come and worship was an amazing experience. It's funny all the things we saved here at the church and just seeing it destroyed. It's like we don't need stuff. All we need is people in the love of God to shine."