How ‘Climate Migrants’ Are Roiling American Politics
Nov 27, 2021 2 mins, 44 secs
Residents drive through a flooded road after the passing of Hurricane Maria, in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, in September 2017.

A fast-growing Orlando suburb of 80,000 people, Kissimmee saw its Puerto Rican population grow substantially after the damage wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017 prompted many struggling families to leave the island for Florida.

Osceola County, where Kissimmee is located, and neighboring Orange County saw their combined Puerto Rican population jump more than 12 percent.

served as a reintroduction of the Puerto Rican population into Central Florida,” said Fernando Rivera, director of the Puerto Rico Research Hub at the University of Central Florida.

The concept of climate migration — population shifts forced by destructive weather changes — has been studied for years.

But experts are saying it’s happening in subtler ways already, forcing people to make moves as dramatic as the influx of Puerto Ricans to central Florida and as mundane as people in tidewater Virginia choosing one county over another to live in to avoid a possible flood plain.

Tracking the path of climate migration can be harder than tracking a storm.

But they’ve been able to piece together enough data to conclude that climate migration is already driving population change.

“What we can say is that while the number of people moving because of environmental disasters is small, it is growing and it is responding to disaster events,” said Elizabeth Fussell, associate professor of population studies and environment and society at Brown University.

Like those in Hampton Roads and Virginia Beach, most people who move out of a fear of climate change try to remain close to their former homes, researchers said.

“The level of damage caused routinely [by fire] is just radically different than it was even like five or six years ago,” McConnell said.

Many residents in the area haven’t been receptive, McConnell said?

Researchers following the mass of people who fled Puerto Rico for central Florida in the wake of Hurricane Maria said there’s been little evidence of any backlash directed at the newcomers.

mainland, according to data compiled by the University of Central Florida’s Puerto Rico Research Hub.

The population shift after Hurricane Maria was enough to catapult Florida past New York as the state hosting the largest number of former island residents, said Rivera, of the Puerto Rico Research Hub.

We need the Puerto Rican vote,’” Rivera said.

The Puerto Ricans who decided to stay in Florida permanently are now starting to flex their own political muscles, Rivera added.

“So now in places like Osceola County, you have more representation, you have a Puerto Rican mayor, you have the first chair that is Puerto Rican in Orange County, you have school board leaders that are being elected,” he said.

The steady flow of newcomers has stressed the region’s already outdated infrastructure, putting some new political issues on the region’s agenda, said Carlos Torrealba, climate justice program manager at Central Florida Jobs with Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for workers’ rights.

“You come here, you get relocated because of climate change, and then it’s shitty because of pay and lack of benefits,” Torrealba said.

While there, she became more interested in the issue of climate change, she said

Their purpose, she said, was to raise the issue of climate migration

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