In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy ripped through Long Island, destroying my family home.
The day before the storm hit, my parents and I crowded around the television as the newscasters announced the mandatory evacuation. “It’s probably just a precaution,” we told each other.
We decided we should be cautious, too, and my parents and I packed one small bag each. We planned to spend the night at my brother’s place in Harlem and come back the next day. I left everything as is. My car was parked in the driveway, my bedroom in the basement was filled with old journals, notes to past loves—all the small things one collects over life.
None of it stood a chance when the 1,000 mile-wide cyclone buried my block under six feet of water. Ten billion gallons of garbage, oil, and sewage surged through the streets and into the ocean. My father and I had placed a few sandbags around the base of our house before leaving. It’s ludicrous that we believed those tiny bags of sand could withstand the intensity of that storm. Those violent, surging waves spared nothing.
My parents and I lost nearly everything, but we were still lucky. We didn’t have socks or underwear, but we had couches to sleep on at my brother’s apartment in the city and we had working phones with WiFi. Both my parents are immigrants, but their status was intact and we knew there were options available to us that were impossible for others.
Because we spoke English and were passably tech-savvy, we could navigate the maze of links and online forms that made up the disaster relief loan network. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved fewer than half of the 262,000 disaster relief loans filed by people with nowhere left to turn. For many, the FEMA money covered just a fraction of the total cost. I took out thousands of dollars in loans just so we could sleep in one hotel one night, another the next.
Seven years later and I’m still paying off that debt. What about all the people who weren’t granted those loans, or who couldn’t apply? Hundreds of thousands of undocumented people live in New Jersey alone. In New York and New Jersey, one-third of rental units damaged by the storm belonged to people with a yearly income of $30,000 or less. Our vision of the aftermath is shaped by the people who made it through, but many have yet to recover.
When Hurricane Sandy hit, massive flooding destroyed at least 650,000 homes. More than 760,000 people were displaced in a matter of hours. Massive flooding destroyed senior homes, and hospitals; leveled child-care centers; and coursed through libraries and grocery stores.
When I first drove into Long Beach after the hurricane, it was like entering a war zone. There were military vehicles everywhere, and the National Guard was handing out pre-packaged military meals or MREs to big crowds of people. Most of the flooding had receded, but you could see the imprints of sand on every house you passed. The contents of whole houses were piled in rows along the side of the road, the entirety of people’s lives turned to embankments in the street.
This is not a scene from a post-apocalyptic blockbuster. This is all of our futures, and we are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet.
From those first few weeks as a climate refugee through to today, I’ve felt such a profound sense of loss, but also anger. This was no act of God. The storm and its consequences were a result of hundreds of years of industrial and economic policy. They were the violent products of a political and increasingly existential crisis—climate change.
I didn’t move on so much as I moved with it. This anger and loss is now part of my story. Eventually, I moved to a new house in New York City, and in 2015, moved out of the state to help local organizers and activists jump-start the Movement for Black Lives. To overcome the trauma, I threw myself into my work and the years went by.
But it all came rushing back to me vividly just last year, as I watched record flooding in my family’s homeland of Trinidad and Tobago. Massive rainfall forced towns to evacuate, and homes were submerged or wrecked by massive mudslides. I remember scrolling through Twitter and seeing photo after photo of Trinidadians completely flooded out of their homes.
Trinidad and Tobago are more than 2,000 miles away, but the devastation was the same. Whole communities were destroyed with little to nothing salvageable. Black and brown folks, low-income folks, people who couldn’t afford to storm-proof their homes. We got hit first, and we got hit hardest, but at the end of the day, the storm came for everyone, just like it came for everyone in Long Island and across much of the East Coast.
Make no mistake: climate change is coming for all of us, and it’s coming fast. We now know a great deal about what a warming planet will look like: rising seas, longer wildfire seasons, famine, drought, and even more frequent hurricanes like the one that upended my life seven years ago.
The United Nations estimates that one billion people could be forced to leave their homes due to sea level rise, drought, brutal heat, or political conflicts stemming from them by the middle of this century. By the end of this century, most of our coastal cities will be underwater. The type of heatwaves that killed tens of thousands in Russia in 2010 will be the “new normal.”
Those are terrifying thoughts, but we cannot let fear immobilize us. We must learn to feel those feelings and channel them into action. Whenever I’m tempted to give in to despair, I remember the resilience of my parents when their whole world was literally washed away. I remember what I did when I was left with the clothes on my back. I remember the fortitude and ingenuity reflected in the videos and reports of people wading through water in Trinidad, processing loss, but rising to the occasion.
And most of all, I remember this basic truth: The problems created by human beings and institutions can be solved by them.
There’s only one way to survive this climate crisis, and it’s by building a multiracial, cross-class movement—mutiracial populism—to fight the political, economic and social systems that created the crisis in the first place. Those systems even now prevent us from addressing what we’ve done to our world. We must have the courage to name the multibillion-dollar industries and corporations destroying our communities with environmental irresponsibility.
The countdown is real. Whether it’s 11 years or less, we have an increasingly finite window to unite hundreds of millions of Americans, across considerable differences, in a generational project of greening the earth for the good of the many, not the few.
We can’t wait for lawmakers who drag their feet to greenlight mere fractions of the funding it will take to fight this.
There is a real, strategic and immediate way we can fight this. There is world-saving legislation—a true Green New Deal—within our reach.
We are not powerless, and we must not be hopeless. From this day forward, we’ll need all the faith, fortitude, and political courage we can muster.
It is quite literally up to us to save the world.
Maurice Mitchell is national director of the Working Families Party and a senior fellow at Prism. You can follow him on Twitter @ciphersankofa.
This story is part one in a four-part series by the author. Check back soon to read the next segment on how white nationalists are responding to climate change, and stay tuned to make sure you don’t miss the final piece on how local organizing can help us save our planet.