Florida's Great Displacement has already begun

photo composite of aerial view of waves crashing onto a shore crowded with colorful umbrellas
Climate change is making disasters like hurricanes more devastating and frequent, and Floridians are already being forced to flee.Getty; Marianne Ayala/Insider

The state's climate exodus has already begun

As many residents will be proud to tell you, the thousand-odd islands that make up the Florida Keys are one of a kind: there is no other place in the world that boasts the same combination of geological, ecological, and sociological characteristics. The islands have a special, addictive quality about it, an air of freedom that leads people to turn their backs on mainland life.

The Keys are also the first flock of canaries in the coal mine of climate change. Over the past few years, the residents of these islands have been forced to confront a phenomenon that will affect millions of Americans before the end of the century. Their present calamity offers a glimpse of our national future.


Nature is changing. Today's hurricanes tend to be stronger, wetter, and less predictable than those of the last century. They hold more moisture, speed up more quickly, and stay together longer. It's difficult to tell for certain what role climate change plays in any individual storm, but in the case of Hurricane Irma — which slammed the Keys in September 2017 — there is little doubt that the warmth of the Caribbean Sea made the storm more powerful, allowing the vortex to regain strength overnight as it barreled toward the islands. As global warming continues to ratchet up the temperature of our oceans, we can expect more storms like Irma. The danger to the Keys doesn't end with hurricane season, either: a slow but definite rise in average sea levels over the past decade has contributed to an increase in tidal flooding, leaving some roads and neighborhoods inundated with salt water for months at a time.

In the five years since Irma, the bill has come due. The hurricane made undeniable what previous floods had only suggested: that climate change will someday make life in the archipelago impossible to sustain. The storm was the first episode in a long and turbulent process of collapse, one that will expand over time to include market contraction, government disinvestment, and eventually a wholesale retreat toward the mainland. Irma may not have destroyed the Keys in one stroke, but the storm ran down the clock on life on the islands, pushing conches (the Keys' unique name for residents) into a future that once seemed remote. The impulse to stay, which once bespoke a conch's devotion to his or her adopted home, now looks a little more like denial. The decision to leave, on the other hand, which once signified surrender, now looks more like acceptance of the inevitable.

Florida's Great Displacement

The term "climate migration" is an attempt to explain why people leave one place in favor of another; it assigns motivation to movements that may be voluntary or involuntary, temporary or permanent. Yet even if the primary cause for migration is clear, there are still countless other factors that influence when, where, and how someone moves in response to a disaster. It's this messiness that is reflected in the word "displacement": the migratory shifts caused by climate change are as chaotic as the weather events that cause them.

For some families the decision to depart the Keys was easy. The storm was a traumatic event, more than enough to convince many people that life on the islands was too dangerous to accept. They came back home, fixed up their houses, and got out. That was the case for Connie and Glenn Faast, who left the island city of Marathon for the mountains of North Carolina after spending almost 50 years in the Keys. "It was pretty much immediate," Connie told me. "It's just too hard to start over when you get older. We couldn't risk it."

The Faasts had lived the kind of life you can only live in the Keys: Connie worked on commercial fishing boats and in a local aquarium, while Glenn owned a boat maintenance company and raced Jet Skis in his spare time. They had stuck it out in the Keys through several major storms, including 2005's Hurricane Wilma, which brought five feet of water to their little island and totaled three of their cars; Connie still shudders when she remembers the image of her husband wading through the water around their house with snakes climbing all over him, clinging to him for shelter from the flood. The Faasts had second thoughts after that storm, but the Keys were paradise, and besides, they didn't know where else they would go.

When Irma came 12 years later, though, the choice was much easier. During the evacuation, it took the Faasts a week to find a decaying hotel in Orlando where they could wait out the storm. As the hurricane passed over the center of the state, it knocked out their power, leaving them and their pets to spend the night in 100-degree heat without air conditioning. "That was it for us," she said. They had to get out — not just out of the Keys, but out of Florida altogether.

When they returned to Marathon, they discovered that their home was the only one in the neighborhood with an intact roof. They put the house on the market as soon as they could, but it took a year for the place to sell, in part because property values had risen so steeply that most people in the area couldn't afford to buy.

The storm had scared many people off, but it had also destroyed a quarter of the Keys's housing stock, which drove up prices for the homes that survived. In the meantime, the Faasts saw their friends start to leave as well: one moved to Sarasota, another to Orlando, and a third friend, who had been the first-ever mayor of Marathon, talked about moving to central Florida.

"We thought it would be devastating when we left," Connie said, "because we love the Keys. But when we pulled out of there, we were so, so relieved."

No more housing

Hundreds of people like the Faasts left the Keys of their own volition in the years after Irma, deciding one way or another that the risks of staying there outweighed the benefits. But perhaps the more turbulent phenomenon after the storm was the involuntary displacement caused by the shortage of affordable housing on the islands. The storm destroyed not only the massive mobile home parks on islands like Big Pine, but also hundreds of so-called downstairs enclosures, small apartment-style units that sat beneath elevated homes.

It also wiped out dozens if not hundreds of liveaboard boats and older apartment complexes in island cities like Marathon. These trailer parks and apartment complexes had been havens for resort waiters, boat buffers, and bartenders, allowing them to get a foothold in an archipelago that had long ago become unaffordable for anyone who wasn't rich. Now all that housing was gone, and FEMA's 50% rule  — which prohibits improvements to structures that cost more than 50% of its market value — prohibited most trailers and downstairs enclosures from being rebuilt.

Many of those who had been lucky enough to own small homes or campers hadn't been able to afford insurance, which meant they missed out on the payouts that went to wealthy homeowners and part-time vacationers. To make matters worse, the government of the Keys couldn't build enough new homes to fill the gap created by the storm: the state had long ago imposed a de facto cap on the number of building permits Monroe county — which encompasses the islands — could issue, an attempt to make sure the population did not grow too large to evacuate the islands in a single day. Thus it was impossible for most residents either to rebuild their old homes or to buy new ones.

Some of those who lost their homes were able to crash with friends and family, and others got by living in tents or trailers, but others resorted to a forest homeless encampment. The lack of housing made the storm survivors feel as though they were stuck in a permanent limbo: life on the islands became a game of musical chairs, in which only the highest bidders could end up with a seat.

Delaying the inevitable

Debra Maconaughey, the rector at St. Columba Episcopal Church in Marathon, spent the years after Irma trying to forestall this involuntary displacement. When the storm hit, Maconaughey and much of her congregation were in Ireland, retracing the steps of the original St. Columba, and by the time they returned to the Keys it was clear that housing would be the defining challenge of the next few years. "Everybody's house was destroyed. That's what people would need the most."

We were speaking in the church's open-air pavilion, where Maconaughey had been delivering outdoor sermons even before the coronavirus pandemic. Irma had weakened the timbers that supported the roof of the central chapel, forcing the church to move worship outside.

The Great Displacement book cover
The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration by Jake BittleSimon & Schuster

In the first week Maconaughey was back, she helped transform St. Columba's campus into a massive shelter for boaters who had lost their homes in the storm, cramming two dozen air mattresses into a loft that had previously been used for an after-school program. The next week, Maconaughey and her congregation installed approximately two dozen trailers around Marathon, giving the boaters a long-term place to stay.

Maconaughey knew there was no chance the county government would restore all the housing that had been lost in the storm, but after a year went by, she found herself shocked at how little had been rebuilt. A nonprofit land trust had erected only a handful of new cottages and a $50 million state program called Rebuild Florida had repaired only two homes, a pittance compared to the thousands of dwellings that had been swept away.

So Maconaughey called up the nonprofits who were funding St. Columba's relief efforts and made an unconventional proposal: the church, she proposed, would buy some derelict housing and fix it up. She had her eyes set on a leaky, mold-filled apartment complex in Marathon that had been condemned for sewage issues a few years earlier. The apartment complex finally opened in the summer of 2020, providing cut-rate housing to 16 families who had been staying on couches or in trailers since the day the storm hit.

Never coming back

But for every person who found permanent shelter, there were more who could not afford to wait for the islands to recover. This wasn't only because people didn't want to return, but also because there were no homes to which they could return. Maconaughey told me with distaste that in several places along Marathon's beachfront, developers have built single large mansions on lots that once contained three or four small homes each.

The lack of affordable housing in turn created a labor shortage: fire and police departments couldn't find enough officers to fill their shifts, boat maintenance companies struggled to locate buffers and repairmen, and many hotels went shorthanded through the on-season rush. When employers exhausted their hiring options on the islands, Maconaughey said, they started to hire workers from the mainland towns of Homestead and Florida City, who take a two-hour bus ride in either direction to work for minimum wage.

"I think people are really struggling, and it's just below the surface," she said. "We're a tourist area, so it's in our best interests to make it look nice from the highway, but there's hidden pain."

Maconaughey told me about the church sexton, Mike, who was driven out of the Keys by Irma. Mike showed up after the recession in a homeless shelter in Marathon. He was blind, and when he first arrived at the shelter he couldn't take a shower or put on clothes without assistance. After a year in the shelter, Mike started attending services at St. Columba, and soon displayed a great talent for weaving wooden canes and chairs, a craft he often practiced on the church pavilion after sermons. He also taught the kids in the after-school program how to play chess.

Mike was on the Keys as the storm approached, not with the congregation in Ireland. He first sought refuge in the massive Miami hurricane shelter, but by the time he got there, that shelter was full. As shelters in Florida all reached capacity, emergency officials herded evacuees from the Keys up toward Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia, offering them bus transportation as far as they were willing to go. Mike was unsure when he would be able to return to the Keys, so he asked for a ticket to Minnesota, where he grew up. He was never able to get back.

"We kind of lost him," Maconaughey said. "He got on a bus to evacuate and now he's gone. He was a huge part of our community … You have to ask yourself, do you ever recover from something like this?"

Jake Bittle is a climate reporter and staff writer for Grist.

This is an excerpt adapted from THE GREAT DISPLACEMENT: Climate Change and the Next American Migration by Jake Bittle. Copyright © 2023 by Jake Bittle. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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