Jill Swiencicki decided to move her family from Chico, Calif., to Upstate New York in 2009. Swiencicki and her husband, David Martins, both gave up tenured teaching positions, and their family left behind a home and lifestyle.
“It was hard, it remains hard. I always yearn to go back,” Swiencicki says.
After experiencing two wildfires blazing around their home in the northern Sacramento Valley, Swiencicki and Martins decided they needed to take their two children, and get out. Rochester was a complete turnaround. Here there were no fires, no droughts, and cheap, clean water.
In 2010, singer Katy Perry released a single “California Gurls” and suggested there was a certain je ne sais quoi achieved only on the West Coast. Today, being a California Gurl is a threat to safety.
California is on fire, Miami is sinking, and reports show that cities like Rochester might be the new “it” place to be.
Being a climate-friendly destination, however, will bring changes to the area.
“City government and people interested in development have been getting their heads around Rochester as a shrinking city and how to de-infrastructurize certain areas because it was shrinking,” says Katrina Smith Korfmacher, professor of environmental health science at the University of Rochester. “But with a real possibility of population increase, that means a really different mindset towards the overall capacity of the city.”
Last year, the National League of Cities released a report with recommendations for cities preparing for an influx of climate-displaced people. The tips include upgrading sewage and drinking water systems, bridges and transportation, and investing in affordable housing.
Climate displacement, also called climate-induced displacement, refers to the forced relocation of individuals due to the chronic impact of climate change. This can occur within countries and across borders, resulting in population shifts. In 2021, 2.3 million Americans were displaced by disasters, up from 1.7 million the previous year, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center reports.
A 2022 Redfin survey found that nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of U.S. residents who plan to buy or sell a home in the next year are hesitant to move to an area at risk of natural disasters, extreme temperatures and/or rising sea levels. Forty percent said climate risk played a role in their decision to relocate.
As communities battle natural disasters, federal agencies have stepped in to help. Since the 1980s, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided funds for voluntary buyouts in flood areas or after weather disasters. Other notable buyout periods were after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey, and Hurricane Harvey in Texas in 2017. The buyouts in Texas came after a previous effort that targeted flood-prone neighborhoods.
In 2021, President Joe Biden addressed global climate migration with an executive order and a report. It marked the first time the U.S. government established a link between climate change and migration.
Experts predict that no community will escape climate change in some form. The National Risk Index from FEMA is an online tool to illustrate the communities most at risk for 18 natural hazards nationwide. The NRI lists Monroe County as “relatively low” in terms of overall risk; the only “relatively high” factors were waves of cold temperatures, ice storms, and extreme winter weather.
Though not a hurricane zone, Rochester felt the impact of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Chiara Borrelli, professor of earth and environmental science at UR, recalls that the city saw an influx of climate-displaced people. Thousands of Puerto Ricans moved to Rochester.
“Look at Hurricane Maria, look at the number of people who came from Puerto Rico. Clearly, this is going to happen more in a changing climate,” Korfmacher notes.
The sixth United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report predicts that every city in the United States will have some exposure to at least one climate hazard within the next few years.
Cities around the Great Lakes are likely to experience increased floods, the West Coast will continue to battle wildfires, and there is a risk Hawaii eventually could be lost to sea-level rise. The climate hazards will be the most extreme in hot, coastal areas, and these will be the largest sources of climate-displaced people.
Not everyone will be able to escape, however. Ability to completely uproot a life and a family is a privilege. Often, the individuals most at risk are the least able to relocate, the Biden report notes.
“For people living in poverty who may be having their houses torn down and may not have methods to rebuild, it’s harder to pick up and move,” says Neha Sood, assistant director of campus sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology.
People living paycheck to paycheck are less able to afford temporary housing or other costs associated with displacement. The people moving to Rochester are expected to have the financial security to uproot their lives and leave their jobs.
Those left behind
With two young children, Swiencicki and her husband had always planned to move to the East Coast at some point to be closer with family. Yet the weeks of being stuck inside, breathing in smoke and ash from the forests, fields, and homes that were burning, was enough to accelerate the plan.
“You think it is just trees burning, but it is not. It is toxic chemicals burning, it is vinyl burning; it is really terrifying,” Swiencicki says.
One reason Swiencicki and her family were able to move was because both her and her husband’s work did not require living in California. Additionally, if things went awry during the move, they had family on the East Coast. Not everyone has those luxuries.
Chico is an agricultural town with seasonal migrant workers. Those workers must be near the crops and the land for income. Some of them are undocumented immigrants, and live in temporary shanty towns. These people and families have no choice except to stay, even as housing is burning around them.
Houston is another area that has suffered from the impact of climate change, with increasingly severe flooding from hurricanes. Federal funds have been given to help protect households in the city from the effects of flooding. In neighborhoods where people of color are predominant, residential property has been often deemed not worth the cost of building a flood wall or raising the houses.
Instead, the residents are given small buyouts, often from FEMA, and the houses are demolished. This money is rarely enough to sustain payments on homes in more expensive neighborhoods, and these people end up in foreclosure. People who stayed in their neighborhood for financial reasons or connections to the area remain at risk for future flooding.
What’s more, Sood notes, “U.S. policy has been friendly to people who want to stay where their homes are, which opens the door for rebuilding homes in flood zones.”
How Rochester is preparing
The Rochester area will not be untouched by climate change. Projections through 2050 from risk assessment company Climate Check show increased climate-related risk, in particular from storm hazards. But compared to other regions, Rochester is expected to experience fewer extremes.
Borrelli notes that not only Rochester, but communities around the Great Lakes will be privy to the climate-safe designation.
“The Great Lakes area is really attractive because there is a lot of fresh water, there is room to accommodate economic growth, and we are in a place (where) although climate change will affect us, it will not be as destructive as the most southern parts of the country or the coasts,” Borrelli says.
Does this predicted population increase entail its own risks? How will the area’s infrastructure and water supply hold up? Is the region prepared?
Like many cities, Rochester has been examining ways to prepare for climate change. In 2019, the city released its Climate Change Resiliency Plan, which attempts to address some of the issues in the National League of Cities report.
Retrofitting infrastructure to allow more people to live and work within Rochester is in the works. In addition, the city is exploring new approaches that allow the city to be flexible and provide a range of housing options as the population grows. There are also plans on how to further extend the life of already plentiful water supplies, including maximizing the use of stormwater in conjunction with Monroe County Stormwater Coalition.
The city hopes to codify, enforce and implement stormwater and green infrastructure best management practices in public and private development and encourage development of multi-use facilities. These sites could be used for more than one purpose or repurposed after a certain period of time.
Plans for conserving natural resources include the preservation and development of open, green spaces, and protecting and maintaining water resources. The resiliency plan also includes residents, with a proposed citizen science program to inventory natural resources to educate the public and prioritize preservation. To ensure such goals are equitable, the plan aims to enhance the ability of all populations to prepare for and respond to climate impacts.
Borrelli is optimistic that Rochester is not only aware of but also has plans to accommodate increasing population.
“The city is reflecting on how the climate will change, what this will mean for the city, what are the weaknesses, and where are possible areas to improve or to have a plan for adaptation and mitigation,” she says. “The city is being proactive.”
In its plan, the city would like to expand outreach programs to assist climate refugees with transition to the Rochester community. It makes a clear prediction: “Rochester has and will continue to see increased immigration to the area due to extreme events such as Hurricane Maria.”
Monroe County also is working on actions related to the impact of climate change. Like the city, its Climate Action Plan outlines efforts to preserve natural resources and an examination of infrastructure. The county’s climate resiliency planning efforts include a climate vulnerability analysis for county facilities, a resiliency plan for county properties, and developing a shade structures policy for county facilities in conjunction with a natural resources inventory.
Opportunities for growth
Some believe that climate-based migration to Rochester will bring economic opportunity.
“An increase in people in an area means a boost in revenue from taxes, as well as an increase in spending, contributing to local growth,” Borrelli says.
People coming to Rochester are likely to be well off. Unrelated to climate displacement, the Greater Roc Remote program provides up to $10,000 in relocation incentives and $9,000 in homebuyer incentives to encourage full-time workers to come to the area. Greater Roc Remote is an initiative of Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, funded by private dollars through ROC2025, an alliance of economic development organizations investing to catalyze growth in Greater Rochester.
Korfmacher also sees economic opportunity spurred by climate displacement.
“There are well-educated people coming from Southern California or maybe Arizona who will come here, spend money, and boost the economy,” Korfmacher says.
A 2018 map published in Rolling Stone predicts a roughly 10 percent increase in gross domestic product for Rochester and surrounding areas in 2080 as climate change and migration continues.
Korfmacher cautions about the flip side of this economic growth, however.
“This is going to drive property values up, creating challenges for lower-income people,” she explains.
Measurable impact of climate displacement on Rochester might not emerge soon, but disasters are happening more drastically and quickly than models predicted, underscoring the need to prepare now.
Tomorrow, the Northeast Safe and Thriving for All project will host a regional workshop on becoming a climate-change destination at Tompkins County Public Library in Ithaca. This will involve local government agencies, nonprofits, and community organizations coming together to discuss how to become the best-possible climate refuges.
“The plans don’t implement themselves,” Korfmacher says. “All kinds of organizations and individuals need to be involved in implementing them.”
Clare Boegel is a graduating senior at St. John Fisher University and a Rochester Beacon intern. Jacob Schermerhorn, Beacon contributing writer, created data visualizations for this article. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].