New Zealand Glacier Has Lost Enough Ice to Provide Country Drinking Water for Three Years
By Elliot Douglas
A glacier in New Zealand is believed to have lost so much ice over the last three years that it could provide drinking water for every resident of the country over the same period, a research institute announced Wednesday.
Scientists say the Brewster Glacier on the South Island lost 13 million cubic meters of ice between 2016 and 2019, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) said.
Since 2016 enough ice has melted from just one South Island #glacier to meet the drinking water needs of all NZers… https://t.co/ELLQoE4ygV— NIWA (@NIWA)1592949980.0
"Over the past few years, our observations of extreme and variable conditions highlight strong impacts on water — which is arguably our most precious natural resource," said NIWA climate scientist Andrew Lorrey.
The Southern Alps range has lost more than 15.9 trillion liters of water, which is about the amount today's population of New Zealand would use in 40 years. This constitutes around 30% of the range's ice volume.
'The Path to Extinction'
Damage sustained by some glaciers between 2018 and 2019 may place them on the path to extinction, Lorrey explained.
Marine heatwaves and record temperatures impacted snow lines. Ash from the recent Australian bush fires also blanketed some of the ice, increasing the potential for more melting as the ash absorbs more solar radiation.
It could take 20 or 30 years of improvement in snow cover before scientists could "even start to consider whether the recent damage can be reversed to any degree," Lorrey said.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
- Record Warm Water Measured Beneath Antarctica's 'Doomsday ... ›
- Iceland Holds Its First Funeral for a Glacier - EcoWatch ›
The recycling industry in America is broken. With unsellable scrap materials and already-burgeoning landfills, many consider the entire industry confusing and complex, at best, and a lost cause, at worst. Nevertheless, some local governments are trying to address program shortfalls with various policies.
Over the last 20 years, as more and more scrap materials were diverted from landfills, recycling rates increased, RTS reported. Still, several factors have complicated and even stalled serious progress. First, the U.S. recycling program is less-than ideal. The single-stream system means that consumers put all recyclables (and anything else they hope can be recycled) into one bin. This has created "imperfect recycling habits" and general consumer confusion about what is and isn't recyclable. It's easier on the consumer, but the result has been a contamination rate of about one-fourth of U.S. recyclables, Columbia's State of the Planet reported.
The mixed-stream of materials in residential bins is subsequently trucked to a waste management facility, where it is cleaned, separated and processed into saleable bales of plastic, aluminum, paper and cardboard. These are the actual products that recycling facilities sell to other countries or to companies for processing into eventual new products, a Miami recycling facility representative told EcoWatch. The more contamination that a batch of recyclables has, the harder and more expensive it is to clean. Higher contamination rates result in a lower price for the product. At some point, it becomes more economical to landfill contaminated batches of recyclables rather than clean them.
In 2018, China threw a wrench in the U.S.'s already-precarious system when it decided to stop accepting most recyclables from the rest of the world. The goods were often too contaminated for proper recycling and would end up in landfills, oceans or polluting the countryside. The U.S. had previously shipped over half of its plastics and paper recyclables to China, and loss of this market meant that recycling facilities had nowhere to sell the increasing amounts of recyclable trash being created daily.
Having been so reliant on the Chinese market and without a federal recycling program, this forced recycling facilities to give cities and municipalities two choices: pay more for recyclables to be processed or send them to the trash, The Atlantic and State of the Planet reported.
In the years since, some states and cities have tried to regulate and legislate their way towards a third option: waste management policies that could work.
Here are some of the innovative local recycling policies:
1. San Francisco
According to the EPA, the West Coast city diverts 80 percent of its waste from landfills – the highest rate of any major U.S. city. A city ordinance requires both residents and companies to separate their waste into three streams – blue for mixed recyclables, green for compostables (including food scraps, food soiled paper and yard waste) and black for trash intended for the landfill. The system helps to protect the integrity of recyclables and allows for the diversion of 80 percent of food waste into compost for local farmers and wineries.
San Francisco also enacted a variety of aggressive regulations to support its goal of zero waste by 2020, including bans on single-use plastic checkout bags and polystyrene to-go food containers, construction debris recovery requirements, mandatory recycling and composting at all events in the city, and a government-private industry partnership with the city's waste removal company, Recology, to ensure that the latter will remain profitable while it gets the city to its zero waste goal, reported the EPA and Busted Cubicle.
2. Los Angeles
As of 2019, California's other major city recycled almost 80 percent of its waste, Busted Cubicle reported. LA went from voting against recycling in the early 1960's to having a goal of recycling 90 percent of waste by 2025 and 97 percent by 2030, RTS reported. Compelled by statewide goals for waste recovery and mandates for recycling, LA used related state grants to build up its recycling infrastructure and better public education surrounding recycling.
In a public-private partnership, the city collects curbside collection and transports it to private recycling facilities. Sub-programs include requiring restaurants to compost their scraps and giving companies tax breaks based on the amount they recycle, Busted Cubicle reported. The report estimated that the local recycling industry added $1.2 billion annually to LA's economy.
According to RTS and Busted Cubicle, forward-thinking Seattle adopted a mandatory food scrap recycling program in 2009, a zero-waste policy in 2010 and a mandatory commercial recycling program in 2013. In particular, the city hopes to eliminate landfilling and incineration of trash.
As of 2017, Seattle recycled 56.9 percent of its waste, with a goal to reach 72 percent by 2025. A three-year phase-in program for mandatory recycling allowed for better education of residents and creation of processes for effective enforcement, Busted Cubicle reported. Individuals are incentivized to reduce waste because, while recycling is collected for free, residents pay a per-bag fee for regular garbage, The New York Times reported. Individuals are further motivated to reduce waste because smaller trash cans incur a lower monthly rate for disposal. Penalties and even fines are levied against non-compliant residents. Private companies hired by the city to process trash are similarly "handsomely compensated" when they send less to landfills.
According to the city, 98 percent of Boise residents recycle, a credit to their extensive educational programs, Busted Cubicle reported. When China's recycling ban disrupted the city's recycling, Boise came back with an innovative recycling initiative for previously non-recyclable plastic films.
In partnership with Hefty® brand bags and Renewlogy, a company that converts plastics into diesel fuel, Boise encouraged residents to collect their plastic films in orange bags provided to them by the city, RTS reported. The lightweight plastics, which include grocery store bags, food packaging and even candy wrappers, are bagged and put into normal blue recycling bins for pickup. At local processing centers, they are sent to Renewlogy in Salt Lake City for conversion into a diesel fuel that has 75 percent lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels at one-third the cost, Busted Cubicle reported.
5. San Jose
Just south of San Francisco, the Bay Area hub committed to 75 percent waste diversion by 2013, zero waste by 2022 and zero landfill or incinerator waste diversion by 2040, Busted Cubicle reported. A three-way partnership for commercial waste management between the city and two private companies has been critical to San Jose's success.
Republic collects recyclables and organics from more than 8,000 businesses in the city. It processes the former and sends the latter to Zero Waste Energy Development Company for processing into energy or compost, the news report said. Residential curbside recycling continues to improve through various sub-programs including street sweeping, curbside junk pickup and cleanup events.
Colorado's capital city currently has a low diversion rate – 22 percent as of 2017 with a modest goal of 34 percent by 2020 – but it has an advantage in housing Alpine Waste & Recycling. This cutting-edge waste management company uses technology to simplify single-stream recycling even further. Rather than asking customers to correctly figure out what is recyclable, Alpine finds ways to increase what types of items can be recycled in Denver.
The company has paved the way in new processes to recycle materials that traditionally were confusing or impossible to recycle, including paper coffee cups, juice and milk cartons, styrofoam and large, rigid plastics, Busted Cubicle reported. Their new facility employs state-of-the-art technology to quickly process many tons of waste per hour.
7. New York City
As recently as January 2020, The New York Times reported on "7 Reasons Recycling Isn't Working In New York City." The metropolitan "lagged' behind other major cities, only recycling around one-fifth of its trash, The Times reported. Reasons included lack of recycling and composting bins, political reluctance and fiscal challenges to implementing additional recycling policies and the local culture built around hyper-consumerism, Amazon deliveries and takeout food.
Despite these shortcomings, the big apple makes this list because of a new proposed bill hoping to force manufacturers to pick up the tab for recycling paper, plastic, glass and metal. The extended producer responsibility (E.P.R.) bill would compel manufacturers to pay for the end-waste their products produce, another New York Times article reported. This could incentivize companies to create more sustainable packaging and products to lower fees. The municipality could use collected fees to offset recycling expenses. Proponents could also write in an anti-price gouging provision to ensure manufacturers don't pass the new costs onto consumers. The profits from such a program would be infused back into New York's struggling recycling programs, with the goal of upgrading technology and even creating more jobs, The Times reported.
While ambitious and innovative, many of these local programs are still far from reaching their lofty goals. As they work to become sustainable and profitable, the global market for high-quality recycled materials is actually growing, State of the Planet reported.
For the U.S. to take advantage of this, domestic recycling processes must be reformed, the news report emphasized. Whether through better technology at facilities like in Denver and Boise, innovative public-private partnerships like in the three California cities or in precedent-setting legislation like in New York, cities must lead the way in order to modernize and save the U.S. domestic recycling industry.
Tiffany Duong is an avid ocean advocate. She holds degrees from UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and is an Al Gore Climate Reality Leader and student member of The Explorer's Club.
She spent years as a renewable energy lawyer in L.A. before moving to the Amazon to conduct conservation fieldwork (and revamp her life). She eventually landed in the Florida Keys as a scientific scuba diver and field reporter and writes about the oceans, climate, and the environment from her slice of paradise. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram @lilicedt.
- The Recycling Industry in America Is Broken - EcoWatch ›
- 12 Creative Ways to Cut Down on Food Waste in Your Kitchen ... ›
- Can the U.S. Slash Food Waste in Half in the Next Ten Years ... ›
The new research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this month, looked at maps of human habitation over the last 12,000 years and found that almost three-quarters of Earth's land had been sustainably shaped and managed by Indigenous or traditional societies during that time. This means that it isn't simply human presence in a landscape that drives environmental destruction.
"With rare exceptions, current biodiversity losses are caused not by human conversion or degradation of untouched ecosystems, but rather by the appropriation, colonization, and intensification of use in lands inhabited and used by prior societies," the study authors wrote.
The research was the fruit of a uniquely multidisciplinary effort involving 18 researchers from more than a dozen institutions all over the world, according to a University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) press release. The team of geographers, archaeologists, anthropologists, ecologists, and conservation scientists looked at patterns of land use since 10,000 BCE and found that most areas faced some form of human intervention such as burning, hunting, cultivation or the spreading of new species. This included more than 95 percent of temperate forests and 90 percent of tropical ones.
"Areas untouched by people were almost as rare 12,000 years ago as they are today," lead author and UMBC professor of geography and environmental systems Erle Ellis said in the UMBC release.
The difference is that these earlier societies used the land in a way that was not destructive and was actually beneficial in many cases. The researchers looked at how past histories of land use were associated with areas currently high in biodiversity and found that many areas now considered natural were in fact shaped by past human interventions.
"[I]mportantly, current global patterns of vertebrate species richness and key biodiversity areas are strongly associated with past patterns of human land use, when compared to current, 'natural,' recently-untouched landscapes," study co-author James Watson of the University of Queensland (UQ) told UQ News.
The new research goes against past assumptions about conservation. John Muir who founded the Sierra Club, for example, did not think that Indigenous communities belonged in protected wild areas, as Open Access Government explained. Native American communities were excluded from the country's national parks when they were formed, as UBMC pointed out. The study also overturns past research claiming that most of the globe was uninhabited up until 1500 CE.
"There's a paradigm among natural scientists, conservationists and policymakers that human transformation of terrestrial nature is mostly recent and inherently destructive," Watson said.
The fact that this is not true has important implications for preventing biodiversity loss and the sixth mass extinction. Explicitly, it emphasizes that Indigenous rights and natural protection go hand in hand.
"This study confirms on a scale not previously understood that Indigenous peoples have managed and impacted ecosystems for thousands of years, primarily in positive ways," study co-author Darren J. Ranco, associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of Native American research at the University of Maine and a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation, told UMBC. "These findings have particular salience for contemporary Indigenous rights and self-determination."
The study is not the first to make this point. A major UN report published in March found that Indigenous communities in Latin America were the best guardians of forests on that continent. Still, inequalities persist. Indigenous groups will not have a seat at the negotiating table at the upcoming UN biodiversity conference this year, though they will be present as observers.
Ranco noted that Indigenous groups currently manage around five percent of land on the planet, but that land contains 80 percent of Earth's biodiversity. He argued that contemporary efforts to conserve this biodiversity should not repeat the mistakes of the past.
"We must also assure that new attempts to protect lands and biodiversity are not just a green-grab of Indigenous lands," Ranco told UMBC. "We cannot re-create the worst of colonial policies meant to exclude Indigenous people, which would undoubtedly make the situation much worse for the environment and humanity."
- Indigenous Tribes Are Using Drones to Protect the Amazon ... ›
- Indigenous-Led Water Protectors Take Direct Action Against ... ›
While tossing orange peels and coffee grounds in the garbage might seem inconsequential, sending food waste to landfills has a real impact on climate change. When trapped without air, decomposing food in landfills produces methane: a greenhouse gas that's at least 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the short term.
As much as we try to cut down on food waste in our kitchens, there will always be leftover banana peels, apple cores and other things that can't be used – much of which can be diverted from landfills by composting.
Composting recycles organic material and allows for the natural processes that decompose food, yard waste and other organics to create a nutrient-rich, natural fertilizer. Compost piles heat up as microorganisms break down leaves and kitchen scraps in the presence of oxygen, giving them a second life as "black gold" to fertilize gardens, houseplants and yards. Of the waste created by the average person – generally about nine times their body weight every year – more than 30% of it can be composted.
Luckily, composting isn't only for those with spacious backyards and large outdoor composting systems; there are plenty of options for composting with limited space, even in your own apartment.
Compost tumblers are a common composting solution, and are ideal for lucky apartment-dwellers with access to a yard, patio, or balcony. These outdoor, airtight containers don't attract pests (a point of concern for many urban composters) and trap heat, allowing decomposition to occur much faster. Unlike traditional compost bins or piles that require shoveling, tumblers can be easily turned with a crank and are attractive and discrete for common spaces.
Add yard and kitchen scraps to the tumbler over time, giving it a few turns each week. Once the tumbler is full, stop adding new material and continue turning once every few days for two to three weeks until the contents have completely decomposed. Some people even maintain two tumblers: one to which scraps are added, and one that's in the process of decomposing.
Ideally, to allow the compost to heat up properly and prevent undesirable odors, a composter should have a healthy ratio of "brown" (carbon-rich) and "green" (nitrogen-rich) waste. Brown waste can include leaves, shredded newspaper, nut and egg shells,and twigs, while green waste encompasses all fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, grains and soil. On a molecular level, an optimal carbon:nitrogen ratio is about 25-30:1, although some argue that when judging by sight, following a 3-4:1 ratio is sufficient.
Also known as vermicomposters, worm composters are small, efficient, odorless, require little money and effort, and result in rich, nutrient-packed compost. A DIY-worm composter can cost less than $30, requiring only a few plastic storage bins, organic matter for bedding, and worm castings, and can live out-of-sight in a closet or under a countertop.
Darkness, drainage and ventilation are the main components of a healthy worm composter. Start by drilling a few holes in the sides and on the bottom of a medium-sized plastic bin, and placing it inside a shorter bin or one of equal size. The smaller bin should be slightly raised, which might require stacking a few plastic bottles or containers underneath to allow for optimal airflow.
Inside the smaller bin, create the bedding for your worms; soil mixed with shredded paper or cardboard should be layered and dampened before adding in the worms. A good guideline for adding worms – generally red wigglers, which can be ordered online or bought in fishing stores – is one pound (about 1000 worms) per square foot.
Worm composters have some limitations based on what the critters can digest, and the amount of food waste that should be added at once. Freezing food scraps and adding them gradually will give the worms time to do their work without overloading them with food, especially when just starting out.
For those with very limited space, countertop electric composters are small, odorless and can process food waste within hours, producing a rich, dry fertilizer. While not exactly composting, these machines aerate, heat and pulverize food scraps, mimicking the process of traditional compost piles on a much tighter timeline – and, unlike traditional at-home compost piles, can safely process meat and dairy products.
While many electric composters can cost upwards of $300, their compact and user-friendly design makes them an attractive option for apartment-dwellers. Unfortunately, given the electricity needed to run them, the environmental impact of these composters is higher than more natural methods.
Government-Run Composting Programs
Some cities have taken food waste reduction into the own hands: San Francisco, California; Boulder, Colorado; and Portland, Oregon all have their own government-run composting initiatives. City-wide composting programs take different forms, but are often free or entail a small fee similar to trash and recycling. Residents usually fill a container with food scraps throughout the week and leave it on the curb to be replaced with an empty bucket, or bring scraps out to a designated bin alongside trash and recycling that's collected at regular intervals. Seattle and San Francisco have even made composting mandatory for all homes and businesses.
As you begin composting, it's a good idea to check whether your city already has a program in place for its residents.
Community Composting and Privately-Owned Collection Services
In the absence of city-wide composting programs, many non-profit and privately-owned organizations have stepped up to the plate.
In New York City, where curbside compost collection was suspended in 2020 due to COVID-19-related budget cuts, Big Reuse – a local non-profit – partners with community organizations to host free weekly drop-off sites. If tumblers and worm composters aren't for you, research compost drop-off locations in your city where you can bring your scraps for free. Some community gardens and farms might accept composted materials as well.
Composting has also become a lucrative business, especially in cities without government-run programs. CompostNow in North Carolina, Bootstrap Compost in Boston and WasteNot Compost in Chicago all charge a fee for pick-up services, offering a very convenient option for those without the time or space to compost at home.
Between trips to the compost tumbler or drop-off site, you'll need somewhere to store your scraps.
While a simple Tupperware container or glass jar would do, many countertop compost bins are attractive and discrete while controlling odors. Some are even dishwasher safe or use replaceable filters to prevent any smells from escaping.
When the pail fills up, scraps can be stored in the freezer until drop-off or pick-up day. Designating a container in the freezer specifically for compost can also keep things tidy and organized.
Adene Sanchez / E+ / Getty Images
As you begin your composting journey, make sure you know what items can be composted. To prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, meat and dairy products should be kept out of most small-scale composting systems, although larger composting facilities – where compost piles reach very high temperatures – might accept them.
Once your food scraps have completed their journey from "trash" to fertilizer, you'll have plenty of black gold to use. If you have limited outdoor space, or no garden on which to spread your finished compost, use it to fertilize house plants or window boxes, or offer it to friends and neighbors who might need it for their own gardens.
Apartment-composting requires some creativity! Consider all of the options in your area – whether it be a drop-off location, pick-up service, or city-run program – as well as your personal limitations and desires. Even with limited space, you can lower your environmental impact and give your waste a second life through composting.
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC.
Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.
- The Case for Meal Kits: Environment's Friend or Foe? ›
- This Simple Solution Will Keep Fruit Fresh for Longer - and Help ... ›
- 6 Ways to Transform Your Lawn Into an Eco-Friendly Oasis ... ›
- 12 Creative Ways to Cut Down on Food Waste in Your Kitchen ... ›
By Andrew McCormick
Terri Domer knows well what a brewing storm looks like.
Domer, 62, an Iowa native, has spent her life watching thunderstorms gather and tornadoes dash across rolling hills. Last August, when the midday sky darkened over the riverside homeless encampment where Domer and four other people spent most nights — built on a sandy bank near downtown, under tall trees — she quickly set about covering up their supplies.
A campmate said Domer was overreacting and left for a walk. "Suit yourself," she told him.
Domer was busy weighing down a tent when she heard a shout: "I was wrong!" She turned to spot her companion racing back to camp. The sky behind him was "black," Domer said — darker than it had been just moments earlier, darker than she'd ever seen it.
The derecho hit with a fury, winds whipping up sand and snapping limbs overhead. Domer rushed for cover, pulling a tent canopy over her head. Tornadoes typically come and go in minutes. But the derecho, a straight-line windstorm, was relentless. All around Domer, branches and whole trees crashed to the ground.
"I kept thinking, 'When is it going to stop?'" Domer said. She said a prayer that she would live.
It's an immutable truth of the climate crisis that the most vulnerable are hit first and hardest. At a time of rising homelessness in the U.S. and as climate-related disasters become common — wildfires in California, monster hurricanes that thrash the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, an arctic blast in Texas — the rule holds.
Terri Domer visits the riverside encampment in Cedar Rapids, where she weathered last August's derecho. Andrew McCormick
"We're definitely seeing more homelessness, more housing disruption, as a result of these disasters," said Steve Berg, programs and policy director at the Washington-based National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Climate change didn't directly cause the Midwest derecho last year or any of those other disasters. Scientists are clear, however, that a warmer planet makes extreme weather more likely and more ferocious. For people experiencing homelessness, like Domer, the storms make matters only more difficult. Others are made homeless. In both cases, government agencies and nonprofits provide support, but increasingly the needs exceed their capacity.
Together, these experiences constitute a grim warning that the climate emergency is here already, draining resources and devastating lives.
There are an estimated 580,000 people experiencing homelessness in America, based on a single-night count in January 2020 — the fourth straight year homelessness had increased, according to a study released last month by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It was the first year since HUD began collecting data that the number of homeless people with children had gone up. And, as usual, people of color remained starkly overrepresented compared with the U.S. population overall.
Crucially, that's all pre-pandemic data, and the reality is likely to be worse than we know. Millions lost work because of Covid-19, and even as the economy recovers, there remain 8.4 million fewer jobs than before the pandemic hit. Eviction moratoriums have helped, advocates say, but as some of those expire soon, the situation could grow more dire still.
The homeless population in Cedar Rapids numbers in the hundreds. It's a far cry from the tens of thousands in larger cities, like Los Angeles, but the derecho's lingering impact here is a microcosm of the various crises that can befall homeless groups in the aftermath of extreme weather.
When the windstorm finally did let up, about 45 minutes after it had begun, Domer's campsite was in tatters: tents ruined, stoves and lanterns simply gone and just about everything else soiled with wet grime.
What struck Domer most, however, was the quiet. Gone were the normal afternoon sounds of the city. Even the nearby corn processing plant, a reliable source of ambient churning, was silent.
"I realized the whole town had been hit, and I thought, 'Oh, my God,'" Domer said.
The derecho swept across multiple states that day, leaving widespread and often severe damage in its wake. The Cedar Rapids area fared worst, with winds reaching 140 mph, the equivalent of a Category 4 hurricane. Two-thirds of the city's famously lush tree canopy was gone, much of it displaced onto streets and homes. And the power was out. In some parts of town, it would be weeks before it returned.
For the homeless, natural disasters prove torturous for more than the obvious fact that it's worse to be outside than inside during a storm.
Only one-quarter of the homeless population is considered "chronically homeless," meaning homeless for more than a year or experiencing repeat bouts of homelessness. At any given time, then, the vast majority of homeless people, including some who are chronically homeless, are scraping their way back toward stability. After disasters, backslide is all but inevitable.
Encampments are destroyed. Resources, often hard-won, are lost. If infrastructure is damaged, a job might become more difficult or impossible to get to.
Furthermore, many people who are homeless wrestle with untreated medical or mental health conditions that disasters might worsen. Domer, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, said the derecho triggered substantial anxiety and depression, which she's still coping with. Christian Murphy, who was also on the riverbank during the storm, said he worries that Cedar Rapids' devastated tree stock will lead to lower air quality, complicating trouble he has already with breathing.
After the derecho, a short distance from Domer's and Murphy's encampment, Kari Fisher surveyed the damage to the duplex where she lived with her husband and six children, ages 1 to 10.
When the storm hit, Fisher had been home-schooling, a new responsibility due to the pandemic but one she enjoyed. Structural damage to the home was clear; in the unit opposite Fisher's, a tree had smashed into the kitchen. City officials declared the home unfit for habitation, but with nowhere else to go, Fisher's family stayed. Power was shot for good, so for months they got by using plastic coolers and a propane camping stove. (Thanks to the downed trees, Fisher jokes, they also had plenty of wood.)
In November, police cited the family for unlawful habitation. (Fisher is fighting the citation; she faces possible jail time, even though the family had continued to pay rent.) They were directed to Willis Dady, a homeless services nonprofit, which moved the family into a Hampton Inn & Suites north of town, using federal emergency funds made available to the city.
Fisher expected they'd be there for a couple weeks. Six months later, fully eight months on from the derecho, they're stuck. In two hotel rooms, it's Fisher, her husband, an ex-husband who has a disability, seven children — Fisher gave birth to a boy in February — and two dogs. In the same Hampton Inn & Suites, there are dozens more like Fisher, and it's not the only hotel in town still housing people made homeless by the storm.
"It feels like sardines," Fisher said. "It's not sustainable."
While her husband works, Fisher spends days searching Zillow, Zumper, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for available homes. On rental application fees alone, the family has spent $4,500 — dipping ever further into diminished savings — but nothing comes through. With so many people looking, prices are high. By the time most units are listed, they're already gone.
"We're in a hole," Fisher said. "No matter how much I do, no matter how many phone calls I make, we're still here." Her "worst nightmare" is that the money supporting their hotel stay will run out before the family finds new shelter.
For six months, after the August derecho destroyed their former home, Kari Fisher and her family have crowded into rooms at a Hampton Inn and Suites. Andrew McCormick
"I'm waiting for it," she said. "And when that happens, it's 'OK, what are we going to do now?' A tent at a campground? I can't raise children in a minivan." As of mid-April, the family hoped to move into a trailer.
Fisher's situation, advocates said, is characteristic. Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — the first major storm in the U.S. that scientists linked to climate change — disasters have been routine drivers of new homelessness.
In Houston, for example, homeless rates fell year over year starting in 2012. In 2018, the year after Hurricane Harvey, they ticked back up. Last year, 11 percent of the city's unsheltered homeless population said they had become homeless because of the hurricane or another natural disaster, according to a survey by Houston's Coalition for the Homeless.
The problem isn't just that homes are destroyed. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, America is short nearly 7 million affordable housing units. During an extreme weather event, affordable housing — more likely to have been built in disaster-prone areas in the first place — is especially vulnerable and often hit the hardest, shrinking the already limited inventory. Pricier homes aren't immune to destruction, of course, so families who are financially better off might also find themselves in need of short-term, lower-cost options. Demand peaks at the same time that options are depleted the most.
"Disasters of this magnitude really trickle out," said Ana Rausch, program operations director at the Coalition for the Homeless. After Harvey, she said, "our regular housing of the homeless pretty much came to a halt, because we were trying to house people in the disaster shelters. And not all of those individuals were homeless."
The pattern goes like this: Disasters push people who had been housing secure toward insecurity. People who were already insecure or severely burdened by housing costs are pushed to the edge of homelessness. And, finally, people who were already homeless are pushed further back in the long wait for limited resources.
The web of government agencies and nonprofits designed to help, meanwhile, is stretched to the max.
In Cedar Rapids, Willis Dady typically serves 500 people in a year, including those who are actively homeless and those who are at risk of becoming homeless. Now, given the combined effects of Covid-19 and the derecho, 500 people need assistance every day, said Alicia Faust, the organization's executive director. The staff has risen to the occasion, working overtime, extending shelter hours and taking on more clients than ever, but still it's hard to keep up.
To fully meet the demand, Faust said, she would need 16 full-time homelessness prevention case managers, working 30 to 35 cases apiece. Willis Dady has three.
Bandwidth issues like that are a nationwide problem, said Berg, of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. And that's in part because the government responses to homelessness and disasters have both tended to treat symptoms of problems and not their root causes.
"There's always a response to the emergency," Berg said. "But there isn't an overall response to people becoming homeless or the [already homeless people] impacted by this weather."
When it comes to homelessness, that is, the response is overwhelmingly oriented toward people already in crisis — not the broad economic currents that underlie homelessness, including soaring rent costs, stagnant wages and the dearth of affordable housing. As for disasters, the government mobilizes in their aftermath, but it hasn't yet taken robust, transformational action to curb climate change and foster resilience.
Several recent and proposed policies could be cause for hope, however. And in some cases, solutions to homelessness and the climate crisis might be one and the same.
Between coronavirus relief measures passed during the Trump administration and the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that President Joe Biden signed last month, nearly $80 billion was allocated to HUD, the Treasury Department and various federal grant recipients to fight homelessness and housing instability, a HUD spokesperson said in an email. Moreover, the White House's newly announced $3 trillion-plus infrastructure plan includes funding to build and retrofit 1 million affordable and energy-efficient housing units.
"The Administration's plan will extend affordable housing rental opportunities to underserved communities nationwide, including in rural and tribal areas," the HUD spokesperson said. The plan would also "flexibly support communities in creating housing for people experiencing homelessness and the housing insecure."
Another promise of Biden's infrastructure proposal and Climate Action Plan: millions of jobs, as the administration seeks to build out America's clean energy infrastructure.
Advocates for the homeless expressed cautious optimism. New affordable housing is a clear win, while the benefits of upgrading and retrofitting existing units are twofold: Just as energy efficiency is good for the planet, it lowers utility costs for renters. As for jobs, many people who experience homelessness find work in construction already. If enough training is packaged with the green jobs in Biden's plan, as the administration says it will be, those jobs could be an apt fit and a much-needed path to stability.
Indeed, after the derecho, several members of the Cedar Rapids homeless community found work helping with the cleanup effort. Some continue to work in construction-related jobs as part of a Willis Dady employment initiative.
Domer, as it happens, has a background in road and home construction, with a former specialty in woodwork. She is in her 60s, and both shoulders give her trouble, so those days are probably behind her — she hopes to find work soon driving a cab. But plenty of people she knows, Domer said, would jump at the opportunity. At a time when many are still struggling with the storm's repercussions, it could be a way to finally move on.
"Anything would help," Domer said. "The pandemic was already tough, and then a derecho. We're still trying to figure out what normal looks like."
This story originally appeared in NBC News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
- Red Cross: 'No Vaccine for Climate Change' - EcoWatch ›
- 3 Things You Can Do to Help Avoid Climate Disaster - EcoWatch ›
- How to Heal Emotional Trauma After a Climate Disaster - EcoWatch ›
President Biden will pledge to cut U.S. climate pollution to 50% of 2005 levels by 2030, according to reports.
The goal, known as a Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement, would nearly double the cuts targeted by the Obama administration in 2015.
The White House said an official decision had not yet been made.
"Wow. That's ambition with a capital A," Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb told the AP after learning of Biden's plans.
Other groups, including Sunrise Movement, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth are calling for U.S. climate pollution cuts of 70% by 2030, which they say more accurately reflects America's cumulative climate pollution.
The reports come days before the administration's virtual gathering of international leaders meant to push other countries to do more and reestablish the U.S. as a credible proponent, if not leader, of international climate action.
"The United States must be an undeniable global leader in climate action,″ Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said Tuesday. "We cannot preach temperance from a barstool and not pay our fair share when approximately 40% of all the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is red, white and blue."
For a deeper dive:
- Biden Announces $2 Trillion Climate and Green Recovery Plan ... ›
- Joe Biden Appoints Climate Crisis Team - EcoWatch ›
- Here Are Biden's Day One Actions on Climate and Environment ... ›