When Puerto Rican native Olga González became the first Latina mayor of Kissimmee, Fla., last year, she credited God for her victory. Others pointed to climate change.
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.
Kissimmee gained a whopping 10,000 new residents between 2017 and 2020, according to census data. Osceola County, where Kissimmee is located, and neighboring Orange County saw their combined Puerto Rican population jump more than 12 percent. The changes were so profound that González found herself competing with two other Puerto Rican candidates to become Kissimmee's mayor.
"Hurricane Maria ... 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. Now, "we're seeing growth in the leadership [of Puerto Ricans]."
The concept of climate migration - population shifts forced by destructive weather changes - has been studied for years. But most Americans still think of it as something that happens elsewhere, or a future doomsday scenario about people flocking to North Dakota to escape extreme weather along the coasts. 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.
But as evidenced by González's election, such changes are significant enough to start scrambling the political map, with experts foreseeing a cascading effect of changes to come.
"We're seeing it now," said Carlos Martín, a David M. Rubenstein fellow with the Brookings Institution's Metro program. "It's not a managed retreat, it's an unmanaged retreat. And any demographic change usually brings about political change."
The impacts are varied, from the quarter of a million Louisianans who fled New Orleans, mostly for Texas, after Hurricane Katrina, with the 40,000 who stayed bringing more non-white and Democratic voters to formerly conservative precincts; to the influx of people fleeing California's wildfires who ended up in Chico, Calif., prompting a political backlash from local residents.
Now, as climate change fuels a greater number of strong hurricanes, causes sharper rises in sea levels and sets off ever-more-sweeping wildfires, researchers are expecting "climate relocation" to become a progressively greater force shifting the currents of politics.
Tracking the path of climate migration can be harder than tracking a storm. Analysts have resorted to combing through IRS tax returns and cellphone bills to determine where people who left areas hit by a climate-related disasters are setting up new residences. 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. "This disaster-related mobility is responsive to these very large crises, and these very large crises are increasing. The trend is toward more disasters."
But it doesn't require a massive disaster for weather-related concerns to alter the political map. For example, Fussell's research shows that population growth patterns have become more responsive to environmental change, with higher inland areas of the Hampton Roads region growing faster than low-lying areas, prompting neighborhood-level shifts in the economic makeup of one of the more conservative regions of Virginia.
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. That keeps them in commuting distance of their jobs and enables their children to stay in familiar schools.
But even relatively short moves can create political upheavals. About 37,000 people lived in the 240 square miles ravaged by the notorious Camp Fire in 2018, which burned for more than two weeks to become the most destructive wildfire in California history. California State University, Chico, used postal data to track 13,000 adults in the area and found that a third of those people - many with families in tow - headed 20 miles south and west to the city of Chico within six months of the blaze.
The migration added thousands of new voters to Chico, whose population swelled from roughly 93,000 to well over 111,000 in the three years since the fire, according to city records. But it also prompted a growing sense of alarm among longer-tenured residents. Karl Ory watched the repercussions firsthand. He was one of five liberals on the non-partisan seven-seat City Council when the influx began. In the following election, in which he wasn't up for reelection, a conservative bloc flipped three liberal seats. By the time he stepped down soon afterwards, conservatives outnumbered liberals by 6-1.
The conservatives were driven in part by a new super PAC, Citizens for a Safe Chico, which spent more than $250,000 drawing attention to rising homelessness and havoc in the real estate market, among other issues.
"If you want to STOP the illegal camping and FIRES that come along with it, VOTE" for the conservative candidates to the board, the PA proclaimed on its Facebook page, amid photos of trash-strewn parks.
"People were upset," Ory recalled. "Their whole lives changed. The opposition took advantage of that. We had more and more people coming to the [City Council] meetings. Very disruptive, very abusive, blaming us for everything."
Liberals felt that the PAC was scapegoating the fire refugees, but it denied any such motive. Citizens for a Safe Chico, which did not reply to requests for comment, continues to call for crackdowns on the city's homeless population. On its Facebook page, the group called the idea that the migration of Camp Fire refugees played any part in its campaign "an insult."
"Political activists heavily invested in hiding the failures of the old regime are trying to deflect," PAC leaders said on its website. "They want you to believe that under the tarps at Bidwell Park lie Camp Fire victims and local people who've simply fallen on hard times. They want you to believe that the new City Council is cruel, and they want to stop the council from fulfilling the promise of enforcement against professional transients. If you ask me, those protecting the old regime's failed legacy are promoting a toxic level of compassion."
Similar complaints have popped up in other areas that have seen influxes of California wildfire victims - including Treasure Valley in southwestern Idaho.
The area, which includes Boise, was already experiencing an influx of Golden State residents seeking cheaper housing, said Katie McConnell, a doctoral candidate in environmental sociology at Yale School of the Environment who is researching the flow of Californians into Idaho to escape wildfires. But as climate change made drought conditions worse and increased the frequency of wildfires in California, many more families headed north to Idaho.
"The level of damage caused routinely [by fire] is just radically different than it was even like five or six years ago," McConnell said.
At least 70 households moved from the area destroyed by the Camp Fire within the six months following the blaze to Idaho's Treasure Valley region around Boise, according to the California State University, Chico, data. Many residents in the area haven't been receptive, McConnell said. "California sucks" graffiti is painted on highway overpasses and anti-domestic immigration attitudes are increasing in local politics, McConnell said.
A recent Boise State University survey found that a solid majority of respondents thought the biggest problem facing Idaho - which is the seventh least densely populated state in the country - was that it was growing too fast.
"It's an interesting thing that happens when you'll talk to people about incoming Californians," McConnell said. "If you're talking to a politically liberal person, they'll complain about all the rich conservatives from Orange County moving to Idaho. If you talk to a politically conservative Idahoan, they'll complain about all of the rich liberal people from the Bay moving to Idaho."
Not all such movements cause friction, however. 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.
Maria, a Category 5 hurricane that gained strength amid the warming waters in the Gulf of Mexico, pounded Puerto Rico with more than three feet of rain within 24 hours and destroyed much of its infrastructure. In the months following the 2017 storm, about 133,000 thousand of the island's residents headed to the U..S. mainland, according to data compiled by the University of Central Florida's Puerto Rico Research Hub. Those who arrived in Florida were easily absorbed into a community that already had a strong network of former islanders living in the area.
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. Both Democrats and Republicans viewed the new arrivals as potential supporters, Rivera said.
"You could see both Democrats and Republicans were saying, 'What are we gonna do? We need the Puerto Rican vote,'" Rivera said. "You had [President Joe] Biden coming to Tampa, to Kissimmee. There was a big outreach for both political parties."
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. "So more and more, you start seeing kind of those changes in the representation, particularly for Puerto Ricans, here."
This year's Hurricane Ida, a Category 4 storm that once again battered Puerto Rico, sent thousands more island residents fleeing to Florida. 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.
Many of the people arriving from Puerto Rico found jobs in the area's tourism industry. But they were surprised at how little the jobs paid, especially in relation to the high cost of living in the Orlando area.
"You come here, you get relocated because of climate change, and then it's shitty because of pay and lack of benefits," Torrealba said. "Puerto Rico has better labor laws than Florida does. They come here and they're like, 'What, this is legal?' Then they join the union."
Sofia Ortiz was one of them. She had spent her life in Puerto Rico, most recently working as a paralegal. Hurricane Maria actually spared her home, but the resulting power outages killed off local businesses and forced her and her partner to move to Florida in search of work.
"I got lucky because I could stay with the family of my partner" in the city of Deltona, Ortiz said. Others fleeing Maria were worse off, she recalled: "Some of them had to live in motels or in cars. It was crazy."
Ortiz and her partner then struck out on their own, moving to Orlando, where she took a job as a housekeeper at Disney World. While there, she became more interested in the issue of climate change, she said. She also became fed up with her working conditions and joined Unite Here Local 737, the union representing service workers at Disney World and other tourism businesses in the area. She eventually became an organizer for the union.
Ortiz traveled with the union to this fall's U.N. Climate Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Their purpose, she said, was to raise the issue of climate migration.
"That's our issue," she said. "It's something that happens every year. We need to discuss what needs to be done with people. We need to hear ideas and make solutions."