Homeless, climate refugees

This post will be the last in a four-part series on Hurricane Ian and the effects it has had on me. It is just one person’s perspective, but it may provide some insight on the effect it could make on me and others. It is more philosophical and introspective than most of my posts. If that is not your style, come back next week when I will review a book pushing back on food regulations.

One of my well-wishers called Hurricane Ian a “life-changing” event for us. That it was, but how did it affect my psyche and my outlook on life? Financial advisors urged me to not make any major decisions for at least six months. That is fine, but some decisions had to be made in less than six months.

  • Are we going to rebuild or are we going to sell the house ‘as is?’
  • Are we going to remain as house guests for six to nine to twelve months or longer before we move to a more permanent location?
  • Will we find a temporary location in the affected area so we can keep a job, continue to go to a cherished church, serve as a volunteer at the local food pantry, and abandon dear friends?
  • Do we try to live as much like we have for the last eight years or do we look for a retirement community earlier than we had planned.

These and more questions are ones that we had to face. Some decisions could be put off for six months or more. Others could not. Putting our life on hold for six months is not an option.

Homeless is how we felt as we drove away from Sebring after we heard about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ian on our Sanibel Island home. All the possessions we knew we had were in the car we were driving. I can’t tell you how devastating that made me feel. Through my whole life I always had a home owned or paid for by my parents or by my wife and me. I prided myself, perhaps too much, that I could pay my way, control my own destiny. All of that was gone. It was both a humbling and depressing thought that lingered with me for days. We had an address with a damaged building on the site, but we didn’t have a home. Many of our friends on Sanibel experienced similar losses and feelings.

It turns out that we didn’t meet the qualifications for being homeless. A person or family is “experiencing homelessness” if they are “lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” When on the road fleeing Ian or on our return to Sanibel, we had adequate housing that wasn’t really fixed or regular. We had funds to find a place to stay that would take Sweetie and us in and could provide us a hot breakfast. We were much more fortunate than those who sleep on the streets, in shelters, or in cars. Our car was much more convenient and spacious than a shopping cart or backpack to hold our possessions. And yet, for a few days I was able to empathize with a population that I never thought much about. We had family to take us in. Many people experiencing homelessness do not. The statistics of homelessness in the United States are staggering.

Climate refugees is not a phrase I made up. It is one we hear more about these days as climate change evicts people from their homes. But that only happens in Africa, or the Middle East, or other places like that! Not over here or in Europe! Global climate change doesn’t cause these storms to form, but, if you are a believer, it can amplify the power of a storm. It can also lead to stronger storms later in the season than usual. I never thought of the victims of Katrina or Maria as climate refugees—not until I became a victim of Ian. If climate change is real, look for more climate refugees affecting those of us who live in wealthier nations. Oddly enough, I just started rereading The Grapes of Wrath, a story about a different generation of climate refugees.

Now technically my wife and I are not refugees, just like we are not experiencing homelessness. A refugee is “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or a natural disaster.” They leave behind “homes, possessions, jobs, and loved ones.” We didn’t leave our country, but we did leave our state leaving our home, possessions, and jobs behind. We did find a safe place to stay and were able to go back to the site when we wanted to. We were not relegated to a refugee camp like many persons fleeing wars and persecution. Being uprooted by natural disaster is unsettling. The world can expect more people fleeing natural disasters as climate changes wreak more havoc.

The recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm El-Sheik Egypt highlighted the chasm between emitters of greenhouse gases and countries experiencing the ravages of climate action. Will the wealthier nations follow through on their pledges to help compensate impoverished nations for climate damage? Are we going to get serious about causes of climate change or will we continue to pretend that it doesn’t exist? Can we do things in our personal lives to mitigate against the damage? Or do we wait hoping that government and large industries will do the right thing to slow our march to climate Armageddon?

Introspection. Losing a house and the possessions therein is a grief experience. Like a death in the family, an outpouring of support met us in the form of electronic messages and texts. So many wanted to help. Some provided a place to stay; others second-hand clothes to expand our limited wardrobes; still others emotional comfort. After a while the messages stopped coming, and we tried coping on our own. With a few brief exceptions we were very supportive of each other and Sweetie was always there for us as only a dog can be.

Sweetie the dog in a lawn filled with autumn leaves.
I don’t remember leaves like this in Florida!

The grief process takes over. Denial was easy when it hit and the few days thereafter. Maybe it wasn’t so bad on our street as it was elsewhere on the island. Maybe we were spared the brunt of the damage. Maybe this. Maybe that. Maybe, maybe, maybe! My default, though, was that it was all gone. Somehow the thought comforted me. Friends tried to convince me otherwise, but I did not buy into their rosy scenarios. Denial faded fast.

Bargaining was a thing that crossed my mind at times. If only my tee-shirts in plastic containers on the bed survived. So many books were there. Could some of them survived? What about the wooden game table my dad made for me when I was in the sixth grade. It was a curling table. Dad was a skip on a curling rink. One of the major regrets of leaving Canada when I was so young was that I wasn’t old enough to learn to curl. See how sentimental I am getting! Only most of the tee-shirt collection survived. No, I didn’t bargain that much.

Depression hit home after that. Memories of the good times were hard, particularly the wonderful celebration we had on our 50th wedding anniversary less than a month before Ian hit. It wasn’t a deep depression that hung over us like a dark cloud. It was more episodic than continual. Remembering the

  • wonderful bike trails,
  • restaurants that we loved,
  • friends left behind,
  • neighbor’s dogs,
  • little things (like nail clippers) we needed, and
  • morning swims in the pool.

Just little items we took for granted and things that brought back cherished memories of things we would never have again. Depression hit my wife harder than it hit me.

Anger was the main stage for me. I don’t deny that I can be temperamental, but my fuse was much shorter than it was pre-Ian. It didn’t take much to set me off. What would have been ordinary slights that I would shake off in normal times triggered something deep inside of me. What really upset me was people acting as if we were in normal times, when nothing was normal for me. Failure of others to see that I needed help or special attention, irritated me. I was not afraid to use my tragedy to elicit help from ready listeners.

I went ballistic in a Pet Smart when they would not sell me low-fat dogfood that required a vet’s prescription. I mean would I go out and sell Sweetie’s dogfood on the black market? A cashier took pity on me and was able to get a vet’s signature so Sweetie would not go hungry. Another scene played out in a UPS store with respect to a shipment of my wife’s prescriptions that had been left behind in Sebring. My anger and self-pity are diminishing, but vestiges still remain.

Denial and bargaining went out the window when we saw our surge-swept house, our ruined possessions out on the street, and the house down to the studs. All we had left were our depression and our anger.

Acceptance will come gradually. We have accepted the idea that we will not rebuild or return as island residents. We have no desire to even return on vacation. That may change as pleasant memories overcome the hurtful ones gnawing at us now. We may feel better (or worse) when we receive insurance money to help cover our losses. We may feel better (or worse) if we get an offer to buy the land that the house sits on. That acceptance will take time.

New directions are in our future. We are focusing on finding a home in upstate South Carolina. We are visiting Senior Living Communities in the Greenville area. We are getting pushback from friends and relatives. They say we are too young to go into the old-folks home. Not all of these communities are the same, but stereotypes prevail. How many moves do we wish to make before we reach our expiration date? How many times do we want to start over building a new community with a new social network? How much autonomy will we have in choosing where we end up if we don’t make that decision on our own? How will our desires be met when someone else has to make that decision for us? It is a stark reality that choosing any of these communities is probably the place where we will die.

Tough decisions with long-range implications! Don’t make any major decisions until at least six months after a life-changing event! So easily said; so difficult to follow! We have already had to decide whether to move back to SW Florida, keep or abandon a job, and rebuild a house or sell the property. All of these decisions are interlinked and have major long-term implications for us. We have turned a page, but none of these retirement communities may be right for us at this time. Will we regret this decision in the future? It probably depends on how the next chapter turns out. So much of our future is unknown.

We both have things we want to do. We want to build stronger relationships with our families who are now located close by. We would like to contribute to those beyond the confines of where we live. I felt good about my work at the food pantry, but I may wish to work with those experiencing homelessness once I get settled up here. My wife would like to do some part-time work and donate her pay to a worthy cause. Will we be able to pursue these activities rather than become absorbed in activities designed to entertain? We both want to get our exercise and get back to healthier diets. We want to say good-bye to depressing and angry thoughts and move toward true acceptance.

We were blessed with many possessions. Turns out we had too many possessions. We plan to move to a smaller space and to make do with fewer things in our lives. Stuff seems to accumulate to fill the available space. We hope to be more minimalist in the future. So easier to say than to follow up on.

Somehow the fire in the belly to defend processed food is not as strong as it was before Ian. I am not sure if I will continue this blog in the future or to maybe pare it down to one-or-two posts a month. I missed much on the processed food front in the last 2.5 months. Will I find the time or inclination to continue a once-a-week post in the future? Time will tell.

A note about fast food. Last week I mentioned that even a fast-food lover could become tired of fast food. A frequent visitor to this site asked me to expand on that thought. When I taught my Food Issues and Choices class, I showed a video titled Portion Size Me. It featured two nutrition students who ate nothing but fast food for 30 days. They used their nutrition knowledge to eat a reasonably healthy diet. During their first few days, they enjoyed the diet. As the month wore on, the variety became limited and monotonous. Even convenience became inconvenient. Instead of going to the refrigerator or eating a snack, each student needed to hop in the car to seek out some appropriate fast food. We had a similar situation in our 14 days on the road. At first the food was good. Then it became boring and inconvenient to find a place that was truly different. My situation was complicated by my gluten-free diet. A breakfast biscuit without the biscuit or a hamburger without the bun just wasn’t as appealing as it could have been.

Next week: Biting the Hand That Feeds Us. Are we burdened with too many food regulations?

11 thoughts on “Homeless, climate refugees

  1. As a former Floridian, we faced many disastrous hurricanes in 2004. Your blog brings back those fresh memories of the five stages of grief that completely blindsides you when faced with these catastrophic storms. Thankful you all are safe and rebuilding a new life.


    1. Thank you Punam for your comment. We were not there for Charley in 2004, but I understand the damage from Ian was more substantial. 2004 was the year that four hurricanes did major damage in the state. I knew one person whose house was in the path where the four hurricanes intersected!


  2. I’m so happy you evacuated and so sad what the hurricane delivered to your life. Thank you for sharing your insight on homelessness, climate change and life events beyond your control. Hoping you settle into the next life phase and continue your blog.


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