Anticipated Vulnerabilities: Displacement and Migration in the Age of Climate Change

When Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in September of 2017, thousands of its inhabitants were forced to flee their homes - many of whom ended up in in the City of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Between 2017 and 2018, over 5,400 people moved from Puerto Rico to Holyoke. In the years that followed, the city and partners at Hunter College and the University of Connecticut surveyed these families, intending to learn what aspects worked in response to their displacement and resettlement. Officials also hoped to assess how other cities could duplicate the incorporation of Puerto Rican climate migrants into Holyoke as more frequent climate events displace additional communities in the coming years. In 2019, Hunter College at the City University of New York and the University of Connecticut, in partnership with the City of Holyoke, Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, released the report Anticipated Vulnerabilities: Displacement and Migration in the Age of Climate Change. The purpose of the report is to assess the Holyoke’s capacity to respond to an influx of climate migrants and how to better prepare for such an influx. The report includes an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the city’s responses, and provides recommendations on how Holyoke and similar cities can better support climate migrants relocating after future disaster events.  

The report is a result of a collaborative effort funded through the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Program (MVP Program). The City of Holyoke was awarded a grant through the MVP Program to “learn from the experiences of people that fled Hurricane Maria and now live in Holyoke” for planning purposes, and how to better understand “what climate adaptation will mean in an era of climate-driven human migration.” To learn about these experiences, the study team held several community meetings, and conducted five two-hour focus groups throughout 2019. During these convenings and in separate interviews, the study team questioned individuals on their experiences in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Among those included in the survey were those who had been displaced from the hurricane, host families, city officials, civic leaders, and others familiar with the events surrounding the climate migration. The report is organized into five parts, which compile and analyze these responses. From this analysis, the report breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of the city’s response to supporting climate migrants, and offers recommendations and opportunities for improvement.

One of the key findings included in the report was that many Puerto Ricans migrated to Holyoke, rather than other U.S. cities, due in large part to the high concentration of Puerto Ricans there, who make up almost half of the total population of the city. Many of the individuals and families who ended up moving to Holyoke had family members or friends already within the community. Thus, when the city and various nonprofits learned that Hurricane Maria was advancing toward Puerto Rico, they quickly identified one nonprofit - Enlance de Familias (Enlance) - as a “one-stop-shop” for what they knew would be a large number of people fleeing the island. The early identification of Enlance as a place where a displaced individual could go to receive many types of assistance was identified as extremely critical and helpful in facilitating participants’ responses. Enlance has had extensive experience in assisting Puerto Rican families move to the city, and represented a “deep well of knowledge and organizational leadership capacity [that could] be tapped in future climate change planning, response and recovery efforts.” 

One of the hardest transitions for climate migrants fleeing to Holyoke after Hurricane Maria was that there was a general lack of affordable housing within the area. Additionally, to exacerbate this issue, it was difficult for individuals migrating from Puerto Rico to find jobs within the region. This difficulty is partly because the Puerto Ricans who have settled in Massachusetts - either before Hurricane Maria or as a result of it - are notably underrepresented among adults who have achieved a high school diploma or higher education. Those who were forced to flee Puerto Rico also statistically come from lower-income households, and upon arriving in Holyoke, were forced to turn to social service agencies, nonprofits, and other charitable organizations as a safety net. Holyoke was able to provide homes to climate migrants primarily because the Puerto Rican community within the area opened their doors to family and friends, and were willing to lend a hand in whatever way possible to those displaced by Hurricane Maria. The generosity of the Puerto Rican community cannot be understated or undervalued. To this day, however, nearly half of the Puerto Ricans currently residing in Holyoke live at or below the poverty level - a fact that the city, in combination with nonprofits like Enlance, are hoping to change.

Enlance de Familias worked with various agencies and other nonprofits to provide a variety of resources for the incoming climate migrants. The most significant categories of assistance that respondents to the study highlighted were that Enlance provided necessities, such as clothing and food. Additionally, it served as a centralized hub for people to gather, disseminate information, coordinate services, and case management cases. As a whole, frontline civic organizations and nonprofits like Enlance can play significant roles and be responsive to the needs of climate migrants, like in the months immediately following Hurricane Maria. 

Among the descriptions of how and why Holyoke was able to accept climate migrants from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, the report also lays out a variety of opportunities and recommendations for Holyoke and other municipalities receiving displaced persons. While most survey respondents described the Holyoke’s Puerto Rican community as resilient, it still lacks resources. The report identifies a variety of opportunity areas where nonprofits and the government can assist climate migrants. For example, the City of Holyoke, as well as other communities looking to embrace climate migrants, can develop plans for creating more affordable housing. Governments and communities can also determine how to best provide jobs and services - which will not only help to stabilize communities,  but “will improve the absorption capacity of any future climate migration.” Other recommendations include that: 

  • A “one-stop-shop” location be created or utilized where individuals or families can go. These locations should be staffed with culturally competent individuals, and well-publicized to the affected community.
  • City officials responding to an influx of climate migrants have access to the data that is necessary to determine the specific needs of arriving families or individuals, and that federal or state agencies help provide this data.
  • Social service agencies recognize the need for flexibility in providing services to incoming climate migrants.
  • Some sort of case management process is created - which includes follow up procedures - that can help state and city officials keep track of climate migrants’ needs and ensure that those needs are being met.

Overall, the cooperation, collaboration, and engagement of a receiving community like Hoyloke, the public and private sectors, and, most importantly, climate migrants themselves, is vital to develop any successful plan or program that minimizes the social, psychological, economic, and other costs of displacement. 


Publication Date: September 2019

Related Organizations:

  • City of Holyoke, Massachusetts
  • Hunter College
  • University of Connecticut
  • Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA)

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  • Case study
  • Monitoring
  • Policy analysis/recommendations

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