When the coronavirus began its deadly sweep through the streets of New York City, Pilar Johnson knew she needed an escape route. The convergence of rising living costs, growing segregation, and a tight job market had already pushed out more than 200,000 Black residents since 2000.
The pandemic was the last straw for Johnson. Once the smoke cleared and the “mobile morgues” were rolled away, she was gone.
“I was living in a small one-bedroom apartment with myself, my partner, and our dog,” Johnson said from her new home in Houston. “I had to leave for the present moment, but also my future. If there is another pandemic-like disaster, I’d rather be here than be stuck in an apartment.”
The move offered her more stability in her professional life and the ability to reconnect with her roots, she said. That mindset resonates with many Black Americans who’ve traded the big-city life of the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast for booming Southern metropolises. Before the pandemic, there was already a significant resurgence of Black folks moving to the South, dubbed the “Reverse Great Migration” by historians, but COVID-19 accelerated the shift.
Across the country, suburban and rural areas have seen a boom in Black residents who’ve left urban centers with a desire for communities with more economic investment, accessible education, affordable housing, and a higher concentration of Black residents. But as seen during the Great Migration, leaving one city or neighborhood — often out of necessity — does not guarantee access to a better life.
Leaving the Big City
This shift has different undertones than the first waves of Black migration. For the first time in United States history, the white population is declining nationwide and white Americans are leaving the South in droves. With the shuffling of demographics, white population loss throughout the South is being countered by Black growth and the general increase of people of color. These major demographic changes are set to profoundly impact the country’s environment, economy, politics, and culture.
However, as Black folks move back South in masses to be reconnected with Black culture and achieve financial security, they’ve been awakened to troubling — and potentially life-threatening — realities: higher temperatures, stronger storms, and longer droughts. Each of the three Southern cities with the fastest-growing Black populations – Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta – is set to be one of the worst-hit places for future severe weather events.
Houston, which has the second-fastest-growing Black population in the country, will average 55 extreme heat days a year by the end of the century, compared with just one in 1990, according to an assessment organized by the city government. Johnson, who spent her childhood living in the South, is already grappling with the consequences.
“It’s hot as shit,” she said plainly about the region reeling from a record-breaking heatwave. “And it definitely feels hotter than what I remember.”
Harris County, where Houston is located, has the country’s highest hazard risk from disasters, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. In recent years, the city has suffered from Hurricane Harvey, which resulted in more than 100 deaths and damaged 200,000 homes, and a deadly 2021 winter storm which thousands of Houston residents had still not recovered from as of this spring.
Many of those residents are “climate migrants” themselves, having moved to Houston after Hurricane Katrina altered the lives of an entire generation of Mississippi and Louisiana residents.
For Johnson and many other Black folks in her position, it is hard to balance future implications with present-day needs and desires. The hope is that if there is an onslaught of climate disasters in the future, she’ll be able to escape.
“With everyone moving here now, development is following,” Johnson said, “so, eventually, if I wanted to sell for whatever reasons — if the politics or weather get to be too much — I think I would be able to get a pretty good return in the future.”
Although, if history is any indicator, Black Americans are least likely to retain housing and wealth in the face of disaster. A 2018 study by Rice University found that white people who lived in counties that faced damage and received federal aid after a disaster actually saw their wealth rise, while Black residents lost wealth.
Migrating in search of better opportunity is a risky move, but for hundreds of thousands of Black Americans, the current rewards are too much to pass up.
“When ‘Snow-COVID’ happened and the winter storm hit Texas last year, it was definitely something that gave us pause,” Johnson said. “But we decided to go through with the move. There were too many opportunities here for us not to.”
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