The devastating storms struck more than 1,000 miles away from the US-Mexico border, wiping out homes, crops and jobs.
Now, months later, some migrants hoping to start over in the United States say the hurricanes are a big reason behind their decision to head north.
“The house fell down all around us. Thank God my mom survived,” a teenager from Guatemala tearfully told CNN as he took his first steps in the United States.
“You always dream about living in a house with your children. Now we have nothing,” a Honduran mother said from a bus station in Brownsville, Texas, after crossing the border with her 6-year-old daughter.
“(Hurricane) Eta — plus the pandemic — left us with nothing,” a Honduran father told CNN en Español shortly after US authorities deported him and his family to Reynosa, Mexico.
These voices from the border are a reminder of two important contributors to this crisis that haven’t gotten much attention, even as political debate heats up: climate change and Covid-19.
Powerful, back-to-back hurricanes in November exacted a heavy toll on a region already suffering from the economic devastation of the pandemic.
That’s making the situation unfolding now at the US-Mexico border even more complicated. Here’s how:
Two intense hurricanes displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Now some of them are migrating
It’s a possibility political leaders in Central America and experts on climate migration began warning of as soon as Hurricane Eta and Hurricane Iota struck. Months ago, a Honduran doctor who spoke with CNN said there wasn’t any doubt the storms were going to spur more migration.
“So much famine is coming because the last harvest was lost. There is no capacity to store anything. Prices were already skyrocketing. … I don’t want to think about what’s going on through the minds of those who lost everything,” nutrition specialist Dr. Maria Angélica Milla said in November. “Prepare for the waves.”
Climate change itself is rarely the lone driving factor behind migration, says Kayly Ober, program manager of Refugees International’s Climate Displacement Program. But in exacerbating existing issues, it can play into people’s decisions.
“In the case of Hurricanes Eta and Iota, yes, the pure intensity of the scale and impact was definitely impacted by climate change,” she says. “That wrought a level of destruction that was unheard of in some parts of the region.”
Flooding wiped entire communities off the map in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Homes were destroyed. Millions of people were affected, and hundreds of thousands were displaced.
Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher at Colorado State University who monitors and analyzes hurricane trends around the globe, told CNN last year that the fact that water temperatures were warm enough to allow both storms to rapidly intensify so late in the hurricane season was a clear signal of global warming.
Many migrants who’ve spoken with CNN over the past month have said the storms played a part in their decisions to flee. They’ve also mentioned other factors, like the hope that a new US presidential administration would be more welcoming.
Families in the region were already “surviving on the edge of a knife” even before the storms, facing food shortages and pervasive violence, says Meghan López, the International Rescue Committee’s regional vice president for Latin America.
“The hurricanes were…the last in the series of what was a devastating year,” she says, noting that the storms were one part of a complicated mix of factors fueling migration.
“To have the pandemic on top of that, to have aid to the region cut, all of these things create this pressure cooker where there’s no escape valve,” López says. “And the only escape valve is to try to flee the terrible situation people are living in. … People are making desperate decisions.”
The pandemic had already deepened problems in Central America
López says the pandemic, like the hurricanes that hit the region, made existing problems far worse.
“If people were already experiencing violence, they were then locked into their communities, locked into their homes with that violence,” she says. “Really Covid just exacerbated at ratcheted every single issue that people are facing in the region, and every single risk factor for migration in the region, up many, many notches.”
Another reason why, Ober says, is that coping strategies subsistence farmers would use to get through economic hardship were no longer an option once the pandemic hit. For example, during prolonged and repeated droughts in the region known as “the dry corridor,” it’s common for farmers to temporarily move into cities for a season if their crops are struggling.
“With Covid-19, it was a double whammy,” Ober says. “If you moved to the city, there were lockdowns, and you weren’t able to access those economic opportunities anymore. It made it harder to overcome any kind of shocks.”
The pandemic pushed 22 million more people into poverty in Latin America last year, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. That’s on top of the public health consequences, which have also been devastating.
It’s also made logistics at the border more difficult
In addition to worsening economic conditions in Central America, the pandemic has also contributed to a big backlog at the US-Mexico border.
“It’s playing a huge role,” says Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
A growing number of unaccompanied minors are being held in facilities longer than the 72-hour legal limit because shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services haven’t had enough space due to pandemic constraints on how many people they could house.
“The administration had limited HHS’ capabilities to shelter unaccompanied child migrants. They had decreased their bed space by 40%. Thousands of beds that normally would be available were offline,” Pierce says. Even though those capacity rules were recently lifted and the shelters have been ramping up to hold more people, she says, the process has been slow.
Another major complicating factor: the pandemic is ongoing — raising public health questions about the conditions in facilities where migrants are detained and how coronavirus testing is being conducted.
“There hasn’t been a lot of transparency about the testing process. … It’s adding a layer of complexity to an already very challenging situation,” Pierce says.
And the government hasn’t given the media access to the Customs and Border Protection facilities where many migrants are being held, so there’s still a lot we don’t know about what’s happening behind closed doors.