Oped by Brianna Cunliffe

The climate crisis is personal for me. It has been ever since the September storm that woke me — the one that came when I was a thousand miles away.

In my first few days of college, Hurricane Florence bore down on my hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina. My parents, like most, ignored the evacuation order. Stubborn, loyal, brave — whatever their decision was, it was final:  they didn’t leave, even as weather reports grew increasingly frantic. Words like ‘historic’ and comparisons to Katrina were bantered around. Wilmington made the national news for being directly in the storm’s path. A famous anchor in his yellow rain slicker stood on the downtown street where my friends and I took prom pictures. He said it would soon be underwater. Every time I introduced myself to another room of strangers and said where I was from, I fought past the lump in my throat, getting the name Wilmington out.

I couldn’t think about classes, couldn’t bring myself to join the earnest scramble to make friends. The start-of-semester feast was served, lobster and lemonade in the glow of the late Maine summer. All I could do was wish myself a thousand miles away, where the winds were howling and the sea was roaring, wish myself home, wish myself into the eye of a hurricane.

I watched the radar, staring at the tiny dot of my hometown totally obscured in a sea of red pixels. I stared down at the lobster, garish and opulent on my plate, listened to the people around laughing without a clue, in the utter safety and privilege of this elite institution. All I could think of was my run-down neighborhood, and the trailer park next door, and my parents’ leaking roof, and the 70 mph gusts, and the torrents of rain. I watched the headlines scroll, watched the radar blink, and waited for a call.

Florence made my hometown an island. Pinned between the river and the sea, Wilmington, drenched and battered, was unreachable. No cars or calls got through. The roads looked like rivers, storm surges unsubsiding. The Carolina blue skies were relentless with rain.

I didn’t hear from my parents for four days. Four days of worry like a vise around my throat, of terror under a pasted-on smile, of passing strangers and stumbling every time I checked my phone. There was nothing, still nothing.  

This was not a new story — gas lines stretching for miles, power and water lines shut off, nuclear reactors narrowly avoiding crisis, cars flooding, coastlines wrecked. This is not a new story. The litany of names stretches on through the years: Irma, Maria, Katrina, Hugo, Irene, Hazel, Matthew. Growing up on the coast, you grow up on hurricane days, on camp stoves and candles and plywood over the windows and sandbags by the doors. Still, I wished I was back there, blistered from dragging away downed trees and sweeping stormwater down pine-clogged drains, knocking on the doors to check on my neighbors, offering shelter to those whose roofs had caved in.

I picked at gourmet food from the dining hall and tried to send love like radio waves from me to my hurting home. This time, I was a thousand miles away, seeking a brighter future while my past and the people I loved were fighting the floodwaters. This time, I was powerless to do anything but pray.  

It was not enough. I knew from then on it would never be enough.

And so I began to write, and I began to learn, and I began to fight.

Because Florence was not a natural disaster. Neither was Dorian, the storm that pummeled the Carolinas almost a year later to the day. Neither are the wildfires raging in California today. Neither are the droughts and the toxic rivers, the smog-filled air and the poisoned children living next to oil wells.

They are the consequence of greed, inaction, and a reckless disregard for everything we hold dear. The climate crisis is here.  It was crashing down on my home even as I learned about it in the classroom, even as I learned that those in power had known for decades the consequences of burning fossil fuels, but kept doing it anyway.

I was awake, now, and I was angry.

At last, I heard from my parents: power back on, the highways drying up. Downed trees, some damage, but the house still stands, and they’re safe. Not as bad as it could have been.

But there is no guarantee that next time we will be so lucky.

Wishing myself into the eye of the hurricane, I realized this: I cannot stop the storms in their tracks. I cannot stand between those I love and disaster. But I can use every breath in my body to hold them accountable — those who have failed to act to protect my home.  

Emissions from major corporations have created a climate crisis. Its impacts cross every border and seep into every aspect of our lives, from the food on our plate to the unclean air we breathe. Fossil fuel emissions warm the Atlantic waters which whip storms into frenzies, and fossil fuel money ensures that when those same storms hit again and again, nothing changes.

The stranglehold of fossil fuels on our government ensures that the very structures which are supposed to protect Americans are failing us. With every new disaster, that failure becomes even more apparent and despicable. Decades of inaction have done enough damage — we cannot afford to wait any longer.

In the aftermath of the storm, I wrote and fought and spoke and organized, first alongside the Sunrise movement on my campus and now as a Fellow with Elected Officials to Protect America. I work to empower the sort of bold leadership that could have shielded my community from the worst of the storm. I work to press those in power to take bold and immediate action on the scale the climate crisis demands.

Feeling powerless in the face of these losses threatens to paralyze us. It cannot. It is exactly what calls us, with constancy and courage, to fight each and every day for what we love — for our homes. For the planet we all call home, and for those who are here now, and who will come after.

In the eye of the storm, we come together, we breathe, and we begin. We demand better.