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.