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Home » It’s ‘inescapable’: Pacific Islanders have tried to flee the climate crisis, only to face new threats

It’s ‘inescapable’: Pacific Islanders have tried to flee the climate crisis, only to face new threats

It's 'inescapable': Pacific Islanders have tried to flee the climate crisis, only to face new threats

(CNN)Selina Neirok Leem grew up listening to the Pacific Ocean at her home in the Marshall Islands. She watched high tides wash over the islands' seawalls, and her family trekked inland when the storm surge from tropical cyclones destroyed homes close to the shore.

It was during those storms that Leem's grandfather would force her family to retreat to higher ground, even as he insisted on staying behind to protect their home from the rising seas.

"I would always be so mad and terrified, because in my mind as a kid, I imagine all these horrible things happening," Leem told CNN of those moments, "that I might not even see him tomorrow."

The climate crisis has been thrashing the Pacific Islands, causing drought, coral reef bleaching, more powerful storms and sea level rise. Super Typhoon Yutu in 2018 left thousands in the US territories of Saipan and Tinian without homes, power and running water for months. At least 57 percent of the infrastructure in the Pacific Islands will be threatened by rising sea levels during this century, according to a United Nations report.

With climate disasters increasing in frequency and intensity, many Pacific Islanders have chosen to leave their home islands to escape climate-related economic issues and health hazards. But where they've settled, climate change is appearing in different — though just as devastating — ways.

Around 30,000 people have moved to the US from the Marshall Islands, an independent nation about halfway between Australia and Hawaii. Washington, Oregon, and California are among the top destinations for Marshallese, according to researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The Western US isn't threatened by tropical cyclones, and its risk to sea level rise is comparatively lower than other parts of the United States.
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