Floyd Bennett Field

Migrants Housed in Flood Zone

Some migrants came to New York to escape drought. The city’s putting them in a flood zone.

By Amanda Salazar


In late October of 2012, after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, the U.S. Army temporarily housed 2,000 troops at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, the city’s first municipal airport and a former naval base. The historic airport is now part of the National Parks Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area. The troops stayed at Floyd Bennett while they were providing aid to the surrounding communities, which were heavily impacted by the hurricane.

Now, there’s a new group of people being temporarily housed at Floyd Bennett Field. On Nov. 12, the city government opened a new shelter for asylum-seeking migrants on the park’s Runway 19, a former airplane runway. The semi-congregate shelter is made up of rows of trailers under a tent and houses families with children.

It’s one of the 210 emergency shelters City Hall has opened since last spring, when the current influx of 136,000 asylum-seekers to New York City began. The Floyd Bennett shelter has received criticism from residents, elected officials, advocates and asylum-seekers alike.

Restored Hanger 1 at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn New York (Gmerrill)

There are many reasons people are opposing Floyd Bennett Field as a location for a shelter — it’s located off a highway, has little public transportation and lacks a clear fire-safety plan, among other reasons. But one of its issues hasn’t been addressed as vocally: the shelter’s residents will have to contend with climate change.

Floyd Bennett Field is a flood zone, where standing water collects more than five inches deep with each heavy rain. Runway 19 is particularly bad, as its non-porous concrete can’t absorb water. Due to climate change, heavy rain events are becoming more common and more intense, increasing the likelihood of bad floods at Floyd Bennett.

As migrants come to New York City in part to escape climate change consequences in their home countries, the government is placing some directly in the path of the city’s own climate consequences.

Since April 2022, migrants from countries in Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean have been making their ways up through South America to the U.S.-Mexico border. There, they ask the federal government for asylum, and are redistributed to sanctuary cities and states across the country, including New York.

It’s hard to concretely decipher what portion of these asylum-seekers have come to escape climate-related issues at home, such as extreme heat or crop failure, as there isn’t strong data. It’s made even more difficult because migration and displacement are usually caused by multiple factors at once. An asylum-seeker who was a farmer back home might have left to escape violence and to find economic opportunity, since the crops on their farm wouldn’t grow due to drought. This person might not identify their reasons for moving as having anything to do with climate change, even though climate did contribute to their move.

However, experts do believe that climate plays a fairly large role in this current migration, especially extreme heat, drought and sudden-onset weather events.

“What we do know is that, globally, climate is one of the largest drivers of migration,” Stephanie Teatro, the director of climate justice & migration at the National Partnership for New Americans’ Climate Justice Collaborative, said. “The way we look at it is that climate is really a vulnerability multiplier. It accelerates other reasons why people may be migrating, and so we do know that for many people who are currently arriving in the United States, climate is a part of that story.”

About 22.3 million people were displaced within their own countries in 2021 due to weather-related disasters like storms, droughts and extreme temperatures, according to a report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Not all weather-related disasters are entirely caused by climate change, though, so it’s hard to perfectly connect this data with climate change migration.

Something that is well-documented is the fact that climate change is worsening and intensifying extreme weather and disasters.

“We can’t take an individual event like that and say it was just climate change that caused it, but what we can say is that the likelihood of an event like that was made much greater because of manmade climate change,” City College extreme weather researcher James Booth said.

At Floyd Bennett Field, situated right off the Belt Parkway near Mill Basin, Brooklyn, flooding is the main extreme weather impact. This effect is directly in contrast to the climate consequences experienced by many of the asylum-seekers.

Shortly before the shelter opened there, two immigrant advocacy groups, The Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless, toured the shelter. Both released statements saying the shelter is unfit to house people, especially children.

“Placing families with children at Floyd Bennett Field is a recipe for disaster, and the facility falls woefully short of providing the accommodations that this vulnerable population needs and deserves,” Adriene Holder, chief attorney of the civil practice at The Legal Aid Society, said.

The organizations cited a lack of privacy, distance between the bedroom trailers and the bathroom trailers, sanitary concerns and more for their opposition to the shelter, but did not mention the potential for flooding.

Since the shelter is made up of trailers and was designed to be temporary, it likely wasn’t built with the ability to withstand extreme weather. Because of this, a big rain event could potentially flood the shelter, destroying asylum-seekers’ possessions and causing distress. The Mayor’s Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

 The impact of one’s ability to provide for one’s family as one also tries to understand their own role in society and role in the family, it can become profoundly traumatizing and depressing, feeling as if there’s no way out.

—Rebecca Weston, climate psychologist

Research shows that climate-caused weather can have a serious impact on mental and emotional health.

Disasters and extreme weather events cause death, loss of property, destruction of homes, displacement and separation from family. The trauma these experiences cause can make a survivor feel constantly scared and on the lookout for the next disaster to upend their life. It harms quality of life and physical health.

“For people who have strong attachments to their homelands, cultures and communities, there’s often feelings of loss of place and identity,” Emily Nabong, a civil engineer who works on climate migration modeling, said in an email interview. “In the Pacific, the context that I work, people have very strong place attachment and some tell me that they would rather die in their home than move away. Especially when families and communities are broken up in movement, the tearing of the social fabrics can have really significant consequences for people personally and as a culture.”

The type of mental health consequences is also dependent on the type of extreme weather causing it. Flooding and hurricanes, for example, can create a sense of impermanence, foreshortened possibilities, a loss of familiarity and hypervigilance. Drought comes with its own associated trauma.

“The impact of one’s ability to provide for one’s family as one also tries to understand their own role in society and role in the family, it can become profoundly traumatizing and depressing, feeling as if there’s no way out,” climate psychologist Rebecca Weston said. “With respect to drought, not only does it create very real conditions of potential food and water insecurity, but it also produces identity consequences and fear for one’s future and children.”

Weston said it’s not yet known how compounding one form of climate trauma over another will ultimately impact people.

Unfortunately, it’s common for migrants, whether they’re moving to escape climate issues or not, to end up in a place that’s equally as bad or is worse-off in terms of climate.

“What we know is that when people come to the U.S., regardless of why or how or on what pathway, often immigrants do end up living in places where they’re again living on the frontlines of the climate crisis, where they’re again very vulnerable to the impacts,” Teatro said.