The news has been bad as of late, huh? It seems the universe wanted to remind us what the findings from the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could look like in real time. Haiti, whose president was assassinated only last month, is in an emergency after Tropical Storm Grace drenched survivors only days after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake rocked their home. Then, there’s Mexico, which was also hit by Grace but as a Category 1 hurricane.
I’m sorry, folks, but I don’t have much good news to share, either.
Welcome to The Frontline, where I’m writing from Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, where choosing the wrong political party can get you killed. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. I’ve been down here reporting on the aftermath of last year’s Hurricanes Eta and Iota, and I’m feeling pretty defeated. The Miskito Indigenous peoples of the region were hit twice in a matter of weeks. I spent a few days meeting folks and hearing about how they survived and how they’re preparing for future storms. Their story is both inspiring and heartbreaking—and a glimpse of what’s to come as our oceans become harbingers of wind, rain, and pain.
LAYASIKSA, NICARAGUA—I could barely sleep my first night away. I washed myself with lukewarm water, pouring bucket after bucket over my head to rinse out the shampoo, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from sweating. I was sticky from the heat. There’s no air conditioning in this coastal community—not even a fan. There was just thick air, full of nocturnal creatures I could not see.
I lay shrouded with a mosquito net, but I didn’t feel safe. I heard something shrieking and shuffling in the ceiling, which was made of zinc metal sheets and wooden beams, but I had no lamp to turn on and catch a glimpse. I only had my flashlight. With a quick flash, I could see that two bats were seeking refuge in my room with me. Beneath me, as the house sat atop stilts, I could hear pigs snorting and chortling away. I couldn’t escape the noise or the dark or the heat, but I eventually drifted off to sleep.
This is the way the Miskito of Layasiksa live. They have no electricity grid; they use mini solar-powered bulbs in some rooms. They have no running water. Instead, they rely on rainwater and the occasional filtered water someone brings in from Puerto Cabezas, the closest city. There are no cars or roads in their community—just a couple boats to traverse the nearby canals, rivers, and lagoons for fish or shrimp.
Despite the absence of fossil fuels or industrial pollutants, the Miskito aren’t safe from their toxic legacy. Climate change is here, and they’re on the frontlines of the crisis. Last year, on November 3 and 16, Hurricane Eta and then Iota struck on a nearly identical path. Community members told me they thought Hurricane Eta, a Category 4 terror, was bad—but then came Iota, a Category 5. Most of the time, they wouldn’t even speak of Eta despite the floods and destruction it caused to their homes. They were always speaking of Iota because while Eta pulled off their roofs and yanked out some trees, Iota completely flattened their tropical paradise. Only a handful of homes survived; the rest were entirely lost. Hearing them recount the details of that night—and how they managed to walk away with zero deaths twice with zero government assistance—sent chills down my spine.
One of the homes that remained standing after both disasters belonged to Kent Rivera, the fixer who arranged and coordinated everything for my visit. It was painted a dusty pink with two bedrooms and a common area. His simple wooden house looked like a mansion next to many others that lay on the ground with four walls, crowding an entire family in a single room.
That first day I arrived, Rivera walked me through Layasiksa, the village where he grew up and where his parents live. He pointed out the cemetery tombs: “At least ours survived,” he told me in Spanish. “In Haulover, another Misikito community, Iota left bones scattered across the ground.” We stood next to dead 300-year-old mango trees whose trunks were taller than me. I admired the coconut saplings already a foot tall. He tells me his mother once had a garden of 70 coconut trees—Iota killed them all.
His mother reminded me of my own: a constant worry and warmth in her eyes. She embraced me and asked me about my boyfriend, about the kids I don’t yet have, and about my life in New York. She told me I must return and that next time I must come speaking Miskito, their native tongue. She introduced me to Rivera’s cousin Slilma, explaining that her name means star in Miskito.
For some reason, that word stuck with me. Slilma. Perhaps it’s because of the stories they’d tell of the night Hurricane Iota fell. It was nearly midnight when the eye passed over Laysiksa. Some thought the storm had passed, so they stepped out to assess the damage. Then, they heard a screech off in the distance no one could describe. When they looked at the sky, there was only darkness. No moon. No stars. No slilma. Just black—and the sound of the world ending around them.
Stay tuned for a full story on my reporting in Atmos’s next print issue out in December.