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Anxiety hangs over Arizonans facing impending climate disasters


Stronger hurricanes, longer heat waves, bigger forest fires - the natural disasters we've seen this past year have been more severe, more deadly and more numerous than in decades past. And we know a warmer climate is part of the reason why. But climate change is doing more than causing physical harm to homes and communities. There's also anxiety, uncertainty and grief. Melissa Sevigny reports from member station KNAU in Flagstaff, Ariz.

MELISSA SEVIGNY, BYLINE: When a lightning-sparked fire burned toward the edge of Flagstaff this summer, Cat Edgeley was among more than 1,000 people told to prepare to evacuate.

CAT EDGELEY: And I was really taken aback by how emotional I was. So looking at all my things and videoing it for my insurance company just in case, it really hit home how real it is.

SEVIGNY: Edgeley, a social scientist, studies the emotions that arise during wildfires. And now she was experiencing them herself. She packed her car and drove away amid flurries of falling ash.

EDGELEY: I think because I research this all the time, I didn't expect it to affect me as much as it did. But I was kind of up at night thinking about it, like, checking my phone all the time.

SEVIGNY: In her research, Edgeley has found that for some, anxiety lingers, even years later. She says it's easy to measure recovery by rebuilt houses or repaired roads.

EDGELEY: It's a lot harder to measure how many people are still feeling down about it. How many people are still worried or scared six months, a year, 10 years later? And what does that do to their connection to a place? Do they still want to live there? Do they still feel safe?

SEVIGNY: Those kinds of questions preoccupy local therapist Collin Hagood. He says most of his clients don't come to him because they're worried specifically about climate change. But fires and other climate disasters can worsen anxiety and depression.

COLLIN HAGOOD: These disasters and climate change in general tends to produce a stress response. And it's very much like what we might respond to any number of other stressors, with fighting or fleeing or freezing up.

SEVIGNY: And just the anticipation of a natural disaster can produce its own kind of sadness called solastalgia.

HAGOOD: Solastalgia has to do with a sense that you're losing your home, even though you haven't left it.

SEVIGNY: That sense of impending loss has hung over some Flagstaff residents for the past two years, ever since a wildfire charred the hills above the city. This summer, torrential rains on that drastically altered flood plain tore up houses that never experienced flooding before, including Annisa Doten’s.

ANNISA DOTEN: You know, just this week, I made my third mortgage payment on a house that I no longer live in. It's hard to do that and not feel angry about the situation.

SEVIGNY: Doten had to move out. One of her children has special needs and can't safely climb over the six-foot-high walls of sandbags and cement barriers that now surround her house.

DOTEN: And my kids are sad. They want to come home. And, you know, when I pick them up from school and we leave, they say, where are we going? And I say, home, meaning their grandparents'. And they say, are we going to Nonny's (ph) or we going to flood house, is what they call this now.

SEVIGNY: A few blocks downhill, Dawn Rodriguez is also worried about losing her family home to the floods.

DAWN RODRIGUEZ: The side room, where you saw the construction, it's a total loss.

SEVIGNY: She says the whole neighborhood is living with constant dust and mold and the fear of more floods.

RODRIGUEZ: We did everything right. We did everything right. We did the sandbags. We were here. We weren't neglectful. And so I don't - a future, I don't see much of a future.

SEVIGNY: Rodriguez said she always meant to leave this house to her children. Her family bought it the day her first daughter was born. Now she thinks about selling, but she wonders if anyone will buy. For NPR News, I'm Melissa Sevigny. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Melissa grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Arizona and an M.FA. in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. Her first book, Mythical River, forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press, is about water issues in the Southwest. She has worked as a science communicator for NASA’s Phoenix Mars Scout Mission, the Water Resources Research Center, and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Melissa relocated to Flagstaff in 2015 to join KNAU’s team. She enjoys hiking, fishing and reading fantasy novels.