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Apr 11, 2020

Detained and exposed

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Social distancing, hand-washing and self-isolation are supposed to keep us safe from the coronavirus. But if you’re locked up in an  immigrant detention center, it’s impossible to follow those rules. Host Al Letson speaks with Reveal’s Laura C. Morel, who’s been following an asylum seeker from Cuba at a detention center in Louisiana that recently had its first case of COVID-19. Then Reveal’s Aura Bogado brings us the story of a migrant kid stuck in a California shelter, waiting to be released to a willing sponsor family.

We then pivot to another global crisis: climate change and its impact on the earth’s North and South poles. We start in Kivalina, an Alaska Native village above the Arctic Circle. Melting sea ice and storm surge will likely put Kivalina underwater. In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers says it could happen by 2025. With residents’ lives hanging in the balance, Reveal reporter Emily Schwing looks into why efforts to relocate Kivalina keep failing and whether state and federal agencies are equipped to support climate change refugees.  

Then reporter Carolyn Beeler boards an icebreaker to sail along the face of Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier. If Thwaites collapses, it could cause 2 feet of global sea level rise. But glaciologists fear the consequences could also be much worse: Thwaites may be holding back the entire West Antarctic ice sheet, almost like a cork in a wine bottle. If it crumbles into the ocean, the results could be catastrophic. 

NOTE: The segments about Kivalina and the Thwaites Glacier were originally broadcast in 2019.

Dig Deeper:

Credits

Reported by: Laura C. Morel, Aura Bogado, Emily Schwing, Carolyn Beeler

Produced by: Stan Alcorn, Priska Neely, Katharine Mieszkowski

Edited by: Brett Myers, Taki Telonidis, Jen Chien, Andrew Donohue

Production manager: Mwende Hinojosa

Production assistance: Amy Mostafa

Sound design: Jim Briggs, Fernando Arruda

Mixing: Najib Aminy

Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan

Host: Al Letson

Special thanks: Peter Thomson and Andrea Crossan at the public radio show The World for working with us on the story from Antarctica, The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration and everyone aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer research vessel.

Episode art is a painting by Ben Fine for Reveal.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

 

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. This is Reveal. I'm Al letson.
Al Letson: The other week, Reveal reporter, Laura Morel, did something a lot of us are doing these days. She made a video call. But she didn't use Zoom or FaceTime or Houseparty, she was using a video visitation app to connect to a group of men at the Pine Prairie Immigration Detention Center in Louisiana. The app's name is Getting Out, which is almost too fitting. Not only is it one of the few windows to the outside world for many immigrant detainees, today they were using it to hold a kind of protest press conference. And getting out was exactly what they were demanding.
Speaker 2: [Foreign Language 00:00:43]
Al Letson: On the screen were men in white t-shirts with gray sweaters packed into a tiny dorm lined with bunk beds.
Laura Morel: And they were holding up these white blankets because they don't have access to paper to put together regular signs you'd see at a protest.
Speaker 2: [Foreign Language 00:01:03]
Laura Morel: The blanket signs were washed out by the bright fluorescent lights, so they took turns reading them to the screen.
Speaker 3: [Foreign Language 00:01:11]
Al Letson: "Please help us. We're Human beings," they said, "someone help us, someone hear us"
Speaker 3: [Foreign Language 00:01:25]
Al Letson: We don't want to die locked up of COVID-19. There are more than two million people in prisons, jails and detention centers across the United States. While the government tells those of us on the outside to stay away from each other, to avoid spreading the coronavirus, people who are locked up or forced to be together, and the first outbreaks and the first deaths are already happening. The men who have been video chatting with Laura from the detention center, they came to the United States to request asylum. They ended up in danger because they were looking for safety. One of those men is Manuel Rodriguez Ruiz.
Laura Morel: Manuel is very... Despite the situation that he's in right now, he was always smiling. Like he always greeted me very kindly. [foreign language 00:02:18] He came from Cuba and back home. He used to be a bartender. So he picked up some English while serving tourists.
Speaker 4: Hello, [inaudible] my name is Manuel.
Laura Morel: And the last couple of years he was facing increased harassment from governmental authorities on the island because Manuel was pretty vocal about his opposition to the communist party. He told me that he had been harassed and assaulted a couple of times, which forced him to make the decision to leave Cuba and come to the United States.
Al Letson: Why the United States in particular?
Laura Morel: Because, he has a girlfriend here.
Mira: The first memories I see, he's a smile on his eyes and he's a special for me.
Laura Morel: Her name is Mira. And they met while she was on vacation in Cuba. Manuel leaves Cuba. He travels all the way to the US border where he asked for asylum. And once he's in custody, he calls his girlfriends Mira.
Mira: He called me, I'm safe me. I am here in United States.
Laura Morel: Do you remember that first phone call when he was detained?
Mira: Yes I remember but at this moment I don't have a fear.
Laura Morel: Mira says that she wasn't scared. She thought that Manuel would be released right away.
Al Letson: And why did Mira think Manuel would be released right away?
Laura Morel: Because, that's how it was. So it used to be that asylum seekers would arrive at the border and after a few days they would be released with a court date. And even if they did end up in ICE detention, they could be released under something called parole. But under the Trump administration, that's not really happening anymore. So in the region where Manuel is being held, the Southern Poverty Law Center is suing because the percentage of people being released dropped to near zero and the number has slightly improved in the last few months since the SPLC got involved with this lawsuit. But the number is still in the low double digits.
Victoria: This is sending incredible pricing change.
Laura Morel: One of the lawyers in the case is Victoria Mesa Estrada.
Victoria: When we know that 10 years ago 90% of the individuals were being granted parole. We are still way behind why the numbers should be.
Al Letson: So there's so there's been a huge drop in how many people are getting paroled out of immigration detention. Where did that leave Manuel and his girlfriend, Mira?
Laura Morel: Manuel has actually applied for a parole multiple times and he's been denied each time.
Mira: They don't like to give parole.
Laura Morel: You mean ICE? ICE doesn't like to give parole.
Mira: Yeah.
Laura Morel: Manuel is in Louisiana and Mira is in Florida and all they have right now is phone calls and video chats.
Mira: It's very hard situation.
Al Letson: And now on top of that you've got the coronavirus.
Laura Morel: Yeah. This has been incredibly stressful for the both of them.
Mira: When I arrived to United States, the coronavirus, the first case, I think, Oh my God, imagine all the persons inside with bad condition, with bad cleanliness, 70 person, 80 together. It's not good.
Laura Morel: And their worries are actually sort of a reality now because we found out recently that one person tested positive inside the detention center where Manuel is being held. He hasn't heard much from officers inside and so he's just doing his best to wash his hands and make sure that he covers his mouth with his t-shirt whenever he has to step outside of his room. I heard from another detainee who works in the kitchen that he has to wipe down the tables in the cafeteria area and he's not provided with disinfectant. He's literally using a cloth that he wets with water and that's it. That's all they have. We're hearing the same reports and other detention centers around the country. So lawyers around the country are trying to get people out of ICE detention. And among them is Victoria. They filed an emergency motion to try to get the release of asylum seekers across Louisiana and a few other States.
Victoria: Because one of the criteria that is identify on the ICE patrol director from 2009, is that individuals should be released on their parole if it's in the public interest of this country. And certainly it stopping the coronavirus is spread. It's in the public interest of the United States. So we're asking the judge to proactively order ICE to do their job.
Al Letson: And what's ICE's response to all of this? I mean, what have they been doing to deal with the coronavirus outbreak?
Laura Morel: So in the last few weeks, ICE has taken some actions. They've canceled social visits at detention centers, they've scaled down on arrests, and we also learned that they're starting to release detainees who would be vulnerable to the virus. And as of the end of March, they've released 160 people. But you also have to keep in mind that there is more than 35,000 people in ICE custody and a lot of the immigrant rights advocates and human rights organizations I spoke to said that ICE could be releasing a lot more people. I also spoke to a former head of ICE, John Sandwick, and he agrees with them.
John Sandwick: I know from experience that at least more than half the people in ICE detention have not committed a serious crime and there's no other evidence that they pose a threat to public safety. Let's go ahead and let those people out of custody, reduce the threat to the ICE officers and agents. Make it easier for us to manage the potential population as they also combat the crisis. Even if you're an immigration Hawk, nothing I am saying should frighten you.
Al Letson: So where does that leave us and where does it leave Manuel and Mira?
Laura Morel: So I called Manuel the day after ICE announced that someone had tested positive and Pine Prairie, which is where Manuel is being held.
Speaker 2: [Foreign Language 00:08:53]
Laura Morel: And he told me-
Speaker 2: [Foreign Language 00:09:00]
Laura Morel: That he was really stressed out, that this case confirms his fears, that the virus is inside of this facility and he's even more worried now.
Laura Morel: So Manuel is waiting and he's gonna keep waiting until either ICE makes a decision or maybe this court case decides what his future is going to look like. And there are thousands of other people just like Manuel, who are waiting in these facilities around the country waiting to see what's going to happen to them next.
Al Letson: That was Laura Morel immigration reporter at Reveal. As of April 8th, 32 detainees and 11 staff members and ICE detention centers had confirmed cases of COVID-19. During this pandemic, migrant children in custody are facing some of the same dangers as adults. The federal government keeps kids in shelters as they wait to be re-united with a relative or other adult who will sponsor them. The government's office of refugee resettlement decides if and when they get released. Reveal's Aura Bogado has learned about a unique case involving a 16 year old boy originally from Guatemala.
Al Letson: So Aura, what's happening with him?
Aura Bogado: Well. He's a victim of labor trafficking and we've agreed not to name him to protect his privacy. He's been in the US for a year, moving from shelter to shelter. Now with the pandemic, he's stuck in a shelter called BCFS Fairfield in California. Despite having a sponsor, one who's not related to the child, but a family who wants to take him in. I spoke with his attorney Ricardo de Anda.
Ricardo de Anda: He's eligible for a special juvenile immigrant visa as an abandoned and traffic child, but only if he's out of detention.
Aura Bogado: Through contacts in the faith community. Then they found a family in Minnesota that wants to sponsor the boy. They have two adopted children already. The boy's birth parents have signed off. He really wants it to, but the sponsorship was denied by the refugee agency. The email we obtained about this makes clear that the refugee agency didn't even consider the application, so now the child remains an indefinite detention.
Ricardo de Anda: He has to go through therapy. He's under constant watch and every little thing that he does, every temper tantrum that they may throw, ends up being a major event. For 16 year old it's just depressing.
Aura Bogado: It's very rare that the agency releases a child to a sponsor that's not related and that they haven't, but it has happened. So now the child is suing the federal government for his release.
Al Letson: And this lawsuit is really time sensitive, right?
Aura Bogado: Yes. The period for which he'll be eligible for a special immigrant juvenile visa, which is a pathway to citizenship runs out in about a year when he turns 18. Otherwise, the agency will likely turn him over to ice detention, but of course it's also sensitive now because of the pandemic.
Al Letson: I know it's almost impossible to speak with kids who are in these shelters, but you got to talk to them recently.
Aura Bogado: That's right. It was actually through his lawyer. We did a three way call and I got to talk to him for about 30 minutes, which is a lot more than I had hoped to get.
Speaker 5: Okay [Foreign Language 00:12:43].
Aura Bogado: I feel like it's like any conversation that an adult is going to have with a 16 year old for the first time. Whatever he was telling me, even if it was yes or no or very, very short answers, it's helpful just to get an idea of what things are like inside. [Foreign Language 00:12:59]
Speaker 5: [Foreign Language 00:12:59]
Aura Bogado: But he opened up a lot more than I thought that he would. He's indigenous. His mom originally from Guatemala, he grew up near the border with Mexico. He's a smart kid, he speaks his indigenous language Mayan, he speaks Spanish and he speaks some English. We kind of did a little bit of English back and forth.
Aura Bogado: [Foreign Language 00:13:34] How are you today?
Speaker 5: I'm good.
Aura Bogado: Where are you from?
Speaker 5: [inaudible]
Aura Bogado: Yes.
Speaker 5: [Foreign Language 00:13:42]
Aura Bogado: He recited the ABCs to me.
Speaker 5: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-E-K-L-M-N-O-P-Q-
Aura Bogado: But you know, this is another thing that we know about prolonged detention is that there's usually a three month cycle for learning. And so he's probably just learned the same things over and over again. And he's been in for a year.
Aura Bogado: This thing that just really sticks with me. [Foreign Language 00:14:18] He said something, there's good days and there's bad days. And so I asked him what a good day was?
Speaker 5: [Foreign Language 00:14:24]
Aura Bogado: And he's ALL, Oh, a good day is, going out into the world and having ice cream. We went somewhere where there were stores and he was just out in the world.
Speaker 5: [Foreign Language 00:14:38]
Aura Bogado: [Foreign Language 00:14:43] And I much later asked him , well, what's a bad day? [Foreign Language 00:14:47].
Speaker 5: [Foreign Language 00:14:47]
Aura Bogado: When it's rainy and we can't go out. You can't go outside when it rains. And you know, for a kid who's in federal custody and is stuck in this shelter, he could have answered that so many ways. But I think it's something that's such a simple pleasure that all of us are deprived from right now.
Aura Bogado: He is able to go outside and play football, play soccer, right. This facility can hold 18 kids, but there's only three kids there now. I was all, three kids playing soccer seems like a tough game. How do you do that? And he's all, "Oh, well there were other staffers that played with us". And so he described six people who are playing soccer and they played a 50 minute long game. I've asked the BCFS Fairfield shelter, I've asked headquarters, which is in Texas and I've asked ORR, the Federal Refugee Agency about why it is that kids are still playing contact sports during the pandemic and no one's gotten back to me about it.
Aura Bogado: He did say, "Oh, I washed my hands twice during that game". He knows he's supposed to wash his hands more often. He's saying that, they watch TV every night and they try to be six feet apart. He mentioned a couple of case managers. He mentioned two cooks that come in and out. He has a teacher, he has school every day. He comes into contact with more than a dozen people each and every single day. People who aren't wearing masks, who aren't wearing gloves. And so those are a dozen people who then are interacting with a whole bunch of other people in Fairfield, California. Thereby like exponentially increasing the risk in it. Just it doesn't have to be that way. And for him in particular, like he has a willing sponsor.
Bryce: My name is Bryce [Tache] I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Aura Bogado: Bryce and his husband already adopted two kids. They definitely seem to want him and he definitely seems to want to be there.
Bryce: Our first video chat, he was able to meet my husband, my boys, our dogs, kind of gave him a tour of the house and the neighborhood. And we had snow outside at the time, I don't think he'd ever seen snow before and letting him know, he plays soccer, there's soccer fields that are just a block from our house. So just trying to help him to, get some sense of what that might look like.
Aura Bogado: The kids birth parents are in Guatemala, they didn't raise him. But they've signed off on this family sponsoring him.
Bryce: We're not naive. We know that, given the trauma that he's experienced and is continuing to experience that there's going to be... a difficult transition period. But we do know he would be safe. He'd be able to have regular contact with his family in Guatemala. My hope is that any judge would see that that all makes sense. Right? That's my hope.
Speaker 5: [Foreign Language 00:18:06]
Aura Bogado: Any reporter is going to tell you that it's really difficult to speak with children who are inside of these shelters. I asked him, I was telling him about the radio show and I was all, just a lot of people in the United States in general, want to know what's going on with kids like you and what would you want to tell them? And he's all, "well, [Foreign Language 00:18:29] I just want people to know that I want to be out in the United States and I want to go to school and I want to study". And that was another thing that just really stuck with me because he's in the United States, but he's stuck in the system.
Al Letson: So Aura where do things stand now? What's going to happen with this 16 year old boy?
Aura Bogado: The child's attorney is asking the court to compel the refugee agency to consider the sponsor's application. It could move fairly quickly and it's possible that he's released in the near future, but for now he does the same thing he's been doing for a year. He waits.
Al Letson: Reveals Aura Bogado. Aura, thank you.
Aura Bogado: Thank you Al.
Al Letson: While the Coronavirus continues to throw people and systems into crisis mode all over the world. There are other massive global issues like, climate change and haven't gone away. Up next we go to a village in Alaska that could be underwater in just five years.
Al Letson: You're listening to Reveal.
Aura Bogado: From the center for investigative reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. For years, the federal government has been planning for pandemic, like the Coronavirus, even running elaborate drills for scenario, just like the one we're in now. Still, federal officials were caught flat footed when this pandemic actually hit. National stockpiles of medical supplies like masks and ventilators were inadequate. Not to mention communication breakdowns between states and various federal agencies. And all of this has me thinking about another looming crisis and how prepared we are to deal with it, whether it's more intense wildfires, increasingly dangerous hurricanes, food insecurity, climate change poses one of the greatest challenges we face.
Aura Bogado: Which brings us to a story we first aired last spring, we went to a tiny coastal village in Western Alaska above the Arctic circle, a village that could be underwater and less than a decade. It's called Kivalina. Kids are the first thing you notice in Kivalina, they play outside, they ride all over on snowmobiles and four wheelers. They seem to be everywhere.
Emily Schwing: What are you guys doing? Hey Erica.
Al Letson: That's reporter Emily Schwing.
Emily Schwing: You're playing. What are you playing?
Speaker 6: Vampires and humans.
Emily Schwing: Vampires and humans, are there vampires in Kivalina?
Speaker 6: No, we're just playing.
Emily Schwing: You're just playing.
Al Letson: The village sits on a sliver of sand and gravel. It's a barrier Island just 800 feet wide and about half a mile long with water on each side. A lagoon sits to the East and then a vast stretch of trees, tundra and rolling snowy hills. To the West is the Chukchi Sea, in the winter the deep blue black water is covered in ice and extends to the horizon.
Emily Schwing: It's a microphone, right?
Speaker 6: That one.
Emily Schwing: Don't yell in it because you'll blow... If you do that I'm listening, so it hurts my ears.
Speaker 6: Hello.
Emily Schwing: Hello, well, Tell me your name.
Speaker 6: I'm [inaudible]
Al Letson: This sea ice acts like a buffer. It protects the village from storms. But in a warming climate, there's not as much ice as there used to be. It forms later in the fall and melts earlier in the spring, allowing giant waves to pummel the island. So bit by bit, flooding and erosion are swallowing Kivalina. And the lives of the few hundred people who live here, including these kids are in danger.
Speaker 6: Do you know song, "Lost Boy?"
Speaker 6: I don't know that song.
Emily Schwing: Do you wanna sing it for me?
Speaker 6: I don't really know it.
Emily Schwing: Yeah, is it a good song?
Speaker 6: (singing)
Al Letson: The surest way to keep people safe, is to move them permanently, to relocate the village. In fact, residents here have been asking the federal government for help with that since at least the 1960s. Emily is in Kivalina to find out why more than 50 years later, that still hasn't happened.
Emily Schwing: I bump along in the back of a four wheeler behind Kelly Holly, she's 30 years old and a mother of five. She had big round cheeks, she wears thick overalls and she drives pretty fast. About a quarter mile from the center of the village we stop so Kelly can show me where her Anka is buried. Anka means grandmother in Inupiaq, the indigenous language people speak here.
Kelly Holly: Busy, quiet woman, always there, she used to be cutting caribou or cleaning up. I have a lot of stories but I don't know which one to tell.
Emily Schwing: On this side of the landing strip, rows of wooden crosses poke out of the snow. They cast long shadows in the springtime sun. Oh there she is, Louise.
Kelly Holly: [inaudible] Holly, yeah.
Emily Schwing: Oh, your grandmother was born in 1924.
Kelly Holly: Yup and her daughter is right here, my dad's sister. [inaudible] Stalker.
Emily Schwing: So this is just like your whole family.
Kelly Holly: Yeah.
Emily Schwing: Nearly everyone in Kivalina is Alaska native, Inupiaq. They've lived in this region off the land for more than 10,000 years. Hunting's a way of life and main source of meat. Seals, caribou, all kinds of fish.
Emily Schwing: I mean, does it make you sad to think that in a hundred years maybe all these gravesites might be gone?
Kelly Holly: Yeah.
Emily Schwing: It could happen way sooner. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers estimates that by 2025, all of Kivalina could be entirely underwater in a big storm. That's only six years from now. Kelly's ancestors didn't choose to live here, at least not permanently. The Inupiaq used to spend summers in tents along Kivalina's beach. They'd go fishing and take boats across the lagoon to pick berries. And when winter set in, they'd move inland to hunt caribou for food. In other words, they were semi-nomadic but in 1905 the federal government built a school on the island. And parents were threatened with jail time or losing their kids all together if they didn't send them to school. Ever since, people have lived on this tiny spit of sand and gravel. We take Kelly's bright red four wheeler a few hundred feet around the active runway, to where the Chukchi Sea meets the island. Last fall a storm brought gale force winds. Kelly says giant waves eroded an enormous piece of the beach.
Kelly Holly: About 20 feet high and 15 feet of land.
Emily Schwing: Going outwards.
Kelly Holly: Yeah.
Emily Schwing: Okay. She raises her arms about her head to emphasize how big the waves got. The piece of land that washed away was about as long as a pickup truck and as wide as a city bus.
Kelly Holly: It came really close to the run way, maybe five feet off the runway, so we're right there.
Emily Schwing: Was it scary?
Kelly Holly: It was scary, yeah. It wasn't to where we have to evacuate though.
Emily Schwing: There is no evacuation plan that could quickly get people to higher ground. That's because the only way off the island is by boat or plane, which may not be possible during a big storm. As Kelly and I talk the second airplane of the day arrives with a mail delivery and food to keep the local store stocked. Some of the passengers are coming home from doctor's appointments in Anchorage.
Emily Schwing: It kind of weird to be standing right here on the runway.
Emily Schwing: It's March, everything is buried under a thick crust of wind buffeted snow. So I can't see the sand or the gravel that washed away but there are hints at what happened. The tops of giant sand bags, half the size of a small car, peek out of the snow. Local volunteers used heavy machinery to pile them here years ago in an effort to protect the runway. Residents like Kelly have mixed feelings about what to do.
Kelly Holly: I keep thinking like having double thoughts to move out of Kivalina. But then my family grew here so I never left yet. I'm not thinking to leave now but I was thinking in the future maybe I should.
Emily Schwing: Leaving is complicated. Imagine if your entire community had to move, how would you and your neighbors handle it? How would you decide where to rebuild everything? Schools, houses, local businesses. And how would you pay for it? Way up here, construction costs a fortune. People in Kivalina have been grappling with these issues for decades and working with state and federal agencies to come up with a plan. Find a place where people are safe that also allows for them to preserve their unique culture. But the process is mired in red tape and bureaucracy and the clock is ticking.
Emily Schwing: Hi.
Speaker 9: Hi.
Emily Schwing: I'm here to visit with your grandmother.
Speaker 9: Yeah, she's home.
Emily Schwing: Okay cool. Lucy Adams lives in a small gray house that overlooks the Chukchi Sea. She's one of Kivalina's few remaining elders. Outside the door, a wolf pelt hangs in the wind. Next to that, a rabbit pelt and the reddish brown fuzzy skin cut from the lower legs of a caribou. The rest of the caribou is surely tucked away in a giant chest freezer outside the door. Lucy sits at her kitchen table in front of a sewing machine. Slowly piecing together a new lining for her coat. A [parkee 00:29:09], she calls it. She was born in 1933. The coffee mug on her table says so, aged to perfection.
Emily Schwing: Do you think you live in a good place now? Do you feel safe living here on the island?
Speaker 9: I can't understand you when you talk fast.
Emily Schwing: I know, I talk too fast, sorry. Lucy looks at me sideways, scrunches up her nose and shakes her head. Her first language was not English, in was Inupiaq. I was asking if you think that this, the island is a good place to live?
Speaker 9: No, it's not safe anymore. It's eroding, it's getting small, it's not safe to live here. We always just pray to be safe.
Emily Schwing: Until there's a plan and government money to help relocate the village, Lucy is stuck. Stuck here where it no longer feels safe but also stuck in limbo.
Speaker 9: It would be good to have running water instead of going back and forth to this water, to cook and to wash dishes.
Emily Schwing: Kivalina has never had running water and since the village needs to be relocated, regional and state leaders won't help install it on the island. This is the case with lots of infrastructure needs. Why beef up a seawall, build a new school or put in pipes for a water system if it's all going to flood.
Emily Schwing: Lucy and a lot of other people I talk with in Kivalina are really frustrated. They have to keep going without; without running water, without enough housing, without a school that's big enough for all the kids who live here. By far though, the thing people are most frustrated about is that they're still here living on this island where their lives are in danger. Millie Holly is Kivalina's tribal administrator.
Millie Holly: Our people have fought and fought and fought. Our parents and our grandparents have fought and fought and discuss and discuss and held meetings over time and again.
Emily Schwing: Millie's face is straight. Her mood is dark. She seems exhausted. For decades, she's been fighting to make relocation happen.
Millie Holly: Day in and day out, with the federal governments, with local governments, with the state and tell them, "Hey, we need help here, you guys caused us to live here by calling our people to attend school here."
Emily Schwing: In the early 2000s, she thought maybe Kivalina was getting close to finding a way off the island. The whole village worked for at least a decade to agree on a new location. They finally came to a consensus on where they wanted to move, but a 2006 report from the US Army Corps of Engineers called the site infeasible.
Millie Holly: You should have seen and heard Kivalina back then when they got that document. It was like we had a funeral for at least seven years. We grieved. There was no hope. There was no more fight. It was dismal.
Emily Schwing: The Army Corps report describes the village's site as geotechnically inappropriate and strategically problematic. In other words, the ground was unstable, mostly gravel and on top of that climate change threatened to erode the land there too. But the report says the do nothing approach wouldn't work either and says the village definitely needed to move and more than a decade ago, that cost was estimated at $275 million. Republican Senator, Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska says what's never been clear is where all that money might come from.
Lisa Murkowski: So a plan may be identified. The practical fiscal reality of how we implement that plan becomes a much greater challenge.
Emily Schwing: The money to move Kivalina could be pulled from a tangle of state and federal agencies, likely more than a dozen. I've interviewed people from those agencies for this story, but I didn't get any clear answers about how Kivalina's relocation might happen. One agency, FEMA, even has emergency management in its title. But because of the way Congress allocates disaster response money, the agency doesn't seem fully equipped respond to a slow moving disaster caused by thinning ice and sea level rise. In the age of climate change, Senator Murkowski says things need to be streamlined.
Lisa Murkowski: In my view, there is not one agency that is in charge. That makes this an even larger problem when it's not coordinated.
Emily Schwing: The residents of Kivalina could become some of America's first climate change refugees, but they won't be the last. If the US government can't help keep these 400 people above water, how will it respond as the climate crisis grows? What about when rising seas threatened much larger cities like Miami, Charleston, and New York?
Emily Schwing: I just wanted to ask you if you think the federal government is ready and prepared if something were to happen today to deal with so-called climate change refugees?
Lisa Murkowski: I would say no. The direct answer is, we are not as a government prepared. I think most people would say no.
Emily Schwing: Late in the afternoon as the wind picks up and the snow begins to blow around, I find myself way up on a giant hill on the mainland across the lagoon from Kivalina. Millie Holly and I drove about seven miles to get here from up here.
Emily Schwing: What do you think from up here?
Millie Holly: Windy.
Emily Schwing: It's windy.
Emily Schwing: We came out here on a brand new evacuation road. After years of fighting, the village is finally getting one. It's still under construction but it could help solve another problem when it's complete. The road leads to the site of a new school right where we're standing. Millie says it could be open by 2021.
Millie Holly: Yeah, it's a whole new place to think about home.
Emily Schwing: One day Millie wants to see the entire village move up here where it's safe from the sea. But not everyone likes this location and there's still no funding to make that happen. In a lot of ways, relocating Kivalina is still just a dream but Millie's feeling hopeful for the first time in a long while.
Millie Holly: It's awesome. Yay!
Emily Schwing: You seem so excited.
Millie Holly: I am. I'm happy. Oh my goodness.
Al Letson: Because of the coronavirus, construction has been halted on Kivalina's evacuation road. It's anyone's guess when work might pick back up again. Thanks to reporter Emily Schwing for that story.
Al Letson: For our next story, we board an icebreaker to Antarctica.
Carolyn Beeler: Nobody has been where we are right now, before.
Al Letson: Going where no person has gone before. In the name of climate science. That's next on Reveal.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. This is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
Al Letson: Today's show looks at some of our greatest challenges, from the coronavirus pandemic to melting threats posed by climate change. For our last story, we travel to the bottom of the globe, Antarctica.
Al Letson: That's the sound of penguins nearby Thwaites Glacier. Thwaites is a huge glacier, more than a half a mile thick and the size of Great Britain and it's no surprise, it's melting. Many scientists are predicting that Thwaites may be doomed to crumble into the ocean. If that happens, global sea levels could rise up to two feet just from this one glacier. But that's not even the bad news because this glacier is holding back another colossal sheet of ice, kind of like a cork in a wine bottle. If all of it slips into the ocean sea levels could rise by 11 feet.
Al Letson: Few people had ever stepped on Thwaites Glacier and no one had ever traveled by sea along the glacier's front, until recently. About a year ago, a group of scientists spent two months aboard a research vessel to study Thwaites up close. Reporter, Carolyn Beeler, from the Public Radio show, The World, joined them in this first of its kind expedition.
Carolyn Beeler: My journey starts on a windy day at the end of January, at a port near the Southern tip of Chile. I walk across a gangplank toward an icebreaker the length of a football field, with nearly 60 scientists, staff and crew.
Carolyn Beeler: Just walked on the ship, my new home for eight weeks.
Carolyn Beeler: In port, the Nathaniel B. Palmer feels solid and stable like a floating college dorm with a cafeteria and bright green flooring. But as we sail south from Chile and through open ocean, 20 foot swells, pass it around like it's a little dinghy. This same ocean is responsible for melting Thwaites Glacier. Winds are now pushing warm ocean waters up underneath part of the glacier that extends out into the sea. If that part breaks off, the entire glacier would be vulnerable. Early into our journey, I talked to Rob Larter, the ship's chief scientist, about research suggesting the collapse of Thwaites is inevitable.
Rob Larter: The suggestion was that Thwaites Glacier had already past the point of no return and whatever you do now the retreat is really inevitable.
Carolyn Beeler: Rob works for the British Antarctic Survey. He's traveled to Antarctica nearly two dozen times.
Rob Larter: If they are right, the question then becomes, how fast is it going through retreat? How fast are we going to lose that ice?
Carolyn Beeler: If Thwaites collapses, it would push up sea levels around the world. Entire neighborhoods in Boston, where I live, could be underwater. From Miami to Mumbai, cities across the globe would need to plan for that sea level rise. But Rob says,
Rob Larter: I don't think everybody is convinced that it is necessarily inevitable at the moment.
Carolyn Beeler: Are you convinced that it's inevitable?
Rob Larter: I'm keeping an open mind. I think I hope it's not as bad as some of us fear it is because I've got teenage children and I'd like them to live in a world where it's not a disaster scenario.
Carolyn Beeler: As we sail south, the specter of this glacier looms over me. This research is sobering but actually doing it is also exciting. No one's ever been in front of the main part of Thwaites Glacier, where we plan to go.
Peter Sheehan: Basically, we have no idea what the ocean looks like there.
Carolyn Beeler: Peter Sheehan works at the University of East Anglia in the UK. He's never been to Antarctica before. Once we get to Thwaites, he'll be measuring how much warm water is reaching it for the very first time.
Peter Sheehan: So that is really exciting. That's kind of like harking back to the ancient age of Antarctic exploration if we're going somewhere that no one's ever been before.
Carolyn Beeler: No one's ever been there before because the sea in front of much of Thwaites is usually covered in ice.
Carolyn Beeler: We break through some of that ice en route to the glacier. The ship slams it's heavy nose on thick slabs of ice to crack them, then sails through the black gash of open water.
Carolyn Beeler: The area is nearly ice-free as we get closer to the glacier. The morning we're set to arrive at Thwaites, I set my alarm for 4:00 AM and get out of my bunk to walk up four flights of stairs to the bridge. And there it is, a cliff of ice, six or seven stories tall. The captain and chief mate are silently navigating along its face. It's still dark and foggy and they use a spotlight to look for stray icebergs.
Carolyn Beeler: It's snowing and the beam of the spotlight on top of the ship is lighting up a column of swirling snow.
Peter Sheehan: Morning.
Carolyn Beeler: Peter is working the night shift and comes to look out the window with me. The long wall of white ice in front of us almost glows in the darkness.
Peter Sheehan: I didn't expect we'd get so close to it. It's huge. It looks like lots of the icebergs that we've seen. This just keeps going. Maybe it's the light, but it looks kind of mystical, that kind of blue tinge and everything.
Carolyn Beeler: Yeah, I'm whispering and I don't know why.
Peter Sheehan: You can Google Image everything these days. So if you asked me to picture an ice shelf 24 hours ago, this is what I'd have thought it would have looked like, but there's something different about seeing it in person. That sense of reverence that you're whispering and you don't know why. Nobody whispers in front of Google images.
Carolyn Beeler: Nobody has been where we are right now, before.
Peter Sheehan: No.
Carolyn Beeler: As the sun rises, the ship wakes up and people stream up here to the bridge. The mood shifts from reverential to celebratory, almost like a party. Six decks up, we can't quite see over the top of the glacier. I watched the ice go by for a while with Rob.
Peter Sheehan: It's fantastic. This is a critical boundary in the world today. This is where rapid change is really happening and we're actually standing and looking at the bit that's rapidly changing.
Carolyn Beeler: As the day progresses, the mood shifts again to something more somber, because we start to actually see those rapid changes. Ice shelves usually look like vertical cliffs, walls of ice, solid and several stories tall with flat tops like a butcher block table. But as we travel along the glacier face, Thwaites looks anything but solid. Instead it's sloping toward the sea, almost like a sand dune.
Peter Sheehan: It's curving down, gradually rolling off. The actual cliffs are not very high at all.
Lars Boehme: So it doesn't look like ice shows I've seen before.
Peter Sheehan: Like Rob, Lars Boehme, from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, spends the next few days puzzling over the shape of the ice sheet. He's struck by the parts of the glacier that look jagged and bumpy like piles of giant rocks covered in blankets of snow.
Lars Boehme: This one looks like big icebergs and ice cubes just frozen together. It looks very chaotic.
Carolyn Beeler: And did that surprise you?
Lars Boehme: Absolutely.
Carolyn Beeler: And that surprised me, that even the experts weren't expecting this, that the glacier would so obviously look like it's falling apart. While we're standing up on the bridge, sonar equipment attached to the bottom of the ship is mapping the sea floor below us for the first time.
Joey Patterson: Test one, two. Okay, do you think we can really hear ourselves?
Carolyn Beeler: Late in the afternoon as fog cocoons the ship, Joey Patterson tries to bounce her voice off the lumpy glacier face in front of us.
Joey Patterson: Whoop! I don't know, did you hear it?
Carolyn Beeler: I heard it! We're moving away though. We're going to lose it.
Joey Patterson: Woo! Oh, That was amazing. You can bounce your voice off the glacier, Johan.
Johan: Yeah, there's an echo.
Joey Patterson: Do it. Let's hear it.
Johan: Ho!
Carolyn Beeler: Joey would later tell me this was a weird moment for her, both thrilling and sad because this jumbled up glacier in front of us, it's almost like staring climate change in the face. For Peter, seeing the jumbled up face of the glacier made climate change feel less academic.
Peter Sheehan: The knowing part hasn't changed. I know that we're not in a particularly good position. That hasn't changed. But yeah, maybe it feels a bit more real now.
Carolyn Beeler: A few days later, the map of the sea floor right in front of the glacier is filled in. Peter and other oceanographers have measured the temperature of the water in front of Thwaites for the very first time. All of this will feed into models that will predict how soon Thwaites might collapse and how much it will add to global sea levels when it does.
Carolyn Beeler: But the question that Lars Boehme asks is when we're going to do something about it.
Lars Boehme: We have to change policies. The question is, how long will it take because the longer we wait, the worse these impacts will be.
Carolyn Beeler: Back at the beginning of this trip, chief scientist, Rob Larter, told me he was keeping an open mind about whether the collapse of Thwaites was inevitable. At the end of our cruise, I ask him that same question again.
Carolyn Beeler: There have been studies published suggesting that Thwaites is past its tipping point and it's collapse is inevitable. Do you think that is the case?
Rob Larter: Do I think it's the case? I think that's more likely than not. Yeah.
Carolyn Beeler: And does he think the entire Mexico sized piece of ice around Thwaites will also collapse?
Rob Larter: I guess if you're asking me to project hundreds of years into the future, unless there's some amazing change to where we managed to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, then I think, yeah, the West Antarctic ice sheet is ultimately doomed.
Carolyn Beeler: Very roughly, that would mean the storm surges that flooded lower Manhattan during hurricane Sandy would become permanent. The new baseline sea level. For Rob, the bigger question now is how fast that'll happen.
Al Letson: Carolyn Beeler is a reporter for the Public Radio show, The World. You can find more of her stories from Antarctica at the world.org/antarctica. Our show this week was produced by Stan Alcorn, Priska Neely and Katharine Mieszkowski. It was edited by Brett Myers, Taki Telonidis and Jen Chien, with help from Andy Donohue.
Al Letson: Thanks to Peter Thompson and Andrea Crossan at the Public Radio show, The World, for working with us on the story from Antarctica. And to the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration and everyone aboard the Nathan B. Palmer research vessel.
Al Letson: Thanks also to Reveal's Aura Bogado and Patrick Michels for their work on the story about ICE detention centers. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel, our production manager is, Mwende Hinojosa, score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J-Breezy, Mr Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Najib Aminy and Amy Mostafa. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Comarado Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Al Letson: Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. And remember, the only way through this is together.