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Craig Messinger is one example of the toll climate change is taking on human life

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Climate change is deadly. It fuels more extreme heat waves, floods, hurricanes, wildfires. And those disasters lead to hundreds of deaths each year here in the U.S. Well, NPR's climate desk is remembering some of those whose lives have been cut short, and reporter Rebecca Hersher is here to tell us about it. Hey there, Becky.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hey.

KELLY: Hey. So this is an unusual frame for talking about climate change and the impact it's having on all of us and our world. Why did you want to focus on individual people who've died?

HERSHER: Well, you know, every year I report on the hundreds of people who die in hurricanes and floods and wildfires and heat waves. But it's honestly - it's just a number most of the time. The individual deaths are rarely the focus of our reporting. And so we wanted to consider those stories, you know, to hear from families who have lost people and hopefully understand the human cost of climate change more deeply by doing that.

KELLY: Who are we remembering today?

HERSHER: So today we're remembering Craig Messinger. He died in a flash flood that hit the Philadelphia suburbs in 2021. And I sat down with his daughter, Mandy, to talk about her dad and also to talk about the connection between his death and climate change.

MANDY MESSINGER: My father wasn't home a lot growing up. He worked a lot, but the weekends were really special. On Sundays, we would go antiquing. My father was a massive collector. He had outfitted our entire basement like a '50s sort of, like, diner. It had black-and-white tile floors, jukebox. We had the red, like, vinyl couches set up in a little booth. He was kind of obsessive.

HERSHER: Craig worked six days a week helping to run the family eyeglass business in Philly.

MESSINGER: The way he closed his office at the end of the night was the same every single day, where he would blow off the keyboard. And then everything was moved like this, like, in alignment. No account was left open. Everything was - I don't think my father was ever late on a bill, ever.

HERSHER: He was extremely predictable, which is kind of reassuring for a kid. Reliability is a nice thing to have in a parent, and Craig was just as reliable in his love and support. Like, you knew exactly where he stood.

MESSINGER: I mean, when I started dating women near the end of college, I had no issue telling my parents. And when I got married to Lauren, my wife, I mean, it was, like, one of the happiest days of my father's life, truly. And then when we told him that we were trying to have a baby, it was like, next level. Yeah.

HERSHER: Yeah.

MESSINGER: He cried. He was making up names. He already told us what he wanted to be called. I'm like, I'm not pregnant yet, but...

HERSHER: What was it, do you think, about becoming a grandfather potentially that was so exciting to him?

MESSINGER: He loved kids.

HERSHER: It's hard to talk about.

MESSINGER: Yeah.

HERSHER: Yeah.

MESSINGER: It's, like, really, really hard to know that he's not around to meet Ashton. I mean, he loved him before he was even in existence. And it just, like - it's probably the hardest thing.

HERSHER: The disaster that took Greg's life began thousands of miles from Philadelphia. On August 29, 2021, a massive category four hurricane called Ida hit Louisiana. Ida formed over abnormally warm water in the Gulf of Mexico, which meant it was carrying extra moisture, so it came ashore with tons of rain. Storms like Ida are getting more common because of climate change. All the extra heat that humans have trapped on Earth causes these really huge, rainy hurricanes. And the rain didn't stay in Louisiana. Bands of rain moved north, and by the evening of September 1, they'd reached the Philadelphia suburbs.

MESSINGER: That hurricane, for me, came out of nowhere. It was raining, and then it was raining hard - pouring, like, pouring.

HERSHER: It was enough rain to cause dangerous flash flooding, but the danger wasn't necessarily obvious. After all, rainy weather happens in Pennsylvania. Craig left his office near Philly as usual around 6 p.m. Mandy was at her home in northern New Jersey. Everything seemed fine.

MESSINGER: And then I got a text from my brother that was like, hey. Dad went missing, and people can't get in touch with him.

HERSHER: The family called the police and then waited.

MESSINGER: In my mind, he was going to be found. He was just stranded somewhere because the water was around him. Whatever. But like, there was - it didn't cross my mind that anything would be gravely wrong. I started to panic probably around, like, 11 or 12.

HERSHER: That night, Mandy barely slept. When the rain stopped in the wee hours, she and her wife drove south toward Philadelphia.

MESSINGER: I mean, the highways - there were cars stranded all throughout the highway. I mean, it was way worse than I ever imagined.

HERSHER: At that point, was there a suspicion in your mind that something was really wrong?

MESSINGER: Yeah, but it was so small. We pulled into his office parking lot, and as we were pulling in, I got a call. And they told me that they had found him and that he was deceased. And I think that was the worst moment of my entire life.

HERSHER: Craig had drowned in his car. He was three days shy of his 71st birthday.

MESSINGER: He was leaving work, and his car got caught in flood waters. But he called his wife from the car, and he left her a voicemail saying, my car is flooding. I'm going to die. Yeah. So he knew as it was happening. I don't think I could ever listen to that voicemail because you hope that, when someone passes - that it's painless. But, you know, the flood waters happened really, really fast.

HERSHER: There are a lot of things about her dad's death that Mandy is still processing - the suddenness, the shock of the rain's intensity, the violence of how he died and the loneliness. Lately, she's been thinking about how the other people who really get what she's going through are spread out all over the country.

MESSINGER: I don't know. I just feel like now it's every year, every season, you hear about it. There's super-tragic weather events. And it usually is, like, just a handful of people, so it's, like, worse 'cause you can't grieve as a community almost. I mean, it's not as bad because you're not losing as much life, but most people come out unscathed, and so they don't think about it. So you have these, like, one-off, I think, families who are really deeply affected.

KELLY: That reporting from Rebecca Hersher, who has been listening along with us. And, Becky, it's - I'm struck listening to those voices, the grief but also, as you note, the loneliness to lose someone this way. Do we know how many other families lost loved ones in that flood that killed Craig Messinger?

HERSHER: Yeah. So that flood killed five people near Philadelphia. And the larger storm, Hurricane Ida, killed about a hundred people from Louisiana all the way up to New England.

KELLY: I'm thinking there are probably people listening right now who will have lost people they love to extreme weather.

HERSHER: Yeah, yeah. And we want to hear from those folks. If you've lost someone in a climate-driven disaster - you know, an intense hurricane or wildfire, a record-breaking heat wave - and you want to tell us about that person, you can do that at npr.org/deadlyclimate.

KELLY: OK. Thank you for that and for your reporting.

HERSHER: Thanks so much.

KELLY: That's NPR's Rebecca Hersher.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN JACOBY'S "TOGETHER WE WILL LIVE FOREVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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