Life Inside an RV, Preparing for the Worst
After Hurricane Sandy, Lisse knew she needed to drastically change her lifestyle, and that meant forsaking everything
Do you know where to find water in an emergency if it gets shut off and you can’t buy it from a store? Do you know what to pack in your bug out bag? Tuna packets. Nuts. Mini flashlight. Compact charger. Medical supplies. Change of clothes. Water. Filter. Knife…
Lisse J. (whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity), by her own admission, doesn’t match the stereotype of a prepper. She isn’t White, male, extremist, conspiracy-minded, militant, completely off-grid, a hoarder, a homesteader, gun-crazed, paranoid, nor a believer in apocalyptic millennialism. She does, however, live in an RV (quite comfortably, mind you), sensibly prepared for disaster. “People are surprised to see a Black woman in the lifestyle,” says the 50-year-old Afro-Latina New Yorker. “I’m a unicorn.” She’s been in the van, nicknamed Langston, going on five years.
Previously, Lisse lived in a house in South Beach, on Staten Island’s eastern shore. But in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy slammed the coast with a 16-foot storm surge that crushed homes, killed 24 residents, and destroyed everything Lisse owned in a violent whirl of salt water that rose to the second story of the house, her faith was shaken and her life turned upside down. Her belongings went in a dumpster: books, pictures, clothes, todo. For nearly a month, she went without power, light, or heat. So did everyone else in that flooded community close to the water. Unlike residents in nearby Oakwood Beach — who banded together to take advantage of a state program that paid them the pre-storm value of their homes to relocate so that an uninhabited buffer zone could be made to guard against future storms — Lisse had no home equity to barter for her future. The house she lived in was a rental, and the lease was in her brother’s name. While the landlord knocked out the moldy walls with a sledgehammer and dutifully rebuilt them around her, Lisse started burrowing down internet wormholes, researching how to survive the next catastrophe.
The trauma of Hurricane Sandy was compounded, in Lisse’s case, by a recent breakup with a long-term girlfriend, a period of job insecurity, and debilitating grief from her mother’s untimely death. Even now, she’s too haunted by the details of that tragedy to go into it. Lisse had medical insurance through her job, but it didn’t cover psychotherapy. As for many Americans, paying out of pocket for mental health was a luxury she couldn’t afford. The carelessness of the busted health care system only left her more enraged, vulnerable, and edgy. “I felt like a loser,” she says. “I wanted to fight somebody.” She found unlikely comfort in prepper videos on YouTube that supplied her with practical information about alternative energy, emergency supplies, survival backpacks called bug out bags, and bug out vehicles stockpiled with food and fuel. When one “bugs out,” they abandon their home because of an unexpected emergency. This wormhole led her in turn to websites about RV life.
RV life wasn’t just for retirees, Lisse discovered. It was an organized community. Many mobile homeowners were artists keeping a low overhead while making art, and this appealed to the creative side of her, the part that wanted to detach from the grind and go on a writing retreat. There were apps that showed where to find the cheapest gas and where to camp for free. She looked longingly at Art Deco Airstream travel trailers and artfully remodeled school buses.
A liberating philosophy took shape in Lisse’s mind: Think Big. Live Small. If disaster struck again, she could drive away with her house on her back. And since she worked mostly from home, managing cases for a city agency that assessed babies with special needs, she could more or less go wherever she pleased. She didn’t have kids of her own, attachments, or entanglements to anchor her to an address. With less house to pay for, she factored that she could cut back her hours at work, freeing up time to devote to writing. The more she imagined downsizing, the more empowered she felt. Maybe healing didn’t have to unfold on a therapist’s couch.
Resolved to remodel her way of life in the spirit of conservation, safety, sustainability, creativity, and adventure, she shared her dream to move into a recreational vehicle with her siblings. Their initial reaction was to stage an intervention. “I knew she’d been talking about getting an RV, but I didn’t think she was serious!” says her brother Henry, looking back. He wondered about wild animals in the woods or truckers on meth at truck stops. Where would she park? How the hell would Lisse, a woman alone, protect herself? “They thought I done lost my mind when Sandy pushed me into this lifestyle,” Lisse says, smiling ruefully. “Let’s see how crazy I’ma look when that shit happens again.”
After reassuring her concerned family members that she had security precautions in place, including financial backup should she change her mind, Lisse purchased Langston, a sleek, gray, passenger-sized, pre-owned Winnebago Era the length of two cars. She tricked him out with solar panels, a cast-iron, wood-burning stove, and a queen-sized bed. She ripped out a cabinet to make more room for dancing in the narrow aisle between the wet bath and the two-burner range where she would cook rice and beans. She decorated her new home with plants and Dominican dolls, stuck a St. Christopher statue on the dash, and hung a dream catcher from the rearview mirror. Above the sink she arrayed Scrabble tiles spelling out:
T H A N K F U L.
When she invited her extended family for a reunion picnic at a campsite in New Jersey, they were duly impressed by her new digs. One little nephew thought the van was so cool that he wanted to move in. Nowadays, Lisse spends most of her time at campsites, in rich solitude, enjoying nature.
Lisse wasn’t forced by natural disaster to move into a van, nor did she move across an international border. So far she’s not strayed from the tri-state area. It would be a stretch to call her a climate refugee. She refers to herself as “an involuntary minimalist,” as well as an unlikely prepper, but allows the label “climate migrant,” too. The U.N. Institute for Environment and Human Security defines a climate migrant as a person who leaves home because of environmental stressors such as drought, floods, or storms. Over the past decade, about 20 million people a year have been forced to leave their homes because of climate-fueled disaster, according to a new report from Oxfam, mostly from poor countries contributing the least global carbon pollution. That’s equivalent to one person every two seconds.
Nobody knows for sure what the climate crisis will mean for worldwide human population distribution looking forward. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center reported the mass displacement of 7 million people in the first half of 2019 by extreme weather events worsened by climate change. Two hundred million climate refugees by 2050 is an oft-quoted, oft-debated guesstimate. A 2018 World Bank report estimated 143 million climate change-driven migrants by 2050 from the regions of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia alone. But it’s a mistake to think the climate emergency is relegated to the province of small island states, low-lying mega deltas, and the Sahel Belt.
All of us, whether rich or poor, whether citizens of the so-called “first world” or so-called “third,” stand to be touched in some awful way by the crisis as the globe continues to warm.
Climate stressors that have displaced people include floods killing livestock in Mozambique, drought shriveling crops in Somalia, salinity intrusion ruining rice cultivation in Bangladesh, and hurricanes destroying infrastructure in the Caribbean. Lisse’s story is part of the unsettling picture coming into focus and in league with other stories of climate migration within the U.S. that suggest the era of climate migration is already upon us. As Oliver Millman wrote last year in an unsettling Guardian article about Americans being the new mass climate migrants: “Millions of Americans will confront similarly hard choices as climate change conjures up brutal storms, flooding rains, receding coastlines, and punishing heat. Many are already opting to shift to less perilous areas of the same city, or to havens in other states. Whole towns from Alaska to Louisiana are looking to relocate, in their entirety, to safer ground.” The profound population shift beginning to take place rivals any other in U.S. history. It could exceed the 1930s Dust Bowl that saw 2.5 million people move to California from the dried-up plains; could rival the Great Migration wherein, over decades, 6 million Black Americans fled to Northern, Western, and Midwestern cities from the Jim Crow South.
While it’s true that most climate migrants flee from rural areas since their livelihoods often depend on climate-sensitive sectors, like fishing, herding, and farming, it’s just as true that sea-level rise will increasingly affect city dwellers, like Lisse, on densely populated coasts. The most likely cities to be submerged in the U.S. by century’s end are Miami, Houston, New Orleans, Virginia Beach, Charleston, Atlantic City, and Boston. A recent analysis by researchers from Climate Central stated that this century, sea-level rise could flood coastal regions that are now home to as many as 480 million people.
All of us, whether rich or poor, whether citizens of the so-called “first world” or so-called “third,” whether by hurricane, wildfire, food shortages, heat wave, air pollution, landslide, recession, drought, flood, or civil unrest, stand to be touched in some awful way by the crisis as the globe continues to warm.
What would you do if you got stuck in an attic during a flood? Lisse has drilled me. You should get a propane heater for your place, she’s advised, plus solar panels, an inverter, and a battery pack to charge your electric devices, especially your phone. Always keep cash on you. Small bills: singles, fives…
This was the kind of talk that made me clock Lisse as the most interesting guest at the house party of a mutual friend in Upper Manhattan where I first met her a couple of years back, drinking shots of Vida Mezcal. With her army-green flack jacket, strong, thick thighs and wide hips, she looked like she could knock out any chump dumb enough to cross her, but there was a quiet stillness about her, too, and a poet’s fragility. She reminded me of a tree — strong, unshakeable, rooted, receptive, and humble. As alarming as it felt to receive her advice, I knew she offered it from a gentle, loving place.
“Have you prepped bug out bags for each member of your family? What would you do if you were stuck on a subway train if the power went out?” she asked. I admit that when Lisse first questioned me like this in a voice as intentional as her lifestyle, I felt fascinated, but not grateful; maybe even a little put off by the schooling in emergency preparedness. I didn’t want to imagine the kind of catastrophe that would necessitate such planning, which is to say, I’d not yet been forced to. Then two things happened in short order that made me reconsider Lisse’s unsolicited advice.
First, the power went out in the subway, suspending service on seven lines. “Bobby was stuck underground on the 1 for 45 minutes during rush hour without A/C,” my friend Angela reported. This was in the summer. During a sweltering heatwave. “Folks were bugging out. Fifteen more minutes and there would have been a riot.” Next, Pacific Gas and Electric cut off the power to preempt wildfires in Northern California. This was in the fall. The trees were dry as tinder because of lingering drought. “I’m researching generators and solar panels,” my friend Danielle reported from the San Francisco Bay Area. She lived in terror that if her phone lost its charge and she missed an emergency evacuation alert, she could die along with her children, either by fire or smoke inhalation and was beginning to perceive that her family might eventually have to move. Suddenly Lisse didn’t sound so touched. Instead, she put me in mind of Cassandra, that woman of Greek mythology whose true prophecies went ignored.
Born in the Bronx to a tough Dominican-immigrant mother and a charismatic father who practiced dentistry on and off the books, Lisse and her three older brothers grew up moving from one Uptown apartment to the next — bouncing among six-story, mid-rise buildings in Inwood, Washington Heights, and even touching down at a nice address on 158th and Riverside Drive — but never staying anywhere for long. Their parents cycled through splitting up and getting back together; money came and went on a parallel cycle. One time, they fled from their home on 200th Street because the building next door caught fire.
“Sometimes we’d leave with the stuff on our backs and set up shop fully. Some folks would call my childhood ‘unstable’ but I learned the art of adapting,” Lisse told me. She credits those itinerant early years for laying the foundation for her current life. At eight, she watched the chaos unfold through the second-floor window of their place on Post and Dyckman from which her mother pointed a flashlight during the ’77 blackout, hollering for her sons to get inside. “People were running, pushing, yelling, smashing storefront windows in the dark, looting the shops on the strip and the bodega on the corner.”
In the fourth grade, she remembers living in three different apartments. Langston is her 22 home. “My mother was no joke,” Lisse says. “She made a way out of no way. When we didn’t want to move, she’d pull out the chancleta, threaten to hit us, and it was time to go. She had no English and little education, but she was a badass.”
Eventually, Lisse’s mother left her father, remarried a Harlem super, and the family settled more permanently on 143rd and Amsterdam, where Lisse spent her adolescence during the 1980s crack era. “144th was crack city, where people cooked and cops made arrests. That was the hot block. The addicts looked like zombies. You didn’t want to walk there,” she says.
Her memory of 144th Street may sound faintly dystopic, but the picture Lisse paints of Staten Island post-Sandy is apocalyptic: “It was straight up Armageddon.” The flooded house was her brother Henry’s home. She’d just moved in with him, after the break up with her then-girlfriend. Prior to that, she lived with her ex on 59th Street, not far from the East River, in a building that wasn’t affected by the hurricane. “Had I stayed there just a month longer, my life would be very different,” she marvels, without regret.
The plan was to stay at Henry’s transitionally while apartment hunting for her own crib. South Beach would not have been her first choice of a place to live, but her brother’s house was at least familiar, a place to find her feet, hang her hat, and nurse her heart until she figured out her next step. Plus, she liked being near the water. The beach reminded her of the second home her family owned in Santo Domingo, two blocks from the pier on the seafront road where her mother, who went back and forth between Dominican Republic and Harlem in the years before she died, un pie aqui y otro alla, preferred to ride out the months of winter.
As Hurricane Sandy drew nearer, the community was alerted to evacuate. Notice came late. Most of Lisse’s stuff was still packed in boxes down in the basement. She headed directly for her car. Henry, on the other hand, wanted to protect his domain. He predicted this hurricane would be no worse than Irene in 2011, which he’d ridden out just fine. She begged him to go with her, but he wouldn’t budge. She says she would have lost her car to the surge if she hadn’t driven away when she did, wracked with guilt for abandoning him. Through fierce wind, Lisse headed north for the campus of St. John’s University, up on a hill where her ex-marine brother, Johnny, worked security. Meanwhile, Henry raced to the attic as the water overtook his house. Some of his neighbors drowned in their basements, trying to work their sump pumps.
Comfortably settled in the RV life, Lisse talks about her special low-energy bulbs and the therapeutic benefits of living as she does.
Safe on higher ground, Lisse and Johnny frantically called the police in hopes their brother might be rescued, but the cops were overwhelmed. All they did was add his name to a list. As for Henry’s phone, the battery was dying. He told them he’d tried to go out the front door when he realized the gravity of the situation, but the water pushed against it so forcefully from the opposite side it couldn’t be opened. Then, the water entered in a mad rush. Now that the house was flooded, there was no exit. If you live in a house, make sure you own a generator and keep an ax in your attic. Before Henry’s phone quit, the siblings said their tearful goodbyes, fearing the worst.
The next morning looked to Lisse like the world had ended. It was eerie. Smoky. The streets were empty but for felled trees, blocking roads at every pass. She could only compare the scenery to a disaster movie or a war. But they located her brother in that ruined landscape, blessedly, alive. For days, his house remained full of water. This water was dirty. Possibly toxic. When they pumped it out, her possessions looked like they’d been hurled in a cosmic tantrum, wrung through a washer, dragged in the mud. Most of all, it hurt Lisse to lose her books. She’d amassed a big and treasured library. Now it was pulp.
Helicopters swarmed overhead as if reporting on a war-torn country. The ATMs weren’t functioning because the power was out. Credit cards were useless. In an all-cash society, those without cash were screwed. The Red Cross distributed water and food. There were 20-hour lines at the gas station, monitored by police. People fought at the pumps for a turn to refill canisters with fuel for their generators, which could only be done on certain days. Utterly shook, Lisse lost track of time. October turned into November. She had no winter coat, no winter anything. She vaguely perceived that then-President Barack Obama’s reelection was underway in some other part of the country, but was still without power so she couldn’t watch it on TV. When it grew dark, she lit candles. She told herself, “If this shit ever comes back, I’ll be the only person on the block with lights on.”
Now that she knows how to hook up the solar through her inverter to run the lights if her batteries go out in the van, Lisse is in a better place. Comfortably settled in the RV life, Lisse talks about her special low-energy bulbs and the therapeutic benefits of living as she does. She’s soothed, for example, by the sight of baby deer in the woods outside her windshield, and the sound of rain on Langston’s roof. It reminds her of rainfall on the tin roofs of the Dominican Republic.
“Being in nature saved me,” she confesses. “I feel very privileged to open the window blinds in the morning to green trees, wildlife, and the sound of birds. Some people associate it with homelessness, but I live like this by choice. It’s not a crazy lifestyle. I consider it a blessing.” When she craves a change of scenery, she can drive to a marina, or the Brooklyn Promenade to enjoy the view, and make it her office for the day. Another benefit of the lifestyle is saving money. Lisse’s preferred campground in New Jersey, a hidden gem she prefers me not to name lest it becomes popular and thus overcrowded, costs just $132 per week. Insurance is under $200. “I feel like someone let me in on a secret, and the rest of y’all are missing out,” she says.
Increasingly, she dislikes driving into the city, though once a week, for her job, she must. New York is too loud and chaotic for her now. In the summer, it’s torturously hot compared to the country. She says she can’t be around all that concrete anymore. And our level of consumption, as compared to hers, comes as a rude culture shock. How much water and electricity we waste. How much trash we produce. How little we reuse, repair, recycle. On occasion, as for a party or an event, she has to park on a city street for the night. She’s learned how to minimize the risks on those occasions, by scoping out quiet streets in the daytime, religiously obeying parking rules to avoid tickets, and sleeping with her head closer to the sidewalk side in case some drunk driver crashes into Langston, as has happened twice before. Sometimes people grow suspicious of her vehicle parked in their neighborhoods and call the cops — it’s mostly White people who do that, she says, “especially when they see a Black woman come out of the van.” In a public lot at Midland Beach in Staten Island, officers regularly harassed her, knocking on her windows, demanding ID. Whenever she felt targeted by a police car circling Langston at a beach, park, or marina, she took to singing Chamillionaire’s “Ridin” in her head, or repeated this affirmation by Anaïs Nin as a protective charm: “Had I not created my whole world, I would certainly have died in other people’s.”
Eventually, she came to prefer street-camping in Brooklyn, the West Village, or predominantly Asian neighborhoods in the borough of Queens, where the people are indifferent. Occasionally, strangers are simply curious about the vehicle and want to ask her about it. Other times their curiosity feels invasive, as when they wish to be let inside Langston to have a look around. The RV community discourages sharing too much information or showing license plates in pictures on social and other media for reasons of protection and privacy. (Some RVers with YouTube channels have been tracked and/or stalked.) A lesser violation Lisse worries about is stabbed tires. No matter where she beds down, she faces Langston in a direction where she can get away quickly. Wherever possible, when sleeping in the city, she chooses to camp near a park.
Earlier this fall, I went to visit Lisse at one such spot — Crocheron Park deep in Queens. She’d parked Langston in a cul de sac beneath a weeping willow, with a trailhead on one side and a fishing pond on the other. I thought, of course, of Thoreau. When I climbed on board it was easy to see what Lisse meant when she called her home a “permanent retreat.” Langston was tidy as a ship. I enjoyed the mental clarity that comes from being in a spare space, and the idyllic view of the fishermen at the edge of the pond, with its lily pads and slow-moving ducks.
Lisse showed me how she uses water and energy — the lithium house batteries under the bed, the 35-gallon tanks in the undercarriage, the shower that doubles as a closet where she turns off the water to lather up with biodegradable soap, then on again to rinse it off, and the tiny kitchen sink. I told her I envied her light carbon footprint, her transcendental outlook, her freedom from too much stuff.
“It’s disrespectful to leave garbage,” Lisse nodded, referring to the principles of Leave No Trace. When the gray water tank fills with water she’s used to wash her body and her dishes, she reuses it to water trees. When the black water tank fills with her own human waste, she pays $10–15 to empty it at a campground dump station. She says she’s much more thoughtful about waste than she was before. “I try not to be wasteful of anything,” she says. “I don’t need anything extra. I just want what I need.” One of her cup holders was full of acorns for good luck. By the wood stove, she’d set up a shrine. A fading picture of her mother. Oranges. Coffee. Holy water.
Perhaps it’s this quality of spiritual optimism I’ve come to admire about Lisse because it’s something I find lacking in myself the more bad news I read. Our dependence on fossil fuel has unleashed a terrifying feedback loop with carbon emissions heating the planet, multiplying threats, shrinking biodiversity, melting the ice caps, raising the ocean, flooding the coasts, wrecking the crops, altering seasons, increasing drought, worsening wildfires, strengthening typhoons, displacing populations. In this drastically changed and changing scheme, many more of us are going to have to move. Not just from the comfortable seat of our physical homes and late-stage capitalism when they can no longer shelter us, but into a new relationship with nature and with one another.
Lisse is miles ahead. When disaster struck, displacing her sense of self entirely, she did not give way to despair but leaned into a new life, liberated from consumer culture and domestic clutter to find herself reborn. What if an existential threat, so long as it doesn’t kill you, is an invitation to really live? For me, the revolution is a Black woman in the driver’s seat of an RV named after a poet, with a sign by the electric panel that reads “Do Epic Shit.”
As for what’s next, Lisse’s ambition is to save up enough money to go on a cross-country road trip, avoiding the red states. The West is calling her, she says. She wants to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway and witness the majestic Redwoods. “My plan is to roam the country, see where I want to settle,” she says. “Eventually, I want to own land, grow my own fruits and vegetables.” She’s been researching hydroponics on YouTube in the meantime so she can practice farming in jars of water under grow lights in the van. Cilantro, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes. She shows me where the jars will go, in a rack that will keep them from knocking around when she drives. “I’m fascinated by that prepper stuff,” she tells me, her eyes wet with hope.
“I want to learn to grow from seed.”