It Hurts To See Them Go

Kate Sadoff reviews Jonathan Vigliotti’s “Before It’s Gone: Stories from the Front Lines of Climate Change in Small-Town America.”

It Hurts To See Them Go

Before It’s Gone: Stories from the Front Lines of Climate Change in Small-Town America by Jonathan Vigliotti. Atria/One Signal Publishers. 304 pages.

MY FIRST IN-THE-FIELD reporting job came during a summer of endless rain. It was 2023, and I was interning for a newspaper in Burlington, Vermont. I lived nearby in my college town, Middlebury, in an apartment ridged into an old building on the bank of Otter Creek. I could watch the river rise from my fire escape.

The big storm hit in July. The subsequent flooding was unlike anything locals had ever seen. Vermont’s capital, Montpelier, was entirely underwater; people literally kayaked down Main Street. At work, I pitched a story about the floods’ impact on farmers. Many of the those I called in the storm’s immediate aftermath were too upset to talk, or else (understandably) preoccupied by the initial stages of damage control. So, I got in the car with another reporter and drove 15 minutes to where corn grows in the Winooski floodplains. There, the two of us walked—waded—up various driveways, trying to find a farmer who was willing and able to share their time.

I’m from Los Angeles; I’m no stranger to fires and soil that can’t soak up rain when it falls. But reporting in the wake of Vermont’s floods last summer brought the consequences of a changing climate to life with an intensity and immediacy I’d never experienced before. It’s this same immediacy that Jonathan Vigliotti aims to conjure in his first book, Before It’s Gone: Stories from the Front Lines of Climate Change in Small-Town America (2024). Over the course of some 300 pages, the award-winning, Los Angeles–based CBS News national correspondent ventures out into the field again and again, prepared with a ready-packed go bag, copious amounts of Red Bull, and decades’ worth of experience reporting on environmental disasters. In one chapter, Vigliotti hurtles down a canyon road in an SUV that narrowly escapes being swallowed by California’s Kincade Fire; another finds him hundreds of feet in the air, suspended in a tree canopy in Sequoia National Park, and yet another in the eye of a hurricane in Leesville, Louisiana.

Documenting the accelerating wrath of combined climate and habitat change pulls Vigliotti all over the country, at all hours of the night, to all manners of situations. His book marshals a combination of memoir, interviews, and historical analysis to recount the stories of 14 small towns overtaken by natural disasters, as well as his own reporting experiences. This multifaceted approach pushes well past the work done by catchy ledes or arresting headlines, illuminating the minute details of places, people, and the catastrophes that once defined them.


At the outset of his book, Vigliotti poses the question he likely often gets about his unconventional lifestyle: “Why not just report from the studio?” The journalist’s scrupulous descriptions of each small town’s respective ecosystems go a long way toward providing an answer, demonstrating the effectiveness of an in-the-field practice. Vigliotti also provides facts that more explicitly argue the criticality of sight. In the year 2000, for instance, the American Association for Public Opinion Research conducted a poll asking how much Americans felt they knew about global warming. Only five percent said “a lot.” In January 2000, the top seven television networks aired 26 segments related to climate change. In 2023, as many as 670 segments aired per month, and 54 percent of American respondents reported to a Pew Research Center poll that they believed climate change was a “major threat.” Vigliotti, who observed the greatest jump in these numbers following the release of Al Gore’s seminal climate change documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (2006), doesn’t believe the connection between on-the-ground media coverage and knowledge of—much less concern about—climate change can possibly be a coincidence. In other words: Vigliotti can’t just report from the studio. “Because,” as he notes, “without the images and facts gathered from the field, we’d still be stuck in the 5 percent.”

In this way, Before It’s Gone is simultaneously ambitious—willfully-enter-the-eye-of-a-hurricane ambitious—and humble, a relatively straightforward exercise in asking readers to bear witness. In his author’s note, Vigliotti writes:

I have always believed the lens of a camera—and in this case the written word—is a window into understanding distant worlds and a mirror for reflection and analysis, but after reporting for nearing twenty years, I’ve learned some people don’t want to see what’s happening right in front of their eyes.

His book makes patently clear that what is little more than a distant smoke signal for some has become a house-burning reality for many others.


Among those my reporting partner and I spoke to last summer was a dairy farmer in Colchester whose entire corn crop had been drowned by the floods. He didn’t know how he would pay for more. He had cows to feed. His family had been running that farm for 104 years; it wasn’t just his home but his whole life, he explained, tearing up as he spoke.

That he trusted me to the point of such vulnerability verged on overwhelming. I remember thinking that day that I didn’t know how I could be a journalist—reporting on the “front lines” of such losses would be too painful. I also remember thinking that a journalist was the only thing I wanted to be.

For his part, Vigliotti weighs the emotional toll of the job against evident passion and a seemingly instinctual drive to keep going. The book relates awful midnight calls from his editor detailing catastrophes he would be imminently covering; it also exercises extraordinary care in its depiction of humans and their hometowns. People—and here, the places count as characters—become the central story, more complex and compelling than any one destructive weather event.


Before It’s Gone is separated into four sections, one for each of the four elements: air, water, fire, and earth. These elements, devastating in their radicalized forms, correspond to the types of disasters Vigliotti discusses in each section. This means the book is often divided spatially, too. The first section, “Fire,” primarily unfolds in California, detailing the Lake Elsinore, Camp, and Kincade fires; “Water” homes in on Atlantic Coast locales struck by hurricanes Sandy and Laura; “Air” features tornadoes that rip through Red Lodge, Montana, and Mayfield, Kentucky; and “Earth” visits both the Midwest and Alaska. Individual stories tend not only to overlap within each section but also to bleed into those of the sections around them. The narrative moves temporally as well, traveling back and forth in time to situate disasters within their precise historical contexts.

Vigliotti addresses this complex, interconnected structure in the book’s preface. He points out that, in nature, the four elements do not operate in isolation; instead, they often work in “deadly concert,” with one radicalized element compounding the effects of another (for instance, droughts cause wildfires, which leave burn scars, which in turn cause mudslides—and so on). He notes that air is the elemental “alpha,” maintaining the greatest influence over the rest, as each disaster is caused to some degree by gale-force winds. Such interplay of time, space, and element is crucial to the book’s argument. In his inability to circumscribe events to neat sections or periods in time, Vigliotti shows just how many different factors contributed to an individual disaster—as well as just how many different repercussions each disaster had. In exploring each stage of a given crisis, from the setup to the event itself to the aftermath and eventual rebuild, Vigliotti also demonstrates that many of these atrocities did not have to play out the way they did.

Indeed, a theme that emerges early on is the US government’s lack of emergency preparedness, which is in turn coupled with a lack of preventative measures to mitigate habitat and climate change. It’s utterly troubling, to say the least, to read Vigliotti’s account of multiple situations during which he was on scene at the same time as—and often before—the official emergency response (as was the case, for example, with the Lahaina fires in Hawaii). In this way, the “event” itself often becomes the least important part of a broader, even more distressing story.

Arriving quickly on the scene has repercussions of its own. Vigliotti’s account of Hurricane Laura in Leesville, Louisiana, includes what might be the book’s most heartbreaking moment: Cindy Miller, a 14-year-old bookworm and local activist, became Laura’s first victim when an oak tree crashed through her parent’s bedroom where she had been reading in the corner. Vigliotti paints a beautiful portrait of Cindy. He also details the anxiety and shame that arose during his attempt to interview her grieving family: “It wasn’t the first time I’d been mistaken for help,” he admits, “only to have to awkwardly reveal I was there to instead poke and prod with a camera recording it all.”

Moments like this highlight the complicated role of the journalist in such scenarios, as even those with good intentions try to navigate the line between rendering the realities of a warming world visible and turning them into spectacle—something akin to “disaster porn,” in which tragedies are exploited for clicks and sensation, or else a barrage of bad news gives us additional reason to push problems out of our psyches. Vigliotti isn’t ignorant to these complexities. To the contrary—his book questions the roles of both journalist and audience. Having borne witness, what is the responsibility of a journalist like Vigliotti? As readers, what is ours?


Families such as the Millers will never recover from losing a loved one. Others retain at least some chance at rebuilding their lives in the wake of disaster. Kylie and Ellie, a mother-daughter duo from Paradise, California, lost the home their family had inhabited for generations to the 2018 Camp Fire, in which, Vigliotti explains, “eighty percent of the town—more than 2,000 buildings—was destroyed.” Since the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) was ultimately found responsible for starting the fire, Paradise and its residents were granted a hefty settlement to help rebuild the town (though, in actuality, a large sum of the money didn’t make it into local pockets). Unlike many of their former neighbors, Kylie and her daughter decided to stay in the Paradise area after the fire. The two lived in an RV for nearly two years before eventually moving into a portion of the home Kylie grew up in. When Vigliotti connected with them two years after the burn, he found a town still very much mired in cleanup—not to mention reduced to a mere 15 percent of its prefire population.

Evidently, rebuilding—when the possibility exists—isn’t easy. In places like Paradise, residents face a looming fear that another fire could spark any day; there’s also the burden added by insurance companies increasingly refusing to cover areas where natural disasters have taken place or are likely to. (Just this April, State Farm dropped some 30,000 homes due to the risk of wildfires.) And Paradise was only the first of many towns to burn catastrophically over the last five years. “If Paradise was a warning flare for the West’s rapidly weakening ecosystem,” writes Vigliotti, “the 2020 season was a five-alarm fire.” He goes on to explain how, “in a period of six months, [he] pinballed across the state as flames ripped through 4,304,379 acres, causing $12 billion in damage and shattering every state record dating back more than a hundred years.”

Of course, Paradise was far from the first “warning flare.” More than 100 years ago, people were beginning to realize an elemental shift—what Vigliotti would call “radicalization”—occurring in ecosystems across the world. They were also acting on it. Each of the book’s four sections includes the story of a trailblazer who pioneered scientific studies on the deterioration of the planet: Harry Gisborne, John Mercer, Eunice Foote, and Hugh Bennett. Tonally speaking, these narratives operate almost like flipping coins. On one side, these largely unsung heroes demonstrate an individual’s potential to advance scientific and, subsequently, public conception of radicalized elements, even if it took each of them a long time to gain any kind of recognition, much less the kind they’re owed. (Eunice Foote, for example, essentially discovered the greenhouse gas effect in 1856, only for a man named John Tyndall to receive credit three years later.) On the other side, it’s disturbing to confront how, despite over a century of scientific evidence of climate change, habitat change, and ecosystem collapse, not much has been done about it—certainly not enough to avoid the planetary-scale crisis we’re now in. As then, so now: people continue to look, willingly, away.


It’s not all depressing. For Vigliotti, hope comes with buck teeth and a big tail—in the form of beavers. Good, old-fashioned American greed depleted the keystone species; unsurprisingly, beavers’ commodifiable pelts were prized above the species’ ability to build dams, structures that facilitate biodiverse water sources. In fact, beaver-built oases proved revolutionary when one survived a 2020 fire, leading Vigliotti on an exploration of beaver relocation and dam-building efforts in the American West. Among other things, the mission illustrates that human hands can do good and, more importantly, have a direct and positive impact on vital ecosystems.

Additional hands extend to form additional support structures across the United States and beyond. In the vast boreal forest—which “covers more than 1.3 billion acres and spans eight countries, including Canada, China, Finland, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and the United States” and represents “the planet’s largest carbon storehouse”—members of the Nenana tribe are pooling together money to buy a parcel of the land, which is carelessly being auctioned off by the Department of Natural Resources. In Greenland, scientists risk their lives to expose the reason for Greenland’s rapidly melting ice sheet (a catastrophe contributing to one-quarter of sea-level rise worldwide). Other efforts are more local yet no less vital: in Minnesota’s increasingly volatile farmlands, mental health and suicide hotlines operate specifically for farmers. And in Dawson Springs, Kentucky, a woman named Becky owns a diner that became the glue of the tornado-stricken town.

For most, these kinds of heroic people and the beleaguered yet beloved places they call home are made visible only through the lens of a camera and the written word. Often, their stories aren’t told at all. Yet, like beavers, such individuals and their efforts are keystones of our ecosystems. And, as Vigliotti vividly demonstrates, it’s worth loving these ecosystems enough that it hurts to see them go.


After covering the farmers in Vermont, my stories all began to skew flood-related. I listened in on governors’ press conferences with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), where I observed bureaucratic metrics for judging the severity of a disaster and learned what criteria an area needed to meet to be deemed “worthy” of receiving help. I wrote straightforward articles divulging this information, which felt necessary and important. I covered local responses, too. Following the floods, I interviewed individuals and businesses who had all, in their own beautiful way, found a niche for their particular skill sets following the crisis. Chefs, for instance, adapted to make use of whatever produce remained available after the floods, while paper conservators led workshops instructing people on how to deal with water damage and preserve their family treasures in the future.

Writing about climate change can feel futile. The fact of the matter is this: the people who need to read Before It’s Gone most—climate change deniers or those who, for other reasons, have chosen to ignore the extent of our current crisis—probably won’t. Even so, Vigliotti doesn’t write without a call to action (albeit a largely implicit one). His book is a testament to the power of using one’s specific skill set. After all, every person, from the individuals featured in this book to the locals I met in Vermont, functions as an essential organism in a deeply and irrevocably interconnected ecosystem, one in which change—for better or worse—radiates outwards and upwards, immeasurably.

LARB Contributor

Kate Sadoff is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. More importantly, she makes smoothies at Erewhon Santa Monica.


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