You've got insurance, right? Are you sure?
That's today's big question, and my guest isWashington Post reporter Brianna Sacks.
Brianna's an extreme weather and disaster reporter for the Post where she explores how climate change is transforming the United Statesthrough violent storms, intense heat, widespread wildfires, and other forms of extreme weather.
Brianna deploys to disaster zones, which are sometimes very close to home, and does enterprise reporting on the preparations for responses to and the aftermaths of catastrophic events.
We're having this conversation today because last month Brianna revealed how insurers have slashed Hurricane Ian payouts far below damage estimates, often up to 80%.
I cannot emphasize enough that the future includes an insurance landscape that is among the most important in our very brittle economy and society.
It underpins everything we rely on, so understanding not only your own insurance but how well your mortgage holder and the system at large are prepared for what's here and what's coming, is essential.
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Quinn: [00:00:00] You've got insurance, right? Are you sure? That's today's big question, and my guest is Washington Post Reporter Brianna Sacks. Brianna's an extreme weather and disaster reporter for the Post where she explores how climate change is transforming the United States through violent storms, intense heat, widespread wildfires, and other forms of extreme weather.
Brianna deploys to disaster zones, which as we'll talk about are sometimes very, very close to home, and does enterprise reporting on the preparations for responses to and the aftermaths of catastrophic events. We're having this conversation today because last month Brianna revealed how insurers have slashed Hurricane Ian payouts far below damage estimates, often up to 80%.
So, say your house was trashed by Ian last fall and an insurance adjuster said [00:01:00] rebuilding, replacing your roof, and mold remediation, all that stuff would require $200,000. You may, like some families have, receive only $20,000, which is nowhere near enough to deal with the devastation of a storm like Ian. Brianna's investigation and our conversation and the broader conversation are vital, not just in isolation, but because our reinsurance and insurance markets, residential and commercial real estate markets, banks, homeowners, landlords, renters, all of this, all of these things are connected and they are in no way prepared for the fires and the flooding and the storms that are already here in the climate era.
Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett, and this is Science for People Who Give a Shit. In our weekly conversations, I take a deep dive with an incredible human, like Brianna, who's working quite literally [00:02:00] on the front lines of the future to build and understand a radically better today and tomorrow for everyone.
Along the way, we'll discover the tips, the strategies, the stories, you can use to get involved and become more effective in this future. And again, I cannot emphasize enough that this future includes an insurance landscape that is among the most important in our very brittle economy and society. It underpins everything we rely on, so understanding not only your own insurance, but how well your mortgage holder and the system at large are prepared for what's here and what's coming is essential.
Brianna, welcome to the show. The rest of your life.
Brianna Sacks: Hi, I am happy to be here. For better or for worse, as you say.
Quinn: Yeah, that's right. Weâll see, you can judge it at the end. I hesitate to say I'm excited about this conversation, but this really is one of those ones, as I was just describing to a buddy in the hall, we cover [00:03:00] not just climate, even though climate's 70,000 different things.
Obviously it's every part of our life, but also COVID and public health and things like that, and there's certain conversations when someone says, Hey, what's up with that? Or like, when my buddy said, what are we, what are you talking about today? Where I do actually tend to say to folks to try to be aware of, it's easy to just dump this kind of conversation on folks without them being mentally prepared to understand sort of the implications of the broader reality of what's going on with insurance and mortgages and all of this different stuff.
It can be a little tough to take in if people aren't ready. So usually I do say something along the lines of, I'm happy to have this conversation with you, friend, but if you're not in the right head space for it, that's okay. Yeah. I am excited to talk about this because I care deeply about, and think people need to care much more deeply about it.
And your journalism clearly highlights that because shit's getting real, fast. I'm excited to talk about it. I usually start with one ridiculous question. You are the hundred and [00:04:00] 58th person, I think I've asked it to, it's a little ridiculous and tongue in cheek, but it does have its merits and it would be, Brianna, why are you vital to the survival of the species? And I encourage you to be bold and honest.
Brianna Sacks: I love this question. I am vital to the survival of the species because I think I'm a walking disaster. And so, I think there's very few people who can cover disasters like I do because I live it daily.
Quinn: Wait, I'm going to need more information.
Brianna Sacks: I'm going to unpack that for you. So, I have a lot of energy, and chaotic things just happen to me. And I also run a ton, like I'm an ultra runner, so I like really love doing a hundred-mile run.
Quinn: Oh shit. We're going to have to dig into that later.
Brianna Sacks: Yeah, we will.
So I think it's like, so I do that to myself. And then I'm also, just shit just happens to me, like [00:05:00] car wrecks and like chaos. And I'm like losing things all the time. So, you plot me in a disaster and I'm like, oh, I'm home. Like I've got this I like, the stress and chaos level, is like really normal for me.
Quinn: I do this all day.
Brianna Sacks: Yeah. Like literally I'm just like, this is great. The car's not working, there's no cars here, there's no electricity. This is like normally what I, how I like operate. So yeah, I would say that I just thrive in chaos. And so, I think that's where our world is really headed.
And so I think, I can have some good impacts on that. I can maybe hold some lessons.
Quinn: That's a great one. It's almost like you're some sort of double agent, using your powers for good here to translate it for the rest of us.
Brianna Sacks: If they are powers I don't know what they are, but they're something.
Quinn: We were flying across the country and my kids loading things up on the iPad. They don't get much screen time usually, because we're monsters. I put the old X-Men cartoon on their iPads, which I don't know if you're familiar with. It was in the eighties and nineties and it's great. And one of the reasons I put it on there is besides it just being great, one of the things that makes X-Men great, and I swear to God this, [00:06:00] there's a reason for me talking about this, is that it's really a fascinating exploration of struggling with being different and society struggling with people who have a variety of things that they might not call powers.
They don't know why they got them. They don't know how they got them. They're all very different. They can't control them most of the time. They are often chaos agents. Often it was done to them and struggling to see like how do they fit into like a chosen family, do they want to be part of it?
What does society think about that? And I think that's all really great. And if some things go boom along the way, then that's, people have lasers out of their eyes. That's great. I appreciate you using your powers for good here. I think it's smart. I am excited to dig into this. You are reporting about this subject, what's going on with the insurance industry, specifically what has been happening in Florida post Ian is extensive.
So I want to just start by setting up a little more context than I did in the intro for folks. So the US is generally because of our [00:07:00] geography and our topography and our coastlines and all these different things, privy to so many different types of extreme weather in the first place, much less with climate change coming.
And that means as we have more people and more infrastructure, especially infrastructure that we built and then left alone and didn't upgrade or things like that, we have more assets that to say that are exposed to this sort of extreme weather, much less people. So we have all of these costly extreme weather events happening all the time and much more often, and often they're unpredictable. What happened in California over the past few months, which was not what a lot of folks were used to or prepared for in a number of different ways. So per your reporting, Ian so far has caused, I believe the number was $112.9 billion in damage.
I think something like that. The climate change real estate crisis to me, this enormous ticking time bomb, right from reinsurance to insurance to what we're doing with flood maps or not [00:08:00] doing to catastrophic wildfire modeling, which I can get into. You have storms that just this week they're like, oh, were the most recent ones were made worse by sea level rise to mortgages and leases and bankers and bonds and homeowners and all that stuff. You've got on the one hand, and again, I was subject to this, reinsurers and insurers who are increasingly hyper aware and they're pulling out of markets. Wherever they can often, which is an interesting signal and probably a necessary one, but sometimes they haven't or they haven't in time.
And that is a lot of what seems to have happened with Ian. And then your investigation uncovered much more of the after effects of that. Could you briefly summarize what you uncovered before we really dig into all the nitty gritty? What has been happening there post Ian?
Brianna Sacks: Sure. And I want to say that this was happening and I think Ian was the worst they had ever seen it.
So it just wasn't like this popped with Ian.
Quinn: No, it's both been happening and it's going to get much worse. But [00:09:00] I really think this is such an important thing that you have put together here, and I give so much credit to the folks who called you and said, Hey, just so you know, this is what's going down because we got to highlight this stuff much more for a variety of reasons.
So please if you don't mind.
Brianna Sacks: Sure. With the help of licensed adjusters, I found that insurance companies were drastically altering and changing claims of Hurricane Ian survivors by erasing damage from their reports, erasing photos, changing narratives, cutting the estimates down substantially, sometimes by 90%.
A lot of these homeowners would get nothing because they would be below the deductible or the check they would get if they would get it was just a joke in terms of the amount of damage that they had. Also, that the [00:10:00] insurance companies really weren't responding to people and there are a lot of open claims, and that the state really was not doing a lot about it.
Quinn: If you don't mind, how did this investigation start? Did you start to get some phone calls from some of these adjusters? Because some of their personal stories in your writing were, probably overuse this word a little bit, pretty brave of them to call and say, Hey listen, so I got fired because of this, or this person still has my name on this because of this.
Or did you start to pick up on some things and pick up the phone? How I imagine it went both ways eventually, but where did you get going on this?
Brianna Sacks: I was covering Hurricane Ian since it hit in late September, so I was continuing to check in with people on the ground there. And I was chasing down reports that people thought the death toll was going to be like a lot higher than it was.
So I was talking to one guy who was like a, had a disaster recovery response non-profit, and we [00:11:00] ended up just linking up. And so I was checking in with him and he said, Hey, I don't think this death toll thing is really accurate, but I am hearing some other weird stuff about insurance. And I was like, oh fuck.
Like insurance. Like I, it's always, I always hear insurance after disasters obviously, I was not super familiar with it at the time. I'm in California. We have different laws. I know it's a struggle for people to get claims processed and get what they're, what they need to make be made whole.
But he was like no. I'm hearing we have adjusters saying that insurance companies are going in and changing their estimates and I was like, that sounds really shady. I then was in some Facebook groups, which I always use for my reporting. I just plug into a lot of the community groups and I just posted in a few Hey, is anyone having issues with their insurance company?
And granted, this was before the 90-day deadline, which insurance companies have to respond. But it was, I want to [00:12:00] say this was mid-November, so it had been a good amount of time. And I had one woman reach out to me and she was an independent licensed adjuster who was working for a third-party company that an insurance company had hired.
And that's how the system in Florida really works is there's a ton of these smaller companies and they don't have the people power to go out and handle thousands of claims. So they hire independent workers. She reached out to me and said, I've been doing this for a really long time.
I've never seen this before. Like I'm really pissed off and she sent me a lot of examples of like her befores and her afters and then she linked me up with somebody else and then I just ended up getting linked up with other people. And so I spoke to, I think five insurance adjusters from two different companies.
Quinn: I'd want to set some context for folks as much as more and more people, especially the historically marginalized have, who often live in these frontline communities, are dealing with [00:13:00] these things. There's some standard context for all of this, which is the independent adjusters is not atypical. And to get a mortgage, you have to be able to insure it, obviously, whatever your issue is, and they'll rate you for, again if you're in California, it's earthquake exposure, fire exposure. In other places it's flood exposure all these different things. And then, or have you had claims in the past all this different stuff and then you'll get your premium and you'll have your deductible and things like that.
But it seemed like from your reporting and from my understanding of it, that it is actually pretty typical for the quotes to be adjusted later, but usually almost, or almost always in concert with the adjuster themselves who did the work because their name is on it and they were the ones who did it, right?
Brianna Sacks: Yes. So Florida's a very unique market in terms of that. There aren't these major companies like State Farm, they're not as active [00:14:00] in Florida, so these regional companies are smaller, but usually, and again, it can be different, the state you're in, like usually the person, and this is what I was told, who the way it's supposed to work comes to your house and assesses the damage.
That they're trained to do that, they're licensed, they're experts, and when they turn that estimate in, they've done their very best work on it. Now, they do make commission off these claims, but also like they have a duty to uphold, and indemnify as they always like to say, to the policy holder, so when they turn it in, the changes that are going to be made are usually minor.
And this is per the Insurance Information Institute who I asked about this or, the grammar's not great or there was prior damage to the house that the insurance adjuster wasn't aware of. Because they haven't seen the policy beforehand a lot of times. So the changes that they were seeing though, were like someone [00:15:00] like went in and with scissors and just cut portions of their claims out.
And another thing that I want to also mention that one of the insurance adjusters pointed out to me is like, when an insurance company chooses to insure you, they, as you said, come to your house, they inspect everything. Everything's Gucci, your roof looks good. There's nothing major.
The insurance adjusters, they had some of that data. They had some of those pictures. And so they're looking and this is weird. The insurance company like three, four years ago said that this house was totally fine and worth this amount of money, but now they're saying there's a bunch of wear and tear on this roof that like wasn't here two or three years ago.
So how would that have happened? And that's why they're not paying for the roof. So that was a thing that was illuminating as well. Is there is record and there's data and there's photos that the insurance company takes of your home when they decide to insure it, that should prove that it is in good standing.
And if you haven't filed a claim on anything, it should still be [00:16:00] in good standing when a hurricane hits.
Quinn:. Yeah. It's not a crime scene where they're walking in and going, we have no idea how this started or what the context is or any of this. We're not starting from scratch. They literally did this to set it up to get you a policy in the first place.
They took their notes and usually pretty conservative on that front. So to be like, this is an exaggeration to be like, no, that roof blew off in a different storm. Feels I don't know, is it's either one or the other.
Brianna Sacks: Or like the amount of wear and tear, because that's what I would see is on the reports.
That's how they would allegedly, per these interns, adjusters get out of not paying for roofs because roofs was like a big thing. Just across the field. What I was hearing anecdotally, and I spoke to a lot of people is that insurance companies just did not want to pay to replace full roofs.
So they would show on the reports, this is wear and tear, this is wear and tear, this is wear and tear. And it's like, how would that be that much wear and tear if you know that they would've marked that when they came up and did the initial inspection for the [00:17:00] policy. So that was something that I was like, huh, that actually does make a lot of sense.
Quinn: So to give you some context and for folks who missed it whenever this comes out here so again, my experience with this on the California side, was we bought a home in an area that is sort of in the canyon, sort of not, in 2015 and had your standard, not a big home, not fancy, but we also didn't have any claims, this and that, good policy.
We had a great broker help, reasonable price. I mean it's Los Angeles, so reasonable for that context, the whole thing. Couple thousand bucks. About four years ago, so about four years after we bought it, I get a letter in the mail and the letter was from my insurance company at the time and they said, Hey, We're canceling your policy because of fire exposure.
Now this is when Los Angeles and Brentwood and a bunch of these places were really seeing those like fire of Mordor type shit going on, right? This is when fire season was really starting to peak up and became like a fire year essentially. [00:18:00] So as someone who thinks about this stuff all the time, like I was aware and was like, yeah, that's not surprising.
But also there haven't been any fires around here. I haven't had any claims. That feels a little aggressive. So call our broker and our broker says, oh, I get it. I'm getting a bunch of these calls today. Don't worry about it. The governor is going to put a sort of moratorium on these things until we figure our shit out so that they can't cancel on everyone all of a sudden. Great. Fine. Letter in the mail the next week from my insurance company who says, actually we're canceling because of your earthquake exposure. And it's like, well you motherfuckers like, of course you can do that because the big one's coming in a day. Sure. I get it, that's fine.
But they just went right around that. Fine. So call a broker. She's like no, I know. Like same call. Getting it. We try to find a new insurance policy. I get turned down by the next nine providers and end up with a policy that's about three times as expensive as the previous one.
Okay. And you got to do all this mitigation, which again I agree with. I get it. I look around get the trees away from your roof, like all that shit. Totally fine. A year later, get [00:19:00] the information in the mail again. They say, actually, we're not canceling your policy, we're pulling out of California entirely from our insurance company.
Which again, I'm aware of because that's a lot of what's happened in places like Florida is these big players, as you said, have been like, we're out, we're not going to expose ourselves to this because one of these storms and we're in trouble. And that's a lot of what's happened with the reinsurance market as well.
So they're just like, we're out. If we're not doing it, you can't do it. Anyways, I get turned down by a bunch more. I end up with a policy, it's 10 times as expensive, literally almost to the dollar as my previous one. We could afford that, barely. But it was also pretty good. One of those like red flags where you're like, I don't know, maybe this shouldn't be the case.
And also maybe we shouldn't, people shouldn't live here and maybe we shouldn't live here. Longer discussion. Point is, I was aware of that. I got in with the sort of California task force that's trying to work out this question of, and it, this is where, yes, Florida's different and Texas and everywhere is dealing with this stuff and different variations on it, but at the time it was just fires.
But there's this question of, in our hard conversations we [00:20:00] have to have of where should people be able to live and how do we manage that? Because you don't want all the insurance companies to pull out much less the reinsurance companies. There's no policies and homes arenât insured. People can't get more mortgages and then nobody can live there.
You need people to live there. But at the same time, we do need to nudge ourselves and homeowners and banks and mortgage providers in a direction of these policies should probably be more expensive to say You want to live here, that's fine, but here's how much it's going to cost and maybe people shouldn't live in this area for now, and that's a fine line to walk.
It's one thing with fires, but then as you saw with California in the past few months, I think the number was 97% of people in California do not have flood insurance, which is insane on itself. And now they're fucked. The other version is, yes, there's been insurance fraud for eons on both sides. How many people do have other wear and tear from other shit that they didn't report or didn't want to, and they try to include it.
They either get caught or they don't. Insurance companies misbehaving. [00:21:00] I wonder what, after everything you did that was so comprehensive covering this, how much of this do you feel like is criminal fraud by the companies or disaster profiteering or both? Or is it companies, and I imagine it's maybe just a mixed case, but maybe I'm wrong, of companies being like, we should have got out.
We didn't. We actually can't pay all of these bills. If we do, we go under, like how do you feel like that falls for Florida in specific, because again, it's only going to get harder in Florida, as in most places.
Brianna Sacks: Yeah, that's a tough question. I think it's, as usual with disasters it's complicated and has been building for a long time.
When you think of insurance, you have to remember this is the second most powerful industry arguably in the world. It's right behind banks. And there has been a history of them, [00:22:00] there's this great book called Delay Deny Defend, which came out and they're a business and yeah I think like it's hard for me not to have a negative view about them after hearing from so many elderly people who are just like draining what little savings they have because their insurance company won't call them back after four months and just keep passing them along.
And again, at the same time, I think we love to live in a denial of this is not happening to us. And I don't think people go out to like you said find out this information and what kind of policy should I be paying and if my area is going to be flood prone in the next five years?
And, even if they did the federal data on that has been shown as like woefully inadequate.
Quinn: And that's a whole other part of the conversation.
Brianna Sacks: It's a whole other part of the conversation. What I learned from my reporting, and again, I spoke to a [00:23:00] lot of people, a lot of them were attorneys, public adjusters, insurance adjusters.
So they're, very much in the same camp, but they were saying that they believe that a lot of this is premeditated because insurance companies don't want to pay out. And they were allowed in Florida to set up and operate when they didn't have the proper reserves that they should have.
So I think it might be a case in a lot of these companies are like, oh fuck, we don't have the money to pay, whatever billion or millions of dollars that we need for all of these claims all at the same time. But it stems back to the infrastructure of Florida and that they shouldn't have been allowed to be there in the first place.
But Florida politicians, I think this was like probably early two thousands, 2005, they were trying to get more companies in the state because they [00:24:00] wanted to take the burden off of citizens, which is the state kind of funded run insurance company like it's supposed to be of last resort, and that's just been ballooning like crazy.
So they were like, you want it, it was like Oprah. Like you get an insurance company, you get an insurance company, like you want some policies here, take them. No big deal. And that was working for a while until like around 2017 when these big storms came. So I think it just, it's a huge systemic problem that Florida lawmakers have dug themselves into, and now they're also beholden to the insurance company's desires, right?
Because if they don't give the insurance companies like what they want, they're going to keep pulling out and then the state's going to be on the hook for more and more policies that they're going to have to pay for. So it's, I think just like per the reporting that I did and learned it's a very vicious cycle.
And also, this is another investigation that I'm working on is there are a lot of allegations that these insurance [00:25:00] companies are money shifting and that they have other companies that they hire and they contract and they work with that they own a, like a pretty large, either half or more of the shares of, so that they can get, they can funnel money from the insurance company to these other subsidiaries.
And then they'll be like, oh, we actually don't really have the money to pay for this. Sorry, we're shutting down. And this is like from some attorneys that have been digging into this, they actually have moved money to a contracting company that they use or an engineering company that they use.
And it's they're very easy, it's easy in Florida to do that. So that is something that I've been looking into because it's this argument that we don't have the money, like we're screwed. We're stuck. People believe that's not really true. It's complicated.
Quinn: It's so complicated. And again, I try to, have you ever seen the meme of, and I'm ancient, so I'm, if there's a meme, I'm 10 years behind on it, but with the Always Sunny guy with the conspiracy map in the background[00:26:00]
Brianna Sacks: Yes.
Quinn: Yeah. That's me. Some of these things are more straightforward than others, right? Hey, look, if we electrify school buses and post office trucks, your neighborhood's going to have cleaner air. That's pretty straightforward. They're in every neighborhood in America. It's pretty straightforward. When I start to talk about this shit, I'm like, let me tell you about why Chuck Schumer won't let flood maps be updated, and how that's like the tip of the spear.
It's a whole nightmare. But to provide some more context for people, because usually when people say what can I do? One of my first things is truly, and I think I just said this, is please check your insurance and check what it includes, but also ask yourself some hard questions. There's tools out there now that'll try to assess your flood risk better than the flood maps because we refuse to update those and that part of that is because again, it's a variety of reasons. We've been building on covered over swamps and floodplains. Most of the private insurers pulled out of flooding decades ago, so most of it we get from the insurance, but because we haven't updated those maps, it's priced so low [00:27:00] that it never encouraged people to live somewhere else.
Much less builders to not build there. We're just constantly feeling the implications of this refusal to acknowledge reality. And so you've got this, whether it's fires or flooding or whatever. And the California version was, I remember talking to some insurance companies who were like we're just not allowed to use what they call catastrophic modeling.
They're saying, I turned off your policy, but that's on past data. That doesn't even include what's going on right now. And you're like shit, what does that mean? And they're like we can't because if we do, we can't write policies to anyone. And that's an exaggeration. But the point is we have to figure this out and we have to acknowledge reality because I think I wrote this down, they said there was some reporting last year that the real estate bubble is to the tune of 120 to 237 billion in overvalued property, mostly just from flood risk.
And this isn't just like sea level rise in Charleston or Miami or Louisiana or whatever, right? So much of that is low income households because they're usually, if they can [00:28:00] afford a home, it's their most valuable asset. They're in these high risk flood areas where we built a bunch of shit because that's where the land is cheaper.
And then, they get fewer dollars for flood protection and then they get less attention for FEMA and over the same people are exposed and we're just going to keep losing these things because we refuse to do the math on where we should live and why or where we shouldn't live and why. And insurance companies are business.
They are trying to make money much less, not go out of business. So I understand the whole like, you know what, we're out. It's just talking to some friends who've lived for decades down in the US Virgin Islands. Complicated, not a state, kind of a territory. And the reinsurance markets just said like a couple months ago, we can't do it.
They saw what two hurricanes did in 2018 and they're like, we can't rebuild that. So we're out. Great. What does that mean for all those people down there? So I understand this whole, I'm not going to expose myself to what's going on here. We have to try to make money. We can't go out of business.
But [00:29:00] it's important, like you said, to think about the old folks in Florida or all these low income folks. The real world implications of this are just massive because Ian is the second biggest storm. It's a nightmare, but we're having tens and hundreds of billions of dollars of disasters every year. And that's only going to go up.
Brianna Sacks: Yeah. And I was in the US Virgin Islands after Irma and Maria and I mean, Puerto Rico, as we know is still unable to fully get back online. And it's one of these questions that, it's a tough one, but the insurance market is state regulated and it's mixed. Like maybe we should maybe federally be making some big changes or they should be getting more involved.
And I don't know, it's like such, it's like a really tough story because it's like there is no right answer. And I think Florida again was, is unique because there's a lot of reporting and data that [00:30:00] shows that there's a lot of politicians very connected to the insurance industry there, like if you, it's not hard to find, and insurance companies has been one of the biggest donors to DeSantis and their Chief Financial Officer, Patronus. So it does very much seem like they are intertwined and it maybe it shouldn't be allowed to be that way. Like maybe that insurance should be more federally regulated to protect people and but like, how does that work? And itâs way above my pay grade, but what I have seen covering disasters for so long is that people just are shocked when something happens to them and this thing that they pay for and they trusted completely lets them down.
And I don't know if that's just like human condition of being like naive and just like in denial. I don't own a home, I haven't taken out an insurance policy yet. I have been told they're very complicated and [00:31:00] that they are written in a way to confuse you. And so and we don't want to say what we don't know.
So they're like, sure, yeah we believe you and this is all fine. It, maybe they should be constructed differently. That's something I was thinking of maybe there should be like some laws passed that they have to say certain things and like how they say them for people. But these are definitely all questions that I have been thinking of and I, yeah, I don't know.
It's a tough, it's a tough one because I don't know if anyone's actually also really looking at it from a 30,000 foot view either, at least people who can like, make a difference.
Quinn: We can spin around in all the different circles and political donations and Florida is unique for a thousand reasons and not usually in the great ways for a thousand reasons and all these different things.
And, but it is these questions of, and again, this is where my wife once said in a constructive way that I have the unique ability to be the bummer in any conversation. Which okay. Fair. [00:32:00] I'll take that shot, but I do believe in having where we can and where we have to, like hard conversations about things.
And I remember there was a New York Times piece. I don't remember who the reporter was. I apologize. A year ago, two years ago. Time. I don't know. About FEMA really wanted to update. So again, most flood coverage, not like water coverage, did my fridge leak? Flood coverage comes from the federal government, which means FEMA, I think it was 2021, maybe 22, wanted to update these flood maps.
But Schumer was holding it up and part of that reason was as much we're talking about low income households is because his constituents in the Hamptons their numbers would've gone through the roof and that probably wouldn't have gone so well. Okay. But we've got houses falling into the ocean in the outer banks, like quite literally.
Again, like you, it doesn't take much to read these things. And I'm just not sure how many signals we need before we start to have these conversations of yes, it's state regulated and all these different things, but [00:33:00] when are we going to tell it like it is? So that people stop being so surprised when they get their check.
Forget all the malfeasance, when they understand, oh, my house can be blown away. That's a very real thing or sea level rise is going to make these things work. So what happened to Houston five years ago? When the hurricane just sat there and rained?
I don't know. I don't know how we approach these things better because it's really hard to acknowledge them. We're very happy to push them under the rug. Again, I try to empathize with the systemic nature of it, and the businesses and the constituents. And I get politics. I'm not one of these crazy de-growthers who's like less of this.
It's great, good job selling that. Look, it's reality. I want to change the system. Of course. I want to walk and chew gum at the same time. But more and more people are exposed and are going to be hurt by the fact that we haven't told them the truth about where they live and what they're exposed to and what they're going to get out of it.
Brianna Sacks: Yeah. The flood insurance thing's a whole other issue that needs a huge retool like, so something I also learned, which I didn't know, is that insurance [00:34:00] companies basically act as the broker. And I don't know if this is specifically in Florida or other states, but I'm focusing on Florida, but they act as the broker for National Flood Insurance Program policies.
So it's like the federal government also, like that's another way people are getting screwed is the federal government's like cool, okay, here you go. You can like, you can sell these and then the insurance company turns around and allegedly this is from reporting, but can jack up the price or, sell them how they want.
But then when your home floods or something, the insurance company's like ah, we don't run that. Sorry, that's like the federal government and you have to go this whole other way. And people just have no idea. And I think like some statistics I had seen also is that the like percentage that people get back from a loss is especially like with the cost of materials and like building now, like those have not been factored into like there's this whole other system called [00:35:00] Xactimate, which I'm not going to get into, but like the insurance companies can also use that as a way to pull in old pricing that's not upped with current inflation and everything. And so people just literally can't rebuild and they like, there's just no recourse either.
I think that's another thing that there's no like real regulatory body over the insurance industry and with disasters and everything becoming so frequent. I don't, yeah I don't know if that's something that like, we could maybe start like, I would, that's something like that whole other conversation maybe, but it doesn't, again, going back to what people are dealing with on the ground, and what I would hear from so many people is that we don't know who to go to. We, like our insurance company is not answering, the state's not answering like, what do we do? And I think that's like the most frustrating thing that I had come into because it's not like these people like brought this on themselves.
Quinn: Yeah. And it also lends itself to some real anthropological and [00:36:00] sociological questions, which is, it's not my place to tell a fifth generation person in Florida or on the Gulf Coast like, Hey, you shouldn't live there anymore or you can't live there anymore. Because if you are a person or a family or community that has this sense of place, which means so much to so many of us, it's not as easy as you should leave.
That's not the way it works. We can use sticks and carrots with pricing mechanisms and zoning and shit like that, but it's the same thing as when there's a fire in California, when they tell you to get out, it means you've got like minutes, basically. You're fucked, basically. Earthquake, not much notice, even with the new little zappers that give you like 20 seconds to get under a table. We have this sense with hurricanes, for example, that we've got at least days if we haven't got our shit together in any way to, to get out. And a lot of people don't [00:37:00] for some really specific, really intimate, meaningful reasons.
And that could be, they don't want to leave old folks behind who cannot be left. We saw a lot of that in New Orleans. Or they're not willing to sacrifice their place. They don't want to come back to nothing. And that's a whole other discussion. It's complicated and it's really hard to separate the objective reality that we're not even dealing with this, with the subjective experience of so many millions of people who have never lived anywhere but here and don't know how to live other places or their jobs are very locally specific.
Brianna Sacks: Yeah.
And so I ask people this all the time. Why did you stay? And I grew up in California too, and I would watch, I grew up evacuating fires. And my dad would stay behind, he'd be up on our house with a hose. With a hose, because it was a wooden house. And he was like, if not me, then who?
And that, like I can't let this house burn down. It's a whole other issue of like how our brains work in these situations. But people, when I ask them this is they don't know where they would go. This is as you said, this house has been in their [00:38:00] home for generations. They grew up there.
They raise their kids there. It's all they have. And if they can't fight for it, like they can't afford to live anywhere else.
Quinn: That's also question. Forget even if they come back and it's fine if it is your biggest asset as it is for so many people in this country. Do you know what it costs to go put a family of however many people in a hotel room for whatever a week or whatever it is.
One of my favorite charities, and this is analogous, it's a lateral move, is Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation, started by this 10 year old girl who died of cancer in Philly 20 years ago. Her parents run it, they're incredible and they do two things. They fund cancer research, pediatric cancer research, and they fund travel funds for families who need trials or treatment and they live in the middle of fucking Texas and they got to go to Cedars or whatever it is because yeah, it's really easy to be like, Hey, you got into a trial and then would be like, how are we supposed to pay to even get there much less, stay somewhere. And if FEMA's ditching out less money than they should because we haven't painted the maps, but [00:39:00] also less money to people of color and historically marginalized people and these low income people where it's their biggest asset.
No one's even asking a question like, Hey, do you have money to stay in a hotel?
Brianna Sacks: That's another plug to check your insurance policy. Like the insurance companies should be paying for you to do that depending on your policy. And a lot of the people I was running into with Ian is they weren't, the insurance companies like weren't getting back to them and so they were running out of cash.
Quinn: Or you go out of pocket and then they don't call you back.
Brianna Sacks: Looking at the ripple effects of what policy can cause. And a lot of people now especially in Florida, are just really living in unhealthy conditions. There's mold. I've spoken to four or five families whose kids are getting sick. They've been hit by two hurricanes.
They're like, do we sell this house as it is and take the loss? Or do we like, hold on and fight? And a lot of people, like for the most part want to hold on and fight. Because again, it goes back to like where do we go now in a state that [00:40:00] is unaffordable. And then also they can't get insurance again.
If they have an open claim. That's like a lot of, like a big issue is that these people are stuck because they can't get insured elsewhere if they have an open claim here. So they really are just frozen in this ongoing disaster, which has become their lives.
And then another thing too, I have a friend Jake Bittle at Grist who just wrote an amazing book on climate migration. And we got into insurance a little bit together at South by Southwest and he's gone and he's seen these towns that have really just faded away because people can't, they have just given up and they've left their homes still standing and they look like ghost towns now.
And a lot of it is just because they had to give up and leave. And I think we're going to start seeing a lot more of these small rural towns where, we're paying attention to Florida because it's a huge urban area where people got hit. But you don't think [00:41:00] of all these small places that tornadoes run through that people like, don't even have insurance or people aren't paying attention and they just have to.
They just have to walk away from everything that they have. And I'm sure yeah, that's something that we're going to just start seeing a lot more of.
Quinn: So this has been so inspiring.
Brianna Sacks: I know, right? Are you happy you listened to us today.
Quinn: Somewhere, somebody's just walking into traffic. No, it's real.
And it is going to, and I said to you upfront, like I, I do try to have some not, I don't know what, not fun with it, whatever it is. Some of them are much more fun. I met this young woman. I generally talk, and yourself included, to people who are like 30 to 40 times more intelligent and capable than I am, ignoring your ultrarunning experience, which is a whole different thing. I can barely get out for two miles every day. I talked to this young woman who's using, and I'm not exaggerating here, I still don't fucking understand it. She's figured out how to use drones with sound cannons to hold back wildfires.
And I'm like, what are we even talking about? Like one, that's the coolest shit I've ever heard. And I ran home and told [00:42:00] my kids, and two what are you talking about? But it's the coolest shit and it's so easy to be excited. This is not one of these. But it is.
Brianna Sacks: I will drop a positive spin is that after my story, I mean like people are paying attention. So now that this is out there, Florida politicians recently introduced a insurer accountability bill. Which is in the Senate, the House has to do a companion bill.
They're hoping it'll pass. And if it passes in that bill, and again, it's not like an amazing fix, but it's something, is that insurance companies will have to, if they're making changes, they have to list the changes, each change they have to list why they're making them, and they have to list like who made them.
There are these small steps that are happening, and now, more homeowners are demanding accountability. The CFO is okay, like we're appointing a new Hurricane Ian's claim processor to like, make sure these are [00:43:00] going through faster. So as depressing as and as tough as it is, and you're like, cool.
Wow, why do I keep doing this work? The small changes like those build, right? So that's what all we can hope for.
Quinn: I want to ask you a question about you real quick before we finish up here. Oh, yeah, you're welcome. This is going to be great. Welcome to your therapy session.
Brianna Sacks: As long as it's not about insurance I'm ready.
Quinn: No, laterally a little bit in the sense that so many different walks of life listen to the show and I talk to and it could be CEOs or university presidents or founders and students and artists and journalists and whatever, and I'm so lucky to try to bring it all together and think about it and ask the dumbest questions because I'm a moron.
But also, broad questions. So much of this stuff ties together, but also specific ones about what you do and why you do it, besides to pay the bills. It's not easy work by any stretch. The journalism industry in the US has been [00:44:00] decimated from top to bottom. Why do you do climate and climate disaster reporting?
Why do you keep pulling on these threads? Why do you have to do this work?
Brianna Sacks: I fell into disaster reporting before it was really as tied to climate change as it was, which is really interesting to think about. I was a breaking news reporter and in 2017, I was a new breaking news reporter. I was at Buzzfeed News at the time, which made me who I am career-wise because we saw that Puerto Rico had gotten hit and I was in a Facebook group and I stumbled on the US Virgin Islands, and people were like, we don't have food, we don't have water, we don't have electricity.
And then the second hurricane hit and I asked my editor and I was like, can I go? And I had no idea what I was doing, but he was like, yeah, if you can figure out a way to get there, you can go. And I was like, okay. So I somehow finagled myself onto a military in-bed flight. I was like 26 maybe.
I had a little bag with some snacks [00:45:00] and I like touched down in the US, like a war zone. There's like tanks everywhere. I had nowhere to stay. I had no car. And I was like, what is this? I ended up staying there for two weeks and seeing people suffering like that. Just.
Turned something on in me and then I was able to get their stories out. And I came back from that trip. I walked into the office and my editor was like, there's a fire in Northern California do you want to go cover it? And I was like, yeah, okay. So I turned around, I walked out and that was the Santa Rosa fire, which was a fire that none of us had ever seen before, because it swept through a city.
So I was up there for that and I just kept going. And I think like fires became my thing because I grew up evacuating them. I lost some deeply personal stuff in the 2018 Woolsey fire where when a fire came onto our property, I just can connect to people that way. And then it started being like, this is climate change and [00:46:00] what are we going to do about it?
And the accountability. And I kept just getting angrier. After you spend like years and years of seeing the disasters happen again and again in their worse and worse and the people who are affected by it, then the accountability started kicking it where I'm like, okay, who's responsible for this and why?
And what are we doing about it? And so that's why I decided to like really lean into it and want to just yeah, keep going.
Quinn: I love that. I mean it, one of my very earliest conversations, do not listen to it because I'm was even more of a moron. I am a like pagan atheist monster, but I was a religious studies major because it influences how the entire world works.
And I figured, instead of just political science, let me take the broader view of all this shit and why do people, how do they live? What do they do? So one of my earliest conversations was with a gentleman named Reverend Mitch Hescox, who basically does climate change work for the evangelical movement.
And I remember asking him, [00:47:00] how can we help? What should my action step be? What should our community action step be? And he was like, you're a pagan, atheist monster. You should give us money and get out of the way because you're not the messenger here. I am. Your job is to help me do my job. And the point is, it really does, I think, I imagine matter to someone in Florida who's got carpet that's still got water and their kids are breathing mold. It's a different disaster. But to understand that you lost stuff in the Woolsey fire, that you are someone who intimately understands what it's like to evacuate or to have a dad who refuses to evacuate for a bunch of complicated and simple reasons, but also will tell their truth.
And try to hold people accountable. And it's really easy to say oh, it's all bad guys. It's also really easy to be like, listen, we just got to push forward. Let's build a better future. Like for, there's no bad guys. We all relied on this power. All that shit can be true at once. It does really matter though, especially [00:48:00] with journalism just getting crushed, to have folks who get it intimately and are saying like, yes, okay, we don't know if this storm was created or made worse by climate change. But the point is it's here and it's happening more. More people are affected by it and I get it and I'm going to do the work to say we have to adapt to this correctly and in the most civil way possible.
And that means looking at some of these insurance companies when an adjuster calls and says, Hey, my name is on a check that's one 10th the size, it's supposed to be, something's fucked up here. It's really important to have people like yourself who are like let me find out what's going on.
Brianna Sacks: Thank you.
Also just a lot of the time people say it was just helpful for you to listen. And I think we don't, we forget about that. I don't, you don't have to be a reporter to make an impact on somebody's life. If you just care and are, I'm always like, just be a human first. And if you know people who've been through a disaster, like the trauma of that, even if it's small, like the [00:49:00] like loss of things that like, oh, like where did I put this?
Oh, it doesn't exist anymore. Like that changes you and if they just need to talk about it and they just need to be validated and like the record of what they, their experience documented in some way. And a lot of time that's just the job. And that's the most important part of it.
And I think if we just listen to each other and really have empathy and try and do a little better in terms of supporting one another in whatever way that we can, like that, it sounds super corny, but it goes a long way, especially when people have lost so much and they feel like they're really the only one living in this situation.
Thatâs why I love the job.
Quinn: Besides more rigorous zoning and flood maps and insurance laws and accountability stuff from what we are going through, and will go through even as we hustle to make enormous progress on some things. [00:50:00] We are making progress on, Texas is covered with solar and wind, even if they don't want to be.
And Biden's, every vehicle's going to be electric. We're making these incredible things. We're doing these things. But on the other hand, and if I could bring it down just a little more, we've got this, hey, 300,000 kids lost a caregiver from COVID. We haven't even started to deal with that, much less the frontline people who worked every day and watched those people be lost, who tried to save them. So besides like improving all these technical things and political things and better people in office and all that stuff, we just need this world class education and radical embrace of empathy because otherwise I'm not a hundred percent sure how we get through this period that's going to become so much more predictable and unpredictable and volatile and better without it coming apart.
Because like you said, if you've ever lost someone, if you've lost some things, it's terrible. If you've lost people, it's one thing. But if you've really lost someone, you know that often the [00:51:00] best thing to do, like you said, to listen, there's nothing you can really say. You know that because you've lost someone and you know that the only thing, the best thing to do is literally sit there and be like, I'm just going to be here until you tell me to go home.
And even then I might stick around some more and I don't know how to teach that lesson without people going through things, but we have to find some sort of way to do that because this shit's going to just keep happening.
Brianna Sacks: I think just being honest, we've gotten a lot better about this, at least with journalists too.
And I think the pandemic, one really beautiful part of the pandemic was that like we were all not okay. And it was like we were starting conversations with like, how are you holding up and how are you? And we could be honest with our feelings because it was a collective feeling of things that we were, it was out of our control.
Like we were losing people, we were losing jobs. We were like, the loss was overwhelming. And I think with climate change, like for some reason we don't really embrace it that way. Like it could be this collective, oh fuck, this is terrifying. It's [00:52:00] emotional, it's complicated, experience that's affecting all of us.
And I don't know if, we're going to come to a point pretty soon that I think like not experiencing a disaster will be rare.
Quinn: Yeah, sure. It's as much as Biden is this imperfect president it's pretty helpful to have someone who has basically lived the life of Gob, who's gone through some serious shit over and over again.
Who can literally stand there and be like, no, I fucking get it, man. I get it. And the more we have that, my guy friends and I, we'd say I love you to each other more than we ever did. And it's, we got to get rid of these stigmas and get rid of all this shit because it just matters and it's really hard to go through stuff and like you said, it's going to become the norm.
So the more we can start with that place, whether you're an artist or a journalist, or a student or a CEO or whatever it might be, that seems like the most fundamental building block we could probably start with from now on.
Brianna Sacks: Yeah, I agree. Because when you have those conversations, you can turn around and people with power and influence can be like, I just heard this thing from someone or whatever.
This is something I want to focus on. And that's [00:53:00] what we need.
Quinn: Listen that's slightly, that's more productive, right?
Brianna Sacks: We did it right. It's a little uplifting. I know we nail nailed it. We totally did.
Quinn: So I want to hear all about the ultra running some other time. Not right now. I have three questions I ask everybody then I'm going to get you out of here. Number one is first time in your life, and you alluded to this a little bit, but if you have a specific memory, first time in your life where you felt like you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful when you look back running for student office, helping your dad hose down the roof.
I don't know where you were like, oh shit, I can move the needle on something. Like when was that for you?
Brianna Sacks: That was the 2018 fire season for me. I covered the Woolsey Fire and Paradise and Woolsey Fire was in the community where I grew up. So not only was I reporting on it, I was also bringing in food, water, checking on my friends' homes [00:54:00] that burned down to let them know they burned down. Cause as a journalist, I was allowed in there. People who needed rides. I was giving rides and I was reporting all at the same time. And then after that, I flew to Paradise and I went to the Walmart parking lot.
And that was basically a developing country in terms of the people who were gathering there and the conditions. And I was documenting it all. I was tweeting and my Twitter threads were going viral. And people were like, this is insane. Like what? Like how are people like living like this? That was when it clicked for me.
It was like, okay, not only I'm doing, as we said so many things at once. I'm doing my job, I'm also like helping people and I'm documenting this reality of terror, this terrifying reality. That people on the East Coast would never have really understood I think. So yeah. It was, I literally burned myself out after that I reported on fires for two, I would say like a month straight.
But that was the moment for me that I think that [00:55:00] all, it all came together. We lost all our childhood mementos. Like everything that, baby clothes and every drawing I had made that my mom saved, like that all burned up, my brother's stuff too. That's the pivotal moment for me. Like human and career wise.
Quinn: Thank you for sharing that. I appreciate it. Again you hope that experience and contributions don't have to come through, worst metaphor ever, trial by fire. But you know that is often how it starts. Who is someone who has positively impacted your work in the past six months?
Brianna Sacks: I'm going to just call again my friend.
Jake Bittle who wrote that amazing book and is now at Grist. He has really, I think for the first time documented in an amazing way, how climate change has been changing our country's landscape and what we're losing. And it's a book that I was like, oh man, I didn't want to read it because I [00:56:00] had lived it, but like I learned so much and it was really well done. So I'm going to say him.
Quinn: One, should I have him on the show to talk about it?
Brianna Sacks: A hundred percent.
Quinn: Okay. And two, you may have answered my next question, but do whatever you want. We have a whole bookshop list of books that guests have said changed their thinking or some way or opened them up to some idea they haven't considered before.
Perspective on something that they haven't considered before.
Brianna Sacks: Yeah. I'm trying to think. I would like to think of one.
Quinn: Do you know who Kilian Jornet is?
Brianna Sacks: Yes, I do know him.
Quinn: Crazy mountain runner,
Brianna Sacks: No, he's amazing.
Quinn: He's not a human being. Have you read his training for the Uphill Athlete book?
Brianna Sacks: I haven't read it yet. So many people have told me his heart rate, by the way, like his training. So I always tell this, I'm just going to, I found the book that I wanted to talk to you about, but I'm just going to say this first. So why he's so good is he runs, like most of his runs in an extremely [00:57:00] low heart rate zone.
So I tell people like, if you cannot have a conversation while you're running, you're running too fast. You should be able to talk like this. So most of his runs like, he's like the lowest,
Quinn: He released that data, like a year or two ago. And everyone was like, Holy shit.
Like, how's that possible? Because he is so fast.
Brianna Sacks: Yeah. But that's the thing is you're supposed to run so slowly that like your heart rate stays low and then you just continue, you continue to get faster.
Quinn: I have such a hard time trying to do that. It is so impossible to not be like, I don't know, we should pick it up today.
It's, yeah, I get it. The data's there.
Brianna Sacks: Okay I'm not going to change my book choice. Because now that we're on running.
Quinn: Do whatever you want. It's your show.
Brianna Sacks: Yeah. I do what I want. I do what I want. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami is like one of my favorite books of all time.
And it's not about, it is running, but not really. It's like his like biography and life story. And that book changed me [00:58:00] in a big way and actually turned me onto to all of his other reading, which I have, just he's become one of my favorite authors. But just his take on like why he runs and like what he gets out of it and running is a lot like life as corny as that sounds, but it's like a very long-term relationship. And so that's my book submission that if people are like interested in running, go for that one. But also just, it's a beautiful book. And he's has also just an amazing mind.
Quinn: I love that one. And it reminds me a little bit of if you ever read, and there's a million again, books on writing, but this is on writing, but less so and it's literally called On Writing and it's the Stephen King book.
Brianna Sacks: Oh, yep. That one's another amazing one. I've never read a Stephen King book.
Quinn: It feels very similar, where you're just like, I'm getting some stuff out of this on writing, but wow. Like I now understand why you do this, why you have to do this.
What makes you write a book every six, it's incredible. Yeah. Anyways, yeah, we'll throw that on the list [00:59:00]. Thank you for sharing that. All right. Where can the people follow you? Does Twitter exist? It's 1248. Who can know?
Brianna Sacks: I know. I'm like, I'm on Twitterish. I like Twitter light.
I'm like a Twitter lighter. I'm on there, I tweet sometimes, but when I'm in the field, so I'm actually going up today, I'm leaving in two hours to drive up to Central California to report on the impending flooding that is going to be happening to some of the Central Valley communities.
And it's already gotten real, when I'm in the field. I usually on Twitter, do threads of my interviews and like what I see. So I'm at Bri underscore Sacks on there, and then I'm also on the gram.
Quinn: I appreciate your time and obviously all the work you're putting into this stuff and your dedication to it.
It's, we need more journalism, obviously, more and better journalism but this is a prime example of why to understand where we are and what's [01:00:00] happening to folks and why, so we can try to set ourselves up for a slightly better future. So thank you.
Brianna Sacks: Yeah. Thank you for, thanks for doing the work yourself also, and for making it enjoyable to talk about.
Quinn: Pros and cons.
That's it. Important, Not Important is hosted by me, Quinn Emmett. Thank you for your time today. It is produced by Willow Beck. It is edited by Anthony Luciani and the music is by Tim Blaine. You can read our critically acclaimed newsletter and get notified about new conversations @ importantnotimportant.com.
You can also find fantastic t-shirts and hoodies and coffee mugs and stickers and shit at the same place. I'm on Twitter at Quinn Emmett, or at Important, not imp. We're also on LinkedIn and Facebook and all of that stuff. You can send feedback, questions, thoughts, whatever you'd like really to us on Twitter or better, at questions [01:01:00] important not important.com.
Thank you for giving a shit.
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