Dispatches from the New American Shore

 

by Monica Allard Cox

From the 18th century on, everyone from farmers to city leaders to railroad barons filled in millions of acres of wetlands across the U.S., often with federal government support. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter ended that assistance, and the Clean Water Act added further protections for these ecosystems, but filling continued. It wasn’t until Hurricane Katrina that the nation’s 200-year history of “reclaiming” wetlands was revealed to the public at large as an enterprise that had put swaths of the population at risk.

That lesson was reinforced in 2015 with Superstorm Sandy’s destruction in New York City’s low-lying coastal neighborhoods, many of them developed on filled lands.

So, it may come as a surprise to learn that Facebook recently built a 430,000 square-foot campus on former tidal wetlands in San Francisco, on land that it further filled with 72,500 cubic yards of dirt—while simultaneously donating $15,000 to the restoration of San Francisco Bay marshes.

Elizabeth Rush relates this ironic anecdote in Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, which looks at marsh communities—human, plant, and animal—struggling in the face of sea level rise from the Northeast (including Rhode Island) to Florida, Louisiana, Oregon, and California.

While the Facebook story identifies a satisfying culprit (Rush adds that Facebook will benefit from government-funded infrastructure repairs in the event of a flood), most of the book faults U.S. society as a whole for sating its thirst for expansion by filling in wetlands, then relegating the poor to live in those flood-prone areas. When their communities are devastated by storms, these disenfranchised people have few resources with which to move, rebuild, or elevate their homes.

This environmental injustice is at the heart of Rising, and Rush discovers no simple answers. She admires the scope of that effort in San Francisco to restore tens of thousands of acres of wetlands, Facebook headquarters notwithstanding. But she also fears that its secondary effect—reducing flooding in surrounding neighborhoods—will make those areas attractive to wealthy buyers and price current residents out of their homes.

“I don’t go into my interviews with charts. I … ask residents to tell me their flood stories. I am there to listen.”

– Elizabeth Rush

This environmental injustice is at the heart of Rising, and Rush discovers no simple answers. She admires the scope of that effort in San Francisco to restore tens of thousands of acres of wetlands, Facebook headquarters notwithstanding. But she also fears that its secondary effect—reducing flooding in surrounding neighborhoods—will make those areas attractive to wealthy buyers and price current residents out of their homes. Rush takes more comfort from the stories of residents of one modest-income Staten Island community hit by fatal flooding during Sandy. The survivors banded together, developed a buyout plan, and demanded that they be relocated and that their properties be “returned to nature,” not turned over to a developer. Rush’s book is strongest when she lets coastal residents like these tell their own stories. And that, she writes in her afterword, is what may be missing from so much discourse around climate change. A man at a Rising book event asks her: “But what do nonbelievers say when you show them the charts that illustrate temperature change over time? How can they deny the climate science?” “‘I don’t go into my interviews with charts,’” she answers, “‘I … ask residents to tell me their flood stories. I am there to listen.’”

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