In Rising, Elizabeth Rush guides readers through our nation’s disappearing places, from Louisiana to Miami, Staten Island to the Bay Area. The wetlands that define these regions are among the most imperiled ecosystems on the planetaccustomed to periods of change, of ebb and flow, yet overwhelmed by rapidly shifting conditions. For many of the plants and animals who live there, the options are stark: retreat or perish in place.
Is human civilization facing a similar set of limited options? And how do we move forward in a world whose borders are already becoming unsettled and strange? Weaving the firsthand accounts of those who are living through sea level rise todayscientists, activists, and members of the communities both currently at risk and already displacedwith eyewitness reporting from our shoreline’s disappearing places, Rising is at once polyphonic and precise, lyric reportage that privileges the voices of those usually kept at the margins.
A shimmering meditation on vulnerability and on vulnerable communities, both human and more than human, and on how to let go of the places we love.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
from Divining Rod
Oakwood Beach, Staten Island
This is a book with many beginnings. One takes place in Bangladesh. Another deep in the Louisiana Bayou. Sparks also flare from the eastern shore of Staten Island, after the storm that took Leonard Montalto’s life.
Before I moved to the Ocean State, I lived in New York City. Before Miami and Phippsburg there was Oakwood Beach. I was working at the College of Staten Island the fall that Sandy spun into the harbor. Both the size of the storm and its unusual track were unprecedented in scientific memory. Never before had the water reached so high. Of the city’s nearly eight million residents, over four hundred thousand were inundated, many of whom lived atop land that had been formerly zoned as tidal marsh. While flooding in these neighborhoods was common, Sandy exceeded all previous experience. In Oakwood Beach the storm surge topped fourteen feet, an all-time record. The college campus remained closed for weeks. When classes finally resumed some of my students were missing, displaced or worse, by a previously unimaginable amount of salt water.
One, a brilliant Russian woman named Lena, had been living in a basement apartment in Midland Beach. During the storm the ocean poured into her rented room. The little she had was ruined. Her bed, her books, even her computer: all became bloated with water. I offered her my couch but she said she would stay with a friend. As the semester progressed, Lena stopped coming to class regularly. I don’t know if it was the commute from her temporary housing in Jersey or her lack of funds that finally did her in. Either way, she disappeared. A few months later she wrote me a short email from her landlocked home, saying thank you and goodbye.
I suppose you could say it was then that I knew that the coverage of the storm and all that it gestured toward was incomplete. Where was Lena’s story? And though I had yet to meet her, where was Nicole’s? Where were the stories of those who had been flooded before Sandy? And of those who, in the wake of a storm so powerful it sucked the light right out of the tip of Manhattan, had left?
For much of the last half century, the eastern side of Staten Island was the kind of place where teachers, firefighters, cops, and sanitation workers could have their own version of the good life, digging for mollusks in the mudflats, fishing for stripers off the pier. In places like Oakwood Beach, there were clambakes in the summer, and the neighborhood kids played soccer together at night under the streetlights. Sure there was a flooding problem and a wastewater treatment plant, but it was considered home and a good one at that. Leonard Montalto grew up there and he liked it so much he stayed put, raising three daughters in the little white cottage on Fox Beach Avenue. His sister, Patti Snyder, raised her family just down the block. And when Patti’s daughter moved out, it was to a bungalow right across the street from Leonardand his children.
Despite their love for the place that had long defined them, after Sandy residents of nine local communities began begging the state government to bulldoze their homes and allow the land to return to tidal marsh. This, more than anything else about Sandy and its aftermath, surprised me. Not the fact that Goldman Sachs was the sole building below Chambers Street to keep its power intact through the storm. Not the fires that raged out at Breezy Point or the elderly stranded in the Red Hook Houses for weeks. It was the clamor rising from the sodden side of the city’s only Republican borough, the signs that read: Mother Nature wants her land back and Buyout Wanted, Buyout Needed. What did these residents of right-leaning, climate change–denying, low-lying, working-class neighborhoods know that the rest of us did not? How was it that they were interested in retreat, one of the most progressive and controversial sea level rise adaptation strategies?
When I finally make it out to Oakwood Beach that spring, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Sandy recovery funds have been allocated to purchase and demolish the tight-knit seaside community. The work of unsettling the shore has begun.
The trip from Manhattan takes a little over an hour. From the ferry deck I watch the century-old skyscrapers recede. Once on Staten Island, I ride my bicycle down Bay Street through the Sri Lankan neighborhood of Tompkinsville, among the 250-year-old stone cannon mounts at Fort Wordsworth, and out along the boardwalk on South Beach. The bustle of the city starts to fall away. The bike path is suddenly studded with dunes and cedars and black needle rush. An abandoned airplane hangar, a washed-out teal jungle gym, and a stone-gray wastewater treatment plant. I feel like I am in some neglected corner of the Hamptons yet I have not crossed city lines.
Twenty-two thousand years ago the massive Laurentide Ice Sheet began to retreat. It had covered New England and all of New York City in nearly mile-thick glaciers. When the ice withdrew, much of the land that lay just beyond its farthest edge subsided, creating hundreds of miles of swamps, bogs, and tidal marshes, including those that line Staten Island’s eastern shore. In 1900, there were over three hundred square miles of wetlands within a twenty-five-mile radius of New York’s City Hall. Where the land met the sea muskrats made mischief, white water lilies bloomed, and egrets nested. For much of the last five hundred years, the fundamental nature of North America’s wetlands kept them from being routinely explored and developed. They are, by definition, periodically wet enough to limit human use. But ever since the Swamplands Act of 1850, which gave states ownership over any marsh they could drain, these unique ecosystems have been under threat. Land that once was deplored, in part, because of the difficulties speculators faced in placing hard boundaries around blurry edges, suddenly provided a chance to make money from something that was, for the longest time, thought of as less than nothing.
As the population of the New York metropolitan area expanded, roughly 90 percent of the city’s wetlands were backfilled and hardscaped. Chinatown was once a wetland. Coney Island was once a wetland. East Harlem was once a wetland. So were Red Hook and the Rockaways. Broad Channel, Bergen Beach, and Inwood. John F. Kennedy Airport is sited atop former tidal marsh. So are Freshkills Landfill and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and a healthy chunk of coastal Queens and almost all of Staten Island’s eastern shore.
It’s not just Gotham where wetlands once reigned. Much of the northeast corridor, the most densely populated portion of the country, was covered in cordgrass and salt marsh hay not that long ago. Since the eighteenth-century, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and Maryland have all lost over 50 percent of their coastal wetlands to development. Big chunks of Boston, Providence, New Haven, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, were all once so wet that no one dreamed of living there. These seemingly mundane landscapes were not fawned over or earmarked for preservation. Instead they often became informal garbage dumps.
Around the turn of the last century, a significant portion of these wetlands-turned-landfills got paved over to meet the demands of the regions’ growing industrial ports. Then, as the shipping industry waned in the forties, the mixed industrial areas were redeveloped once again. At the time, living alongside our country’s polluted waterways was considered a nuisance, so public and low-income housing often went in. The population boom of the fifties led to a housing shortage and the once soggy edges of many cities provided cheap, if flood-prone, housing to those who did not have enough money to live anywhere else. As the century progressed these were also the neighborhoods that didn’t receive much infrastructural support: the places that flooded most regularly and got the least help.
A few months after my first visit to Oakwood Beach, I stop by Alan Benimoff’s office at the College of Staten Island. Our resident geologist, Alan has been working on a series of papers that attempt to unearth some of the underlying causes of Sandy’s devastating impact. When I first see him, he is hunched over his computer, at the far end of a dimly lit room littered with different earthbound artifacts––rock samples, embossed topographic maps, and replicas of prehistoric fossils. Alan lets out a sigh big enough to travel. Then he looks up and gestures for me to come closer. It is an unseasonably warm late winter day and the sky beyond his window threatens thunder. The campus should be covered in snow but instead is pocked by mud and puddles.
Pot-bellied, balding, an old-school Italian American with a big white mustache, Alan strikes me as an unlikely climate change specialist at first. While he is reluctant to talk about the future, he has no problem discussing how poorly planned urban environments contributed mightily to the chaos Sandy wrought. On his computer he pulls up a map of Staten Island’s eastern shore compiled from various data sets. Most of the land is coded red, meaning that it lies no more than ten feet above sea level. Some is shaded light blue, making it difficult to distinguish from the bay. “Blue means the area is zoned as a wetland,” he explains.
Alan’s map also shows building footprints. He clicks and the map changes. “This is the turn of the century,” he says. “You can see that the area was mostly marsh with a few buildings indicated in black.” I am surprised to discover that a hundred years ago the borough had a different shape. It was not the triangle I tend to think of it as being but rather more of an hourglass, with most of the desirable neighborhoods buffered by a belt of arterial wetlands cinched around the island’s waist.
Alan shows me the last hundred years of Staten Island’s development in ten-year intervals. As the century progresses, the number of black building footprints increases, even in the area that previously wasn’t considered land. There the jagged lines that indicate marsh grasses are plastered over and a street grid emerges. “Wetlands act as giant sponges, absorbing storm surges. When they are paved over, that water still has to go somewhere, crashing into everything in its path,” Alan says. “No one talks about it, but the way we have developed the coast amplified Sandy’s destructive force.”
He looks at me through rimless round glasses and adds one final data set to the map. Twenty-four red dots appear scattered along the coast. “I’ve plotted every single Sandy-related death as well. The important thing to realize is this: over half of the people who died in the storm were standing atop land that once was a tidal marsh. If you ask me,” he says, his cursor hovering over the fragile fingers of development that comprise the easternmost reaches of Oakwood Beach, “none of those homes should have been built in the first place.”
After forty minutes of riding I eventually arrive at the edge of Oakwood. I have seen a single building razed before, but nothing prepares me for watching an entire community as it is wiped off the map. The crunch and snap of backhoes eating away at siding sounds at the far end of Kissam Avenue. One yellow machine mounts a pile of debris and gnaws like a praying mantis dismantling its prey. The further I ride down the street, the less I hear because the demolitions are mostly complete, some of the houses already gone.
I lock my bike to a tree so I can move more slowly. Waves of invasive grasses keel around the dozen or so concrete foundations that remain. They look like extraterrestrial landing pads or the rubble of a city that has been destroyed by a nuclear bomb. I walk down what was once a driveway, out to a slab that was once a house. Most of what made this place home, in the strictest sense––the walls, the roof shingles, the joists––have all been broken apart and now wait to be carted away. This might be the scene Paul Klee imagined when he drew his Angelus Novus, a man with wide-set eyes and wings outstretched, of whom Walter Benjamin wrote, “Hisfaceis turned toward thepast. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. . . . But astormis blowing in fromParadise. . . . This storm irresistibly propels him into thefutureto which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him growsskyward.This storm is what we callprogress.” I look around at the broken bits of concrete, the abandoned gutters, and the sheets of Pepto-Bismol pink fiberglass insulation. Wind blows in warm scraps.
A family of geese waddle across the rubble then veer off, disappearing into the marsh like soap bubbles popping: one-two-three. I follow them, walking a little farther into the caterwauling green. The cordgrass and cattails get caught by the wind and sway. I step carefully, feeling out the uneven ground. Red, tannic water wells up around my feet while a zebra-winged finch sings from the broken branches of a nearby tree. It is not my first time visiting a marsh, but it is, in truth, one of the first times that I am really paying attention. The calm that washes over me is immediate, the city’s tension sloughing off in thick sheets. I had expected this day in Oakwood to feel like an excursion to a ruin, but the neighborhood and the surrounding tidal marsh are both accursed and holy, the land both forsaken and reclaimed. I feel at peace.
For most of my life I never gave the landscapes of wetland and tidal marsh much thought, but now they are, in their sly and unassuming way, absorbing much of my attention. To most a wetland is just a mess of grass. The sulfuric scent of decomposition. Miasmas and mud. But I am beginning to see them as divining rods, foretelling where there will be more water in the future. And even more importantly, that the future is, in many cases, already here.
Table of ContentsCONTENTS
Jacob’s Point, Rhode Island
Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana
Laura Sewall: Small Point, Maine
The Marsh at the End of the World
Dan Kipnis: Miami Beach, Florida
Nicole Montalto: Oakwood Beach, Staten Island
Oakwood Beach, Staten Island
Marilynn Wiggins: Pensacola, Florida
Chris Brunet: Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana
Goodbye Cloud Reflections in the Bay
Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana
Connecting the Dots
H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest, Oregon
Richard Santos: Alviso, California
Looking Backward and Forward in Time
San Francisco Bay, California
Afterword: Franklin. Gert. Harvey. Irma. Jose. Katia. Lee. Maria. Nate. Ophelia.