The Isle de Jean Charles off the coast of Louisiana has lost more than ninety percent of its landmass in the last fifty years. The Native community living on the island became the country’s first climate refugees, forced to leave their flooded home in 2016. (Photo: Karen Apricot, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
As ocean levels rise, coastal communities contend with higher floods, stronger hurricanes, and saltwater intrusion. Some are even being forced to retreat to higher ground. From Louisiana to Staten Island to Pensacola, writer Elizabeth Rush set out to document the stories of people caught in these rising tides. Rush speaks with Host Steve Curwood about her new book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore.
CURWOOD: The monster hurricanes we’re seeing today are indicators that climate disruption is upon us. But many people still see it as a problem of the future. Yet across the United States it doesn’t take a devastating storm for scientists and citizens to see the unwelcome transformation that is happening right now, as our planet is warming, ocean levels are rising as well. From Louisiana, to Florida to Staten Island, writer Elizabeth Rush set out to document the stories of people caught in these rising tides. Her book is called Rising, Dispatches from the New American Shore, and she joins us from Exeter, New Hampshire. Welcome to Living on Earth.
RUSH: Hi, Steve. Thanks for having me.
CURWOOD: Now, there are many aspects of climate disruption. Why tell stories of sea level rise in particular?
RUSH: You know, I think one thing that is deeply challenging with writing and reporting about climate change is that it's hard for us to see or feel or point to specifically what climate change feels like. I think it's a little bit easier for us to see the early impacts and effects of climate change, and sea level rise is something that's unfolding right now in the present tense, and it's affecting hundreds of millions of people around the world already, and so I wanted to write this book really from their perspective, to go on the ground in coastal communities, specifically in the United States, and to ask folks living on the front lines of sea level rise, you know -- what is it that woke you up to this reality and what are you doing to rise to the challenges that it presents?
CURWOOD: A number of your stories really focus on disadvantaged communities, less affluent, with histories of racial discrimination. Why?
RUSH: So, I think when I started writing "Rising", I had this idea that those who lived on the shore, who lived alongside the water were going to be some of the most affluent in this country, and that is partially the case. One of the things that I discovered, though, is that many of the places that are flooding now as sea levels rise are sited on top of or alongside tidal wetlands. And tidal wetlands have long been viewed as wastelands, they've long been viewed as sort of unfit for human development, certainly in post-contact in North America. And that means that they're some of the last places to get developed, and the housing prices often are lower in these areas because they have flooding problems from the get-go. So, something that I discovered as I was writing this book was that the places that are flooding worse and worse year after year now are often lower income communities of color.
And those communities end up living in tidal wetlands or alongside, or are sited on top of former tidal wetlands. If you look at Pensacola, Florida, Pensacola was tidal wetlands swampy marshland, and it was one of the main destinations that runaway slaves sought out, and part of the reason they sought this area out was because those wetlands sort of acted as an invisibility cloak. Wetlands are easy to defend and difficult to attack, and the land itself tends to not be very coveted. So, that was something that I discovered writing this book, was that some of the people who are feeling the oceans gathering force now are those who have historically been economically and socially disadvantaged in this country.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to hear some of these stories from you now; tell me the story of Chris Brunet.
RUSH: I should start and just say that over the course of writing this book, he's become a good friend and he's one of the first people that I really reached out to and spent a lot of time with who was living on the front lines of climate change. He's a resident of the Isle de Jean Charles, which is about an hour and a half southwest of New Orleans, and one thing that you need to know about the coast of Louisiana is that it is losing ground at an absolutely stunning rate. So, they've lost since roughly 1950, an area in size equal to the state of Delaware.
So, Chris Brunet, he lives on this island. That island has lost over 90 percent of its landmass in the past 50 years, and it's an island that is inhabited by a group of people that are Biloxi, Chitimacha, Choctaw, and Acadian. So, they're all of these different indigenous groups that were displaced in fleeing colonial violence, ended up sort of on the soggy fringes of the state of Louisiana, in part, because that land wasn't necessarily that desirable to begin with and they've lived there for a couple hundred years. Over the past 50 years or so they've just watched this land disappear under high tide, and now you sit in Chris Brunet's house and you're surrounded by high water, and he has photographs that show his childhood -- he lives in his childhood home -- he can look back, look at these photographs that are from 40 years ago and everything is pasture around his house, and you've got cows grazing at his mom's growing okra and cantaloupes and persimmons. And all of that, that way of life, living close to the land and really surviving off the land, is gone, has disappeared because of this combination of sea level rise and other compounding factors.
So, in 2016 I was reading The New York Times and the front page said, “United States’ first climate change refugees.” It was a story about the island and this grant that they had just received for $48 million dollars to relocate as a group. And I called Chris, and I said, “are you leaving?” And I can still hear his voice in my mind. He said, “we're not celebrating but we are going.” I was able to go back out to the island a couple months later and just knowing that they were going to be relocating, leaving this land, that this land was really going to disappear and that the human history of folks living in it, it wasn't going to be grounded in that place anymore. That community had to hold on to it through their stories, through their history projects and community centers, but that that community in that place was no longer going to be there. It just totally changed my perspective.
CURWOOD: You write about the use of language to deal with the loss of places; it’s a way to comfort folks who have lost the place that was home for themselves and their ancestors. Talk to me about that, please.
RUSH: Well, that question is one that came up often for me as a writer as I was writing this book. I've always thought of language as very powerful and I'll never forget chatting with a man named John Bear Mitchell, who is a Penobscot historian and member of the Penobscot tribe up in northern and central Maine. And he said, you know, our ceremonies still include the caribou even though they don't live here anymore. And that just struck me as something that was deeply meaningful to me in this conversation.
CURWOOD: Now, some of your stories focus on communities that suffer racial discrimination, have low incomes. Now, some might say that could give a false sense of comfort to the more affluent and maybe seduce them into thinking their money could help them escape the rising tides, or at least delay the pain past their lifetimes. What would you say to such a critic?
RUSH: In the most immediate sense, I get it. If you have enough money you can build up on stilts, you can pay for the insurance, you can sort of build a buffer around yourself that might make you seem sort of lifted above that vulnerable position, both metaphorically and physically. And the reality is those homes are deeply dependent upon all of the different kinds of infrastructure that service them, so roadways and gas pipelines, and electric lines and telecommunication lines. There might be a sense that you can sort of lift your home above the high tide, but you can't -- it's really very difficult to lift everything that that home depends upon above the high tide.
The other thing, and I see this in Miami Beach is, OK, Miami Beach is pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into sea level rise-ready infrastructure. They're installing flood pumps and they're raising roadways. Well, that community of often very wealthy people, I think, is in ways that we don't often pay attention to, deeply linked to many of the surrounding communities as well, the lower income communities, the working class communities, those folks go out there and they work in the public sector, they are sanitation workers, they work in the hotels, they work in the restaurants. So, I think that they that we can just lift the wealthy above the high tide line and nothing will change is just fundamentally flawed. We are all in this together, and the sooner we can wrap our heads around that, the better I think.
CURWOOD: Elizabeth, please tell me the story of Nicole Montalto.
RUSH: So, Nicole Montalto is a young woman from a community on the eastern shore of Staten Island named Oakwood Beach, and I'll tell you the story of how I met Nicole. Essentially, I was teaching at the College of Staten Island at the time and had started to write about sea level rise. I had already been to Louisiana. Then Hurricane Sandy happened. It was profoundly devastating on the eastern shore of Staten Island.
And then a couple months after this storm, I started to hear murmurs about a coastal community that was working class, right-leaning, often but not always climate change denying, and they had started a public campaign to have the state use disaster recovery funding to purchase and demolish their seaside homes. They didn't feel safe living there any longer. They had been flooding worse and worse year after year. So, I started to interview people out there, and about six months into that process, one of the women I had interviewed, a woman named Patty Schneider, said, it's coming up on the anniversary of the storm and we're having a celebration of life ceremony for my brother who passed away and I'd really like you to come. And so I went, and there I met Nicole Montalto, and she's the daughter of Leonard Montalto, a man who died in the storm, who died in Sandy.
And I'll never forget it, I was standing in her Aunt Patty's kitchen, and Nicole took me by the arm and she said, you're writing a book and you're going to help commemorate my father, and I want to tell you the story of Sandy. And she sat me down and she talked for two hours. And, you know, she had been living at home during the storm, and she was there with her father and things kept getting worse and worse and eventually her father told her you have to leave. And so she fled and that was the last she ever saw her father, Leonard Montalto. And they searched for him for a couple days after the storm and eventually found him drowned in their basement. Nicole told me this whole story and I felt immediately that there was nothing that I could do as a writer to make it any better than the way she told it. So, her voice opens a chapter on Staten Island and I think of it as a testimony, as bearing witness to these profound changes.
CURWOOD: So, how fair is it to say that your book is ultimately about grief?
RUSH: Part of me thinks of it as elegy, as a kind of elegy for the coastline as we've thought of it for many, many centuries. But, there's also for me a kernel of hope in the book, and for me that comes back to that story of Oakwood Beach in Staten Island.
CURWOOD: So, what's the advantage of us working on the reality of climate disruption, in particular sea level rise – collectively, together?
RUSH: I do think that as communities on the front lines of this problem begin to pay attention to, and live more profoundly sort of with that awareness of the Earth and its changes, that hopefully I think it can usher in a new sort of understanding of human beings and our place on this planet. That is a huge tall order, and I do think that it will probably mean the end of certain political systems that we've had for centuries in this country, but political systems change. We know that, and I think people have a hard time thinking outside of capitalism, but I imagine that climate change will fundamentally challenge and sort of overturn that political system in the long run. I think it's up to us to, to see each other through with justice and empathy and an awareness that we are all in this together.
CURWOOD: Elizabeth Rush is the author of "Rising Dispatches from the New American Shore". Thanks so much for taking the time with us today, Elizabeth.
RUSH: Thank you, Steve, for having me, it's been a pleasure.
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