We always knew this day would come—the day when, along America’s coasts, sea-level rise became undeniable. When sad-faced homeowners abandoned their houses to the tides, their memories to the marshes, their savings to the silt. When groundless hope gave out and glum resignation settled in. When the moving trucks pulled up.
Well, not everywhere, and not all at once. But to judge from “Surrendering to Rising Seas,” a first-rate piece of writing by Scientific American senior editor Jen Schwartz, retreat from the coasts is truly under way.
Schwartz takes her readers to Woodbridge Township, New Jersey, a community just across Arthur Kill from New York City’s Staten Island. There she introduces Monique Coleman, who left behind a rough block in Newark for the calm of Woodbridge Township—only to see her new home flood three times in three years. Coleman studied her problem and realized that the flooding wasn’t going to stop. That putting her house on stilts would be silly “if her car and the road were still on the ground.” That, truth be told, her neighborhood should not have been built in the first place. So when Coleman learned that the government was willing to purchase her house at its pre-storm value, knock it down, and close the property to development forever, she decided to retreat. Ultimately, so did most of her neighbors. Her old neighborhood doesn’t even look like a ghost town now, Coleman says. It looks “like it’s just land.”
A tireless New Jersey bureaucrat named Fawn McGee was a crucial player in the emptying of Coleman’s neighborhood. One can think of coastal states where a tireless New Jersey bureaucrat would be as welcome as a flood—even if, like Fawn McGee, the bureaucrat had the best of all possible names. But it doesn’t matter. The retreat is going to happen. The retreat has already begun.