Stories From Those On The Frontlines Of Sea Level Rise

19:35 minutes

illustrated stack of books with text "scifri book club"

This segment is the last in our Fall Book Club series about Elizabeth Rush’s book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. For more conversations from this series, visit our Book Club landing page.

Next week marks the start of the UN’s annual conference on climate change in Glasgow, Scotland. It’s a big moment for global consensus on climate change: Nations are supposed to make new, aggressive pledges to lower their emissions in the attempt to prevent the planet from hitting 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. 

Meanwhile, in the world we see and touch, seas are already rising. In some coastal areas, seas have risen between 0.5 to 1.5 feet in the last century. We’re also already seeing hurricanes with higher storm surge, and heavier rainfall. More change, of course, is projected. (Check out NOAA’s tool for tracking how your area might be affected under different sea level rise scenarios).

The SciFri Book Club has been talking about these risks, and reading about how these numbers have endangered wetlands, flooded homes, lost livelihoods, and sometimes scattered communities in Elizabeth Rush’s 2018 book Rising: Dispatches From The New American Shore. But while we’ve talked to wetland scientists and Elizabeth herself, the voices of community members most affected by climate change—a key part of Rising’s mission—were still missing.

In a final conversation with guest host Sophie Bushwick, producer Christie Taylor shares some of the stories of people on the frontlines, including a real-estate agent who helped his neighbors relocate after Hurricane Sandy, and the leader of the Gullah Geechee people on the sea islands of the southeast coast. Plus, social scientist A.R. Siders’ insights into communities’ need to adapt to sea level rise, and how they can be most successful.

What You Said

Harriet Festing, Anthropocene Alliance, a coalition of grassroots organizations across the United States centered on climate and environmental justice

We’ll be working with one member where residents are flooding, they’re attending city hall meetings, they might have a Facebook group, they don’t really know what to do next. And we’ll start to match them with the government agencies, the nonprofits, the granting opportunities, to start to both better understand their risks, develop a suite of solutions, and then actually implement those solutions.

And so that’s not just about…the challenges of a FEMA grant getting to community, but it’s also about the challenges of a FEMA grant with a HUD grant with a USDA grant with Army Corps of Engineers technical assistance. Being able to be coordinated in a way that works and supports a community versus just overwhelms them.

And all of us, our job is to make sure that we’re serving the needs of that community leader. And then the scientists will work in supporting them.

heavy rainfall on a street with a playground in the distance
Marin City, California, on October 24 2021. Credit: June Farmer

June Farmer, Marin City People’s Plan, Marin City, California:

The problem that we have is that we have too many people on the outside. They come in and tell us exactly what we need instead of letting who lives there tell you what’s happening, and what we need. A few years ago, they did an assessment of Marin City. Not one person in Marin City was interviewed. Not one person in Marin City was talked to, but they spent $350,000 on this assessment and wrote a 700-and-some page report. Who’s going to read it? Yeah, so what we need is people to rally behind the people in Marin City, and to help us come up with solutions.

When you have engineers, and people with degrees [who] come in, they think they know more than what the community people know. We need money, we need people, we need supplies. We need people to listen.

Gloria Horning, Higher Ground Pensacola, Pensacola, Florida

They want to put 20-story high rises on this park, which is right at the bay. In our community, our roads [already] flood at high tide. Okay, so where’s all that water gonna go when besides stormwater, we got high tide coming in. And then you’d have Washerwoman’s Creek coming up. So nothing can go anywhere. And so we flood. Now our homes don’t necessarily flood but we can’t get to our car. And your car better be at higher ground because it’s going to get flooded.

Susan Liley, Citizens’ Committee for Flood Relief, De Soto, Missouri:

rushing brown water flooding buildings
Flooding from Joachim Creek in DeSoto, Missouri, in 2016. Credit: Susan Liley

I’m the flood lady, is what they call me. If somebody is going to build a house or buy a house, I get calls and [they] say, ‘Hey, do you have pictures of my house, does it flood?’ And if I tell them, or show them a picture, ‘Yes, it did,’ they still buy the houses. So it’s just it’s very frustrating. 

Sometimes I think it’s getting better, because we have some wonderful partners that we work with. But the legislators [are] the ones that really could help. And they haven’t. They’ve just sat back. They could be heroes. When I went to Washington, DC, I went in to see our congressman. It was Jason Smith. And he said, ‘Why haven’t you helped yourself?’ And I’ve pondered on that question for so long. How do you help yourselves other than apply for grants and stuff? And I’m an old grandma trying to figure out how to apply for these grants and things. Without our partners…[we] would be lost. 

Rebecca Jim, LEAD Agency, Tar Creek watershed, Northeast Oklahoma

This water coming down Tar Creek is a regular creek. But partway down it comes through several miles—passes through several miles of contaminated chat from mine workings. From one of the largest lead and zinc mines in the country, actually in the world. It’s an abandoned mine site. There’s no more mining going on. But the residue, these mountains of chat are along the stream bed. So when there is a flood event, more of that material gets wet, and more of that material will either leach in or even be carried downstream.

The Neosho River is the boundary of the Cherokee Nation. But on the other side of the boundary are nine other tribes that federally recognized tribes that got slivers of land when they were relocated to Union territory. And this creek runs through three of those tribal boundaries and impacts many of the others coming downstream as well as the Cherokees. So we believe that, as Native people we will always see water as life. And we want to recognize that again.

a black woman in a gray shirt and holding a basket stands in a grassy field with a large shallow puddle in front of her, showing her relfection
Gullah/Geechee Chieftess Queen Quet surveys her crops on the island of St. Helena, South Carolina, after a thunderstorm in June 2020. The Gullah/Geechee people living on sea islands along the coast have experienced rising seas that threaten their agrarian, communal lifestyles. Credit: Courtesy of Queen Quet.

Queen Quet, Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, St. Helena, South Carolina

We literally live in the Atlantic Ocean. We are literally the front shoreline of what people are describing as climate impacts. But we have been here since the [1500s] and the 1600s. And we live communally on the sea islands. When you talk about something impacting in any way, it doesn’t just impact the same. It impacts our souls as a collective group as Gullah Geechee is. And so our community still lives on the water, we still live from the land, we are agrarian. And we harvest both from that land and from the sea. So of course, it’s important to us that we can continue to do that and thrive for hundreds and hundreds of more years.

And if you’re going to buy anybody out then buyout the resorts, buyout the people who moved here last, and then invest in the communities that were here for the hundreds of years. Don’t ask us to move, because we didn’t create the problem.

two images side by side. on the left is a bunch of abandoned structures and frameworks of buildings. on the right is an open grassy field with a small road going by it on the left
Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, before (left) and after (right) the post-Hurricane Sandy buyout program. Credit: Joe Tirone.

Joe Tirone, Staten Island, New York

They had a meeting. And at the very end, they said is this guy, Joe Tirone, he’s an investor, he wants to tell us about a program he learned about the government. So I got to explain the program. And then I said, How many people here would be interested? There’s about 200 people in the auditorium. And again, part of the miracle was the the gathering place was St. Charles Church. And it was the only place that hadn’t lost electricity. Like on that whole block. They found it, they met there. Even their microphones worked. And everybody raised their hand, a sea of hands, I was not prepared for that. Neither was anyone who was in the auditorium prepared for that. But I would say that [Hurricane] Isaac was like, the first punch. And then then [Hurricane] Irene knocked them all back on the heels. And then when [Superstorm] Sandy came along, that was a knockout punch, they had had it.

a street completely flooded with water with the water level rising high up above the floor of a house
Rosewood in Socastee, South Carolina on September 2018 after Hurricane Florence. Credit: Terri Straka

Terri Straka, Rosewood Strong, Socastee, South Carolina

Essentially I’ve had to rebuild my house twice. It’s extremely stressful emotionally. There’s a lot of anxiety. And and, you know, I think we also suffer a lot of trauma. And so you are stronger as far as you know, adapting and having to deal with this, but still emotionally, it takes a big toll on you.

Economically, we’ve all been ripped to the bone, pretty much, because initially, we were able to take out loans, or refinance our houses, you know, and then we reinvested most of the money back into the homes, because we never thought it was going to happen again. And so that money got wasted. And even if you did have insurance, you know, there’s a lot of variables that even insurance doesn’t cover.

a bathroom ruined by a flood. the toilet, sink, and shower and completely covered in brown sludge and dirt
November of 2018 after Hurricane Florence. Credit: Terri Straka
a flooded street with the water close to the top of a stop sign and street intersection sign
March of 2017 after Hurricane Matthew. Credit: Terri Straka

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Segment Guests

A.R. Siders

A.R. Siders is an assistant professor in the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware.

Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

Segment Transcript

The transcript for this segment is being processed. It will be posted within one week after the episode airs.

Meet the Producers and Host

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

About Diana Montano

Diana Montano is the Outreach Manager at Science Friday, where she creates live events and partnerships to delight and engage audiences in the world of science.

About Daniel Peterschmidt

Daniel Peterschmidt is a digital producer and composes music for Science Friday’s podcasts, including Science Diction and Undiscovered. Their D&D character is a clumsy bard named Chip Chap Chopman.

About Lauren J. Young

Lauren J. Young is Science Friday’s digital producer. When she’s not shelving books as a library assistant, she’s adding to her impressive Pez dispenser collection.

About Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is technology editor at Scientific American in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science.

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