Early in her book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, journalist Elizabeth Rush draws us into a seemingly innocuous scene at a Walmart in Houma, Louisiana, where Chris Brunet tells her, “Sometimes we have these unplanned reunions at Walmart. I mean you can run into a lot of the people who used to live on the island, and even those of us that remain. We are all there buying food, catching up. It’s nice to see the people I miss.” Brunet is a member of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, which became the first official group of climate refugees in the United States in 2016, when it received a $48 million federal grant to relocate inland from the Isle de Jean Charles.
That shopping trip, as Rush elegantly explains, reveals a set of vast and unwieldy changes for the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw: the shrinking of their island by 90 percent over the past 60 years, the displacement of the community (first in fits and starts, then all at once), and the transition from self-sufficiency to consumerism with all its attendant environmental harms.
The deterioration of coastal lives and livelihoods Rush’s book documents should come as no big surprise: A report last month by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that nearly 2.5 million homes and commercial properties could be at risk of chronic flood inundation by the end of the century. But Rush traffics only sparingly in doomsday statistics. For Rush, the devastating impact of rising sea levels, especially on vulnerable communities, is more compellingly found in the details. From Louisiana to Staten Island to the Bay Area, Rush’s lyrical, deeply reported essays challenge us to accept the uncertainty of our present climate and to consider more just ways of dealing with the immense challenges ahead.
Sophie Kasakove: How did you find your way to these particular communities that you researched?
Elizabeth Rush: My interest in sea-level rise started in Bangladesh. But I knew I didn’t want to write about Bangladesh, because it felt like a bit of a climate-change cliché. So I decided to look for places in the US that were experiencing similar early impacts of sea-level rise, and the first place that jumped out was the Louisiana delta. I started looking for other communities that were similarly situated on top of, or alongside, tidal wetlands, and as I started looking into them, I started to notice a trend: A lot of wetland communities are lower income or working class, many are communities of color, and many are not on the top of various municipal repair lists. So those were the two filters that I used to guide my research: Is it a place that is on top of or alongside a wetland ecosystem, and is it a place that is less likely to get a big fancy infrastructure design solution?
SK: At its most essential level, Rising is about communities that are grappling with the fact that they need to leave their home. At what point in your research did you realize that retreat was going to be the central theme of the book?
ER: I think I knew fairly early on when I first got to the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana. There was a community leader there, Albert Naquin [chief of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe], who had been working to organize the community to move inland for over a decade. He began doing that because many people had retreated “voluntarily”—and I’m putting scare quotes around that phrase—over the past 20 or 30 years after their homes were ruined by storms. They used to have a population of 300 to 400 people on the island, but by the time I got out there, there were 30 to 40 people there full-time. The natural-gas line had broken, and the company that ran it refused to repair it, so people were cooking on these Bunsen-burner things and didn’t have heat in the winter. The chief was trying to create a grassroots call for managed retreat that would be led by the community but designed through the state. For the first few years that I was reporting there, they hadn’t received any funding to move as a group, but then about two years ago, Chief Naquin worked with the [Lowlander Center] and a bunch of other community organizations, and ended up winning this big national disaster-resiliency competition, and got $48 million to move current residents inland together.
SK: In the book, retreat is not just posed as a solution, but as a critique of so many of the ways that we’ve dealt with climate change in the past—as something to be solved by technical fixes. What do you think it would look like for us to scale up retreat?
ER: One of the most attractive things to me about retreat is its strong undercurrent of environmental justice and redistribution. For a long time, wetlands were held as a kind of commons among different indigenous groups, and they were this incredible resource of plentitude. The colonial project resulted in the privatization and permanent habitation of these spaces. So, in a very basic sense, retreat as a solution recognizes that this land is more valuable when it belongs to all of us: It can be a buffer for storms to come, a space of recreation. It’s also incredibly valuable and necessary for the 50 percent of endangered species that are wetlands dependent. It can’t just be the hyper-wealthy that can afford to build and rebuild on the coast as its entire shape is changing.
SK: It seems like managed retreat is starting to gain more traction in the aftermath of some really devastating recent floods.
ER: Definitely. In Houston after Harvey, over 3,900 people registered their desire to be bought out by the state through the hazard-mitigation grant program. Houston has actually been doing buyouts since the ’80s. At last count they’re gearing up to purchase and demolish 900 homes as part of Harvey recovery, though there are certainly thousands more who are interested in participating. And there is a discussion starting to take shape within FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] around possibly scaling up the buyout. But they’re also asking if we might allow redevelopment in these areas once homes have been purchased and demolished, rather than be returned to open space in perpetuity, as the policy is now. I think that’s a really horrible idea. If you redevelop in these areas, they’re just going to end up costing taxpayers more money to repair those roads and keep those utilities functioning.
SK: And you write in the book about how redeveloping these areas would make people less inclined to leave.
ER: Right, exactly. In most communities thinking about buyouts, the desire for justice is profound. Folks wouldn’t participate if they thought their land would be given or sold to someone who is more well-off than they are.
SK: But even if the land is “returned to nature,” there are a number of other ways that the process of managed retreat can be unjust, as you show in the chapters about Isle de Jean Charles.
ER: In Louisiana, the overwhelming reason that they got the funding is because they’re considered a guinea pig for a program that keeps a community intact. So, the government is building brand new homes for every single person who is participating in an area 50 miles inland. But it’s a trade-off: They’re trying to keep this community together, because it’s a native community and there is a sense that their cultural identity is deeply tied to each other. But there are people who are very resistant to the idea that the government should be telling them where they can and cannot live. I get that. My research shows that folks are more interested in participating in buyouts when they can control where they go and how.
SK: Right, so in a place like New York, where many tens of thousands of public, subsidized, and rent-stabilized housing units lie in the floodplain, could retreat really be a just solution?
ER: One of my earliest stories on sea-level rise was about public housing in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. In high-rise buildings, you have the capability of moving a lot of the fundamental systems that the building depends upon—the heating, the cooling, the electric systems—on the roof. You can move residents out of the first or second story. But you also have to think about all of the infrastructure that the building is dependent on and make sure that there is funding allocated to repair the gas pipeline when it breaks. And if history teaches us anything, it’s that lower-income communities of color are often at the bottom of our list when it comes to funding infrastructure repairs.
From my experience in vulnerable communities, like in Isle de Jean Charles, there’s a point where people—and I’m using scare quotes again—“voluntarily retreat” because of a lack of municipal funding to keep those communities in place. It’s not an “if” but a “when” these places are no longer really viable homes. We have to seek affordability elsewhere, inland. And that will require tremendous funding for public housing—funding that we haven’t seen in this country for decades.
SK: That all brings to mind for me this strange and distressing image of the future urban coastline where you have the poorest who can’t afford to relocate and the wealthiest who can afford the repairs.
ER: Ultimately, it’ll be just the wealthiest on the coastline, I think. In a place like New York City, you have a tremendous awareness of climate change in all of the planning documents, but the city is doubling, tripling down on luxury waterfront property in places like Williamsburg. Those are buildings that are actually built to withstand the initial impact of sea-level rise, and we already are putting the funding into making the infrastructure around those buildings climate ready. I don’t think any of that is happening, or will happen, in the Rockaways, for instance. When people start to wake up to the fact that we are all paying for people to live in these tremendously vulnerable areas, I hope that some of the conversation can begin to shift.
SK: Something that stood out to me in the book is that you don’t really talk about some of the actors we typically talk about, like oil or fracking companies. The villains of your story are developers and the Army Corps of Engineers, who, often unintentionally, made the problem worse. What guided your decision to focus on these actors?
ER: I definitely believe that the oil and gas industry are significantly responsible, and the greed of those industries is part of why we aren’t doing more to mitigate. But I also think that placing the blame in that way tends to immediately politicize the discussion in a way that is not entirely useful. Or at least I wasn’t convinced that we needed another story that does that. As I wrote Rising, I wanted to let residents tell me about their flooding experience in their own terms. And a lot of residents have seen how an uptick in development in adjacent wetlands exacerbates flooding. In the last two decades in Houston, they backfilled and paved over 30 percent of their wetlands, so the water that used to go into the land now goes into the neighbors’ houses. That’s a story involving both Republicans and Democrats. It’s the same with the Army Corps of Engineers: In an attempt to prevent flooding, they put in 29 different dams in the Mississippi River. Each one withholds silt that keeps the wetlands intact, so without it, land starts to disappear. It’s important to see how these interventions in the landscape have profound and unexpected negative consequences. It makes me sort of skeptical that we can just wrap the entire state of Louisiana or the southern tip of Manhattan in a levee system.
SK: Throughout the book, you make a lot of space for appreciating the beauty of these natural ecosystems even in their chaotic and damaged forms. How do you think about balancing those elements?
ER: That’s a decision that made itself before the book even got started. I was raised in a family that spent our vacations outside, hiking in national parks. There has to be a deep appreciation at the heart of whatever we undertake. A lot of our writing doesn’t always make space for that real engagement, and I think that’s a missed opportunity, because that is what keeps the activist engaged and the writer writing.