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?