Praise for Elizabeth Rush’s Rising
“A rigorously reported story about American vulnerability to rising seas, particularly disenfranchised people with limited access to the tools of rebuilding.”―Jury Citation, Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction
“Deeply felt . . . Rush captures nature with precise words that almost amount to poetry; the book is further enriched with illuminating detail from the lives of those people inhabiting today’s coasts. . . . Elegies like this one will play an important role as people continue to confront a transformed, perhaps unnatural world.”―New York Times
“The book on climate change and sea levels that was missing. Rush travels from vanishing shorelines in New England to hurting fishing communities to retracting islands and, with empathy and elegance, conveys what it means to lose a world in slow motion. Picture the working-class empathy of Studs Terkel paired with the heartbreak of a poet.”―Chicago Tribune (Best Ten Books of 2018)
“Sea level rise is not some distant problem in a distant place. As Rush shows, it’s affecting real people right now. Rising is a compelling piece of reporting, by turns bleak and beautiful.”―Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction
“A smart, lyrical testament to change and uncertainty. Rush listens to both the vulnerability and resiliency of communities facing the shifting shorelines of extreme weather. These are the stories we need to hear in order to survive and live more consciously with a sharp-edged determination to face our future with empathy and resolve. Rising illustrates how climate change is a relentless truth and real people in real places know it by name, storm by flood by fire.”―Terry Tempest Williams, author of The Hour of Land
“Lovely and thoughtful . . . Reading [Rush’s] book is like learning ecology at the feet of a poet.”―Minneapolis Star Tribune
“With tasteful and dynamic didactic language, [Rush] informs the layperson about the imminent threat of climate change while grounding the massive scope of the problem on heartfelt human and interspecies connection.”―Los Angeles Review of Books
“Moving and urgent . . . Rush’s Rising is a revelation. . . . The project of Rising, like the project of Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, is to draw attention to ongoing material crisis through the stories of the people who are surviving within it. Rising is a clarion call. The idea isn’t merely that climate change is here and scary. There’s a more important message: There are people out here who need help.”―Pacific Standard
“Timely and urgent, this report on how climate change is affecting American shorelines provides critical evidence of the devastating changes already faced by some coastal dwellers. Rush masterfully presents firsthand accounts of these changes, acknowledging her own privileged position in comparison to most of her interviewees and the heavy responsibility involved in relaying their experiences to an audience. . . . In the midst of a highly politicized debate on climate change and how to deal with its far-reaching effects, this book deserves to be read by all.”―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“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.”―The Nation
“A strange new kind of travel guide, Rising is a journey through the turbulent forefront of climate change―the coastal communities, rich and poor, human and nonhuman, that are already feeling the first effects of our rising seas. Rush sets out to put a face on a subject that is all too often depicted in abstract graphs and statistics, and gives us a group portrait of the men and women who are fighting, fleeing, and adapting to the terrible disappearance of the land they live on.”―Charles C. Mann, author of 1491
“In this moving and memorable book, the voice of the author mingles with the voices of people in coastal communities all over the country―Maine, Rhode Island, Louisiana, Florida, New York, California―to offer testimony: The water is rising. Some have already lost their homes; some will lose them soon; others are studying or watching or grieving. Though they haven’t met each other, their commonality forms a circle into which we are inexorably pulled by Rush’s powerful words.”―Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
“A poetic meditation on the nature of change, on how people can make peace with a changing world and our agency in it . . . Rising [offers] pulsing, gleaming prose and a stubborn search for, if not hope, then peace in the face of disaster.”―Shelf Awareness
“Rush rises. She brings stories out of the woodwork, revealing the true effect of sea level rise on the land, on the sea, and on people. She writes from a generation not asking if climate change is true or not, but how to live in the face of it, how we adapt, lose, or gain. Logging the finest, most intuitive details, Rush holds her subjects in tight focus, each coastline conveyed down to its grains of sand and inflections in the tides. Her writing is present among relocations and dying swamps, conveying the intricate nature of sea level rise. How do levees work? What does saltwater do to a freshwater aquifer? What voices are coming out of the wrack line, and what does it sound like as a coast is rewritten? Rush makes real a monolithic subject often too large to digest. You can taste the coming salt.”―Craig Childs, author of The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild
“Rising is not just a book about rising sea levels and the lost habitats and homes―it’s also a moving rumination on the rise of women as investigative reporters, the rise of tangible solutions, the rise of human endeavor and flexibility. It is also a rising of unheard voices; one of the eloquent beauties of this book is the inclusion of various stories, Studs Terkel-style, of those affected most by our changing shoreline. A beautiful and tender account of what’s happening―and what’s in store.”―Laura Pritchett, author of Stars Go Blue
“From the edges of our continent, where sea level rise is already well underway, Rush lays bare the often hidden effects of climate change―lost homes, lost habitats, broken family ties, chronic fear and worry―and shows us how those effects ripple toward us all. With elegance, intelligence, and guts, she guides us through one of the most frightening and complex issues of our time.”―Michelle Nijhuis
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
from Divining Rod
Oakwood Beach, Staten Island
This is a book with many beginnings. One takes place in Bangladesh. Another deep in the Louisiana bayou. Sparks also flare from the eastern shore of Staten Island, after the storm that took Leonard Montalto’s life.
Before I moved to the Ocean State, I lived in New York City. Before Miami and Phippsburg there was Oakwood Beach. I was working at the College of Staten Island in 2012, during the fall that Sandy spun into the harbor. Both the size of the storm and its unusual route were unprecedented in scientific memory. Never before had the water reached so high. Of the city’s nearly eight million residents, over four hundred thousand were inundated, many of whom lived atop land that had formerly been zoned as tidal marsh. While flooding in these neighborhoods was common, Sandy exceeded all previous experience. In Oakwood Beach the storm surge topped out at a record-breaking fourteen feet. The college campus remained closed for weeks. When classes finally resumed, some of my students were missing, displaced or worse by a previously unimaginable amount of salt water.
One, a brilliant Russian woman named Lena, had been living in a basement apartment in Midland Beach. During the storm the ocean poured into her rented room. The little she had was ruined. Her bed, her books, even her computer; all became bloated with water. I offered her my couch but she said she would stay with a friend. As the semester progressed, Lena stopped coming to class regularly. I don’t know if it was the commute from her temporary housing in Jersey or her lack of funds that finally did her in. Either way, she disappeared. A few months later she wrote me a short e-mail from her landlocked home in central Russia, saying thank you and goodbye.
I suppose you could say it was then that I knew that the coverage of the storm and of all that it gestured toward was incomplete. Where was Lena’s story? And though I had yet to meet her, where was Nicole’s? Where were the stories of those who had been flooded before Sandy? And of those who, in the wake of a storm so powerful it sucked the light right out of the tip of Manhattan, had left?
For much of the last half century, the eastern side of Staten Island was the kind of place where teachers, firefighters, cops, and sanitation workers could have their own version of the good life, digging for mollusks in the mudflats, fishing for stripers off the pier. In places like Oakwood Beach, there were clambakes in the summer, and the neighborhood kids played soccer together at night under the streetlights. Sure there was a flooding problem and a wastewater treatment plant, but it was considered home and a good one at that. Leonard Montalto grew up there and he liked it so much he stayed put, raising three daughters in the little white cottage on Fox Beach Avenue. His sister, Patti Snyder, raised her family just down the block. And when Patti’s daughter moved out, it was to a bungalow right across the street from Leonard and his children.
Despite their love for the place that had long defined them, after Sandy, residents of nine local communities began begging the state government to bulldoze their homes and allow the land to return to tidal marsh. This, more than anything else about Sandy and its aftermath, surprised me. Not the fact that Goldman Sachs was one of the few buildings below Chambers Street to keep its power intact through the storm. Not the fires that raged out at Breezy Point or the elderly stranded in the Red Hook Houses for weeks. It was the clamor rising from the sodden side of the city’s only Republican borough, the signs that read, “Mother Nature wants her land back” and “Buyout Wanted, Buyout Needed.” What did these residents of right-leaning, climate change–denying, low-lying, working-class neighborhoods know that the rest of us did not? How was it that they were interested in retreat, one of the most progressive and controversial adaptation strategies for sea level rise?
When I finally make it out to Oakwood Beach that summer, over a hundred million dollars have been allocated to purchase and demolish the tight-knit seaside community. The work of unsettling the shore has begun.
The trip from Manhattan takes a little over an hour. From the ferry deck I watch the century-old skyscrapers recede. Once on Staten Island, I ride my bicycle down Bay Street through Little Sri Lanka, among the two-hundred-year-old stone cannon mounts at Fort Wadsworth, and out along the boardwalk on South Beach. The bustle of the city starts to fall away. The bike path is suddenly studded with dunes and cedars and black needlerush. An abandoned airplane hangar, a washed-out teal jungle gym, and a stone-gray wastewater treatment plant. I feel as if I am in some neglected corner of the Hamptons, yet I have not officially left the city.
Twenty-two thousand years ago the massive Laurentide Ice Sheet began to withdraw. It had covered New England and all of New York City in nearly mile-thick glaciers. When the ice pulled back, much of the land that lay just beyond its farthest edge subsided, creating hundreds of miles of swamps, bogs, and tidal marshes, including those that line Staten Island’s eastern shore. At the turn of the last century, there were over three hundred square miles of wetlands within a twenty-five-mile radius of New York’s city hall. Where the land met the sea, muskrats made mischief, white water lilies bloomed, and egrets nested. Neither wholly water nor wholly terra firma, wetlands, at least in post-contact North America, were rarely explored or developed. That is, until the Swamp Land Act of 1850, which gave states ownership over any marsh they could drain. Ever since, these unique ecosystems have been under threat. Land that once was deplored, in part because of the difficulties speculators faced in placing hard boundaries around blurry edges, suddenly provided a chance to make money from something that had been, for the longest time, considered worthless.
As the population of the New York metropolitan area expanded, roughly 90 percent of the city’s wetlands were backfilled and hardscaped. Chinatown was once a wetland. Coney Island was once a wetland. East Harlem was once a wetland. So were Red Hook and the Rockaways. Broad Channel, Bergen Beach, and Canarsie. John F. Kennedy International Airport is sited atop former tidal marsh. So are Fresh Kills Landfill and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a healthy chunk of coastal Queens, and almost all of Staten Island’s eastern shore.
It’s not just Gotham where wetlands once reigned. Much of the Northeast Corridor, the most densely populated portion of the country, was covered in cordgrass not that long ago. Since the eighteenth century, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and Maryland have all lost over 50 percent of their coastal wetlands to development. Big chunks of Boston, Providence, New Haven, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, were all once so wet that no one dreamed of living there. These seemingly mundane landscapes were not fawned over or earmarked for preservation. Instead, in urban areas, they often became informal garbage dumps―damp, unprofitable land fit for hiding trash.
Around the turn of the last century, a significant portion of these wetlands turned landfills got paved over to meet the demands of the region’s growing industrial ports. Then, as the shipping industry waned in the forties, the mixed industrial areas were redeveloped once again. At the time, living alongside our country’s polluted waterways was considered a nuisance, so public and low-income housing often went in. The population boom of the fifties led to a shortage of residential units, and the once soggy edges of many cities provided cheap, if flood-prone, shelter to those who did not have enough money to live anywhere else. As the century progressed these were also the neighborhoods that didn’t receive much infrastructural support; they were the places that flooded most regularly and got the least help.
A few months after my first visit to Oakwood Beach, I stop by Alan Benimoff’s office at the College of Staten Island. Our resident geologist, Alan has been working on a series of papers in which he attempts to expose some of the underlying causes of Sandy’s devastating impact. When I first see him, he is hunched over his computer at the far end of a dimly lit room littered with different earthly artifacts―rock samples, embossed topographic maps, and replicas of prehistoric fossils. Alan lets out a sigh big enough to travel. Then he looks up and gestures for me to come closer. It is an unseasonably warm late-winter day, and the sky beyond his window threatens thunder. The campus should be covered in snow but instead is pocked by mud and puddles.
Potbellied, balding, an old-school Italian American with a big white mustache, Alan strikes me as an unlikely climate change specialist at first. While he is reluctant to talk about the future, he has no problem discussing how poorly planned urban environments contributed mightily to the chaos Sandy wrought. On his computer he pulls up a layered map of Staten Island’s eastern shore compiled from various data sets: population density, topographical features, building types, zoning codes. Most of the land is bright red, meaning that it lies no more than ten feet above sea level. Some is shaded light blue, making it difficult to distinguish from the bay. “Blue means the area is zoned as a wetland,” he explains.
Alan’s map also shows building footprints. He clicks, and the information displayed on the screen changes. “This is the turn of the century,” he says. “You can see that the area was mostly marsh, with a few buildings indicated in black.” I am surprised to discover that back then the borough had a different shape. It was not the triangle I tend to think of it as being but rather more of an hourglass, with most of the desirable neighborhoods buffered by a belt of arterial wetlands cinched around the island’s waist.
Alan shows me the last hundred years of Staten Island’s development in ten-year intervals. As the century progresses, the number of black building footprints increases, even in the areas that previously weren’t considered land. There the jagged lines that indicate marsh grasses are plastered over, and a street grid emerges. “Wetlands act as giant sponges, absorbing storm surges. When they are paved over, that water still has to go somewhere, crashing into everything in its path,” Alan says. “No one talks about it, but the way we have developed the coast amplified Sandy’s destructive force.”
He looks at me through rimless round glasses and adds one final data set to the map. Twenty-four red dots appear scattered along Staten Island’s coast. “I’ve plotted every single Sandy-related death as well. The important thing to realize is this: over half of the people who died in the storm were standing atop land that once was a tidal marsh. If you ask me,” he says, his cursor hovering over the fragile fingers of development that compose the easternmost reaches of Oakwood Beach, “none of those homes should have been built in the first place.”
After forty minutes of riding I eventually arrive at the edge of Oakwood. I have seen a single building razed before, but nothing prepares me for watching an entire community get wiped off the map. The crunch and snap of backhoes eating away at siding sounds at the far end of Kissam Avenue. One yellow machine mounts a pile of debris and gnaws like a praying mantis dismantling its prey. The farther I ride down the street, the less I hear, because the demolitions are mostly complete, some of the houses already gone.
I lock my bike to a tree so I can move more slowly. Waves of invasive grasses keel around the dozen or so concrete foundations that remain. I walk down what was once a driveway, out to a slab that was once a house. Most of what made this place home in the strictest sense―the walls, the roof shingles, the joists―has been broken apart and now waits to be carted away. Wind blows in warm scraps while I investigate the smashed-up concrete, the abandoned gutters, and the sheets of Pepto-Bismol-pink fiberglass.
A family of geese waddle across the rubble, then veer off, disappearing into the marsh like soap bubbles popping: one-two-three. I follow them, venturing a little farther into the rambunctious green. The cordgrass and cattails get caught by the wind and sway. I step carefully, feeling out the uneven ground. Red, tannic water wells up around my feet while a zebra finch sings from the broken branches of a nearby tree. It is not my first time visiting a marsh, but it is, in truth, one of the first times that I am really paying attention. The calm that washes over me is immediate, the city’s stresses sloughing off in thick sheets. I had expected this day in Oakwood to feel like an excursion to a ruin, but the neighborhood and the surrounding tidal marsh are alive in ways I hadn’t anticipated. This place is both accursed and holy, the land forsaken by humans and also in the process of being reclaimed by forces beyond our control. Within this tension, I feel strangely at peace.
For most of my life I never gave tidal marshes much thought, but now they are, in their sly and unassuming way, absorbing my attention. To most, a wetland is just a mess of grass. The sulfuric scent of decomposition. Miasmas and mud. But I am beginning to see them as divining rods, signaling where there will be more water in the future. And even more importantly, that the future is, in many cases, already here.