In the July Democratic presidential debate, the candidates were asked how they planned to tackle the anthropogenic climate change crisis. “We’re too late,” tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang said, flatly. “We are 10 years too late. We need to start moving our people to higher ground.”
While throwing up our hands and effectively claiming we’re finished is at best inaccurate and at worst dangerous, Yang is right about one thing: Millions of Americans will eventually need to retreat from our flood-prone coastlines. The complexity of such a reality is staggering, but we can — and should be — starting with the simple question of who of our people will be the first to go.
New Jersey’s managed retreat program, Blue Acres, offers a glimpse of that “who.” The voluntary program began in 1995, under Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, as a taxpayer-approved and -funded initiative to acquire lands in the state’s coastal areas, where the risk of storm damage and flooding is high. Once homes are acquired and demolished, the land is preserved as open space. Following Superstorm Sandy — which, seven years ago, devastated New Jersey coastal communities from the Delaware Bay to Raritan Bay, Cape May to Sea Bright — Blue Acres was infused with $300 million from the federal disaster relief package and given the mandate to acquire 1,000 flood-prone, Sandy-damaged residential properties. As of last month, the state had demolished 700 properties across nine counties. None of those acquisitions, however, have been of single-family homes on the oceanfront, where the worst of Sandy’s damages occurred.
Instead, the vast majority of the acquisitions have been in blue-collar communities along the state’s rivers and bays. In Cumberland, New Jersey’s poorest county, there have been 106 buyouts alone, all of which were in bayfront communities that have long suffered from the increased erosion brought on by sea level rise and a chronic inability to meet the state and federal cost-benefit thresholds required for the kind of shoreline hardening projects that the far wealthier Jersey Shore municipalities regularly receive. The four counties that contain the Jersey Shore barrier islands generate nearly half of the state’s nearly $45 billion in tourism revenues. Clearly, no one can question the shore municipalities’ importance as key drivers of New Jersey’s overall economy, but the water is rising just as fast at the shore as it is in Cumberland County. As adaptation to sea level rise becomes more of a necessity, it cannot be that only some of our coastal residents will be encouraged to retreat from their homes while others, whose properties fall on the positive side of cost-benefit, will be encouraged to remain.
Pattern of inequitable treatment
Several recent studies have shown that inequitable managed retreat is not just a New Jersey problem, but countrywide. Last month, in an article for the journal Science Advances, researchers analyzed the 43,633 voluntary buyouts funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that have occurred across 49 states and three territories since 1989, and found that “the bought-out properties are located in relatively poorer, less densely populated areas, also with relatively lower education levels, lower English language proficiency, and greater racial diversity.” In a separate study, the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the average price paid by FEMA to acquire these properties was approximately $54,000. These findings are consistent with the Blue Acres demographics in Cumberland County.
Additionally, a consistently overlooked slice of New Jersey’s coastal populace is the lower-to-middle class year-round residents of the Jersey Shore municipalities. For them, a Blue Acres buyout, even if they wanted one, is becoming increasingly difficult, since the program only purchases clusters of neighborhoods, not single homes. As multi-million-dollar investment properties — whose absentee owners don’t have to worry about being displaced after a disaster like Sandy, or face financial insecurities from higher insurance premiums and other post-disaster costs — spring up all around the homes of these year-round residents, the chance of bringing enough neighbors together to initiate a Blue Acres buyout is slim.
In the last century at the shore, the water has risen by 1.5 feet — and since 1993, the annual rate of rise has intensified by about 50%. It is a virtual certainty that, by 2050, the water will rise another foot. Even if sea levels on the Jersey Shore increase at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s intermediate-low prediction of 2.3 feet by 2100, significant portions of the state’s barrier islands, some of which hold millions in property value, will be under water on every high tide. At the extreme end of NOAA’s prediction of 8 feet or more — which would be precipitated by mass collapse of Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets — nothing will be left of the Jersey Shore as we know it today.
With each additional inch of rise, the specter of managed retreat looms ever larger. We are not too late — through Blue Acres, the state is already adapting and it will have to adapt much more. But, will we continue to let our blue-collar communities bear the weight of retreat, or will we face the reality of sea level rise with an eye toward equity? Will we armor our wealthy Atlantic coast enclaves with monolithic infrastructure in order to buy more time, or figure out ways to cede some sand in order to adapt responsibly, thus heading off a devastating tipping point in the real estate market? This country has too often failed its most noble founding ideal — that all men are created equal. When it comes to retreat from the rising water, let’s try not to fail ourselves again.