A Q&A with Andrew S. Lewis
How much longer can they stay? That’s a question to ask about the last working-class residents of the Bayshore holding out as the state of New Jersey buys out the homes of their rural community, ransacked by Superstorm Sandy and rising sea levels. You meet them and others in journalist Andrew S. Lewis’s The Drowning of Money Island: A Forgotten Community’s Fight Against the Rising Sea Forever Changing Coastal America. In his book, the realities of climate change, state politics, class, and memories of a home disappearing in real time intersect and clash in a future glimpse of how climate change is already intensifying preexisting inequalities. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Lewis to ask about climate science denial in the Bayshore, displacement, and what he hopes readers take away from reading his book. This is part two of their two-part Q&A. Click here to read part one.
Christian Coleman: In the news, we’ve seen reports of climate refugees from Syria and other countries impacted by global warming. Your book makes it clear that we’re already feeling the effects of global warming in the States, yet some of the residents you write about see climate change as a hoax and hunker down to fight the Department of Environmental Protection and keep their homes. How did you approach writing about these residents? Because I think they give us insight into why some deny the evidence that climate change is real.
Andrew S. Lewis: This was a challenging aspect of reporting on the book. I am a person—an American—who believes in climate change. (I hate that we even have to say “believe,” as if it were a religion and not a simple fact of science that’s been proven for decades.) More difficult was the fact that I was writing about people from my hometown, people who knew people in my family, people who members of my family have to see on a regular basis. It’s a small place. But structuring the book in an investigative way, which allowed me to lean on the core tenants of journalism, offered me the opportunity to extract myself from large sections of the narrative and to simply listen objectively. Then, at strategic points, I could interject with moments of subjectivity that were informed by my intimate—non-journalistic—knowledge of the Bayshore and its people.
And whereas prior to reporting the book I was unsure of the source of the denial in my hometown, after spending so much time with several of the characters in the book, simply listening objectively, I was able to finally get at some answers to that denial. The answers, again, have to do with many Bayshore residents and local politicians’ deep feeling of being forgotten by the rest of the country.
Politics, which are unfortunately conflated with human-caused climate change, have never really served Bayshore residents well. Delaware Bay oystermen have been in conflict with regulators since colonial times—in 1719, the colonial government imposed catch restrictions, which are some of the earliest regulations in this country’s history. In the 1970s, the Army Corps of Engineers largely turned their backs on Bayshore towns that were pleading for the kind of coastal infrastructure that was being built to save Jersey Shore towns. And then, after Sandy, instead of getting money and encouragement to rebuild, those same Bayshore towns got attention from only the state’s Blue Acres program.
Bayshore residents and local politicians are watching Jersey Shore beaches actually expand rather than contract like their own waterfronts. That expansion, of course, is only because of the fact that the state has pumped a staggering 177 million cubic yards of sand on Jersey Shore beaches in order to slow the encroachment of the ocean. But if you’re not privy to all the details of infrastructure investment and annual beach replenishment, or don’t have the time to read journal articles about the collapse of Arctic and West Antarctic ice sheets, all you see is one coastline thriving and the other dying, which makes messages from already-distrusted politicians about things like four or six or even twelve feet of sea level rise seem inaccurate, or at least overly alarmist.
The irony now, of course, is that politics, in the form of the Trump Administration rolling back environmental standards, actually are intertwining ever tighter with human-caused climate change. Such neglect is only going to cause sea levels to rise faster, and drown the Bayshore faster.
CC: In the beginning of The Drowning of Money Island, you introduce us first to Mike and Kate Nelson, a couple who live in one of the fishing villages. Then you introduce us to other locals, such as aquaculture entrepreneur Tony Novak, and township mayor Bob Campbell, who sees “tree huggers” as the enemy. How did you decide on who to interview to tell the Bayshore’s story?
ASL: When you start reporting for a book of journalism, you have to cast as wide a net as possible. Your goal is to find people who represent the various ideologies and life experiences that define the place you are reporting on. In one sense, it’s a simple matter of access—this kind of reporting takes tremendous commitment from subjects; they have to be willing to tolerate you constantly calling or texting them, showing up to their homes unannounced, expecting you to invite them to family gatherings or to sit down and talk with their family members about intimate things. Not everyone is willing to sacrifice that kind of intimacy with a stranger who constantly has the notebook out, recording God-knows-what about their lives.
Other times, a subject is wonderful but there’s only so much page space to fit short, specific anecdotes from your time spent with them. In the end, if I had had unlimited time and page space, I might have channeled my inner Joyce or Tolstoy and written a voluminous account. But that wasn’t an option—so you really home in on the characters that best convey the story you want to tell.
CC: For Money Island, it wasn’t cost effective to invest public funds in protecting and repairing the many homes facing erosion and future storms. The Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres program was a voluntary homeowner buyout for people who owned those homes. But it didn’t seem like the residents had much choice. Why would the state and federal government give them the illusion of having a choice when in reality they were buying these residents out and effectively displacing an economically disadvantaged community?
ASL: Well, ultimately, every homeowner maintains their right to choose—Mike and Kate Nelson are examples of this. They may not have the community they loved so much surrounding them anymore, but they did get to stay by the water, which is what they love most.
The problem, of course, is most people are not willing to endure the hoop-jumping required to prevail against the years of mixed messages from state and local officials, who promise you help in the form of permitting lenience or beach replenishment or a new centralized sewage collection system but at the same time are issuing you notices of violation for problems that would be remedied by those promises. Government moves slowly, even in the best of circumstances, but in the case of the Bayshore—or any low-income area that contributes little to the economic engine of a state or the federal government—progress is truly Sisyphean. Most cannot endure the red tape and leave.
And in the case of the Bayshore, my reporting showed miscommunications between both state and local authorities, as well as between state agencies, in the wake of Sandy. The Blue Acres program, however, had a specific mandate and they got to work—they wanted to target communities where they could buy out large clusters of homes, not one home here and another home there. The fatal flaw of such a mandate in New Jersey is that it only works where home prices are modest to low and going down because of flooding—i.e. middle-to-low income neighbors on rivers, creeks, back bays, and bays. Certainly not the Jersey Shore, where billions of federal dollars were and continue to be distributed to build up beaches and properties—which in turn results in real estate values rising and rising.
So this is the fundamental conundrum of managed retreat policy going forward. As long as the federal government, via the National Flood Insurance Program and FEMA disaster relief, continue to rely on traditional cost-benefit equations to determine whether a community should be saved or not, managed retreat is always going to be inequitable and unfair. Lower income communities equate to low hanging fruit—if your mandate, if the funding of your program is predicated on the amount of homes and properties you can acquire and demolish, then you’re going to go for the low hanging fruit and ignore the fact the most at-risk properties, the Jersey Shore properties, cannot be touched for the very simple reason that they have the money and the power to be untouched.
CC: And what would you like readers to take away from reading The Drowning of Money Island?
ASL: I want readers to see the story of the Bayshore as a clear and present foreshadow of the future for huge swaths of America. While climate change, and sea level rise specifically, is already having deep impacts on the Bayshore, it is just a fragment of impacts to come. If sea levels rise to the upper ends of some scientists’ estimates—six, eight, or even twelve feet—no one is immune from managed retreat. Rich and poor, it won’t matter—there will be mass migration from much of this country’s coastlines.
This country was founded on the ideal that all men are created equal. Every day, school children from New Jersey to Alaska salute the American flag and say the words, “indivisible and justice for all.” God knows that America has not lived up to those ideals, not in the past and not right now. And we know this failure has too often landed squarely on the shoulders of America’s middle class and poor, black and brown citizens and immigrants. If we can move beyond arguing over a science that is settled, and accept the fact that the earth is sick, that it is our fault, and that we need to take steps to make it better, than perhaps we can get to the real work of enacting policies informed by an attention to equality and equity.
The story of the Bayshore offers us an opportunity to plan for a future in which managed retreat does not have to fall victim to the kind of inequities that stain the narrative of our past.
Read part one.
About Andrew S. Lewis
Andrew S. Lewis is a contributing writer for Outside and has also written for the New York Times Magazine and Guernica. He received an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University. In 2018 he was awarded a CATWALK Art Residency. He lives in South Jersey, between the ocean and the bay. Connect with him at andrewslewis.com and on Twitter at @andrewslewis1.