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 the inspiration behind the book, what it feels like to return to only the memory of a former home, the deep impacts of global warming yet to come, and more. This is part one of their two-part Q&A. Click here to read part two.
Christian Coleman: Tell us a bit about what inspired you to write the book.
Andrew S. Lewis: It was a succession of factors.
I grew up on the Bayshore, and my family was deeply connected to the water and wetlands that surrounded us. We fished the bay, went crabbing in the creeks. I understood that we lived within a beautiful, ecologically diverse natural space. I always wanted to be a writer, and one of my favorite books as a kid was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. One of the main reasons that it was my favorite book was because the Mississippi River landscape Twain evokes reminded me a lot of the Bayshore. Later, in my teens, my grandfather would tell me stories about the Prohibition years, when bootleggers paid off his father to use his Bayshore land to transport booze smuggled in from the bay. For years, I toyed around with fictional stories about the Bayshore during Prohibition, just believing there was a story there.
When I moved away from New Jersey, I always surprised people when describing my hometown. To them, New Jersey was highways and factories and pollution. No one could believe such a pristine, rural place existed there. Growing up, the adults were always talking about how the Bayshore—and Cumberland County, where the Bayshore is located—had been forgotten. Then, as an adult myself, describing the Bayshore to incredulous listeners, it seemed that the adults of my youth were indeed right.
So when I visited home after Sandy and discovered the bayfront communities—Bay Point, Money Island and others—had been just as decimated as communities on the Jersey Shore (though no one would have known that since no media beyond the local came to document it), I immediately began to wonder how recovery would play out. Sure enough, the Jersey Shore got the bulk of New Jersey’s federal disaster relief money, not to mention state lawmakers’ attention, while Cumberland County was, at least for the first year after Sandy, given no federal public emergency funding at all.
The idea for this book fully matured in my mind on November 8, 2016. That day, on my way to vote, I took a detour through the Bayshore. So many yards had “Make America Great Again” signs. I remember thinking about how, despite a very clear preference for Trump here in a slice of rural America, it just wouldn’t hold up against the urbanized Democratic centers of America. Then I was proven wrong. Trump had won largely on the backs of rural Americans who had felt forgotten. I’d been hearing that line my whole life. And for people on the Bayshore, they’d felt forgotten by the Democratic Party via its strong support of environmental policy, and they’d felt forgotten by then New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, who prioritized Sandy recovery on the Jersey Shore and had done nothing to help the Bayshore. They hadn’t voted for a Democrat and they hadn’t voted for a Republican—they’d voted for someone who they felt could upend the entire political system.
CC: What was your initial reaction to returning home to the Bayshore after having been gone for so long and seeing how much it had changed?
ASL: On the Bayshore, it was a combination of extremes. Culturally speaking, economically speaking, nothing had really changed. Old friends had gotten older, married, bought themselves homes and secondhand fishing boats, but we shared the same old fishing and hunting stories, frequented the same places. People always talk about how the Bayshore is stuck back in time—and I guess that’s true.
But on the other hand—environmentally—radical change had happened between when I left, in 2000, and returned in 2016. In this regard, I’m reminded of a small peninsula of marshland that separated the last bend of a local creek from the bay. We used that creek to access the bay to go fishing, and, when I was a kid, the peninsula was dry at both high and low tide. My father and uncles used to hang out there when they were kids. Today, that peninsula is completely gone, underwater. The creek is literally one bend shorter now. The Bayshore marshland is losing a football field’s worth of land a year.
And, because of the same forces that are eating away the marsh, the bayfront communities are either greatly diminished or, in the case of Sea Breeze and Bay Point, pretty much gone. As the water rises, and the land subsides, the State of New Jersey has been systematically buying out property owners in these small, flood-prone hamlets, demolishing their homes and preserving the land for open space. So, the communities that I remember from my childhood are no longer—instead there are just a few holdouts that have kind of hunkered down and keep to themselves. The festive, boisterous communities that once existed have been relegated to memory only.
CC: In addition to writing about the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, you write about the history—geological and social—of your hometown, anchoring us in a very rich sense of place. Tell us why it was important to include it in the narrative of the book.
ASL: In a sense, the deep history included in the book was a visceral reaction to this idea that the Bayshore, and so many small, rural, climate-change-impacted communities like it, have largely been forgotten by both modern society and the politicians who run it. And also, quite frankly, I wasn’t aware of a lot of the history that’s included in the book until I began writing and reporting. In that way, I myself am a reflection of American society today, which I think is, to borrow a recent line from Ta-Nehisi Coates—“addicted to forgetting.” So, by including so much history of the Bayshore was me kind of shouting from the rafters to anyone who may listen, urging us—Americans—to remember our history, all of it, so that when we confront future societal crisis, we confront them with an eye to the mistakes of the past so that they may not be repeated.
Regarding the geological history, it just so happens that what’s happening on the Bayshore is a clear example of how complex sea level rise is. The water is not rising on the Bayshore only because of anthropogenic forcing. It’s also “rising” because the land is sinking, due to the fact that South Jersey sits on a coastal plain that is still settling from the final glacial retreat, about 8,000 years ago. Additionally, South Jersey sits on top of a 17-trillion gallon aquifer that is being drained faster than it can be replenished—this is also causing the land to sink. The confluence of rising water and sinking land is a perfect example of what scientists call relative sea level rise, and the reason why some areas of the world, like the mid-Atlantic US, have higher rates of sea level rise than other parts of the US and world.
Read part two.
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.