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Lessons in Survival

The Life of Harriet Tubman, #16, 1940, a painting by Jacob Lawrence
Hampton University Museum, Virginia/© 2019 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York
Jacob Lawrence: The Life of Harriet Tubman, #16, 1940

My grandmother Mabel Raboteau fled the coastal town of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and the terror of Jim Crow along the northern pathway of the Great Migration, to Michigan, in order to save her life and the lives of her children. The youngest of them was my father, Albert Jr. He was still in her womb when a white man shot and killed her husband, my grandfather, practically for sport. I probably don’t need to tell you that Albert Sr.’s murderer went scot-free. The courage it took Mabel to escape from harm’s way and start her life over was no less extraordinary for being such an ordinary African-American story. What other choice did she have but this? As Mary Annaïse Heglar points out in her vital essay, “Climate Change Ain’t the First Existential Threat,” there’s a shortsighted arrogance to the environmental movement when it claims ours is the first generation in history to face annihilation.1

Two recent books reckon with the existential and financial threat posed to the United States coastline by sea level rise: Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush, and The Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America’s Coasts by Gilbert M. Gaul. Both make the controversial case for managed retreat as our best defense, given the scale of the problem. This approach calls for withdrawing rather than rebuilding after disasters, and would include government buyout programs to finance the resettlement of homeowners from vulnerable areas.

Of course, the climate crisis has worsened in the short time since these books were written, pointing to the challenge of a genre that cannot keep pace with its subject. In August, Indonesia announced plans to change its capital to Borneo from Jakarta, which is sinking beneath the sea. In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report showing that low-lying coastal zones, home to 680 million people—about 10 percent of the world’s population—are under severe risk of increased sea level rise, extreme weather, and more frequent and stronger storms. Over half the world’s megacities and 1.9 billion people living on the world’s coasts are in grave danger, and several cities are already disappearing underwater.

This is what the climate emergency looks like now. But how do we ensure that a strategy like managed retreat doesn’t result in unjust displacement? There is a pernicious history in this country of the forced movement of people of color, from chattel slavery and Native American Removal to Japanese internment camps, segregation, redlining, urban renewal, slum clearance, and real estate exploitation. Given our track record, it wasn’t surprising to learn from a recent report in the journal Science Advances that the selection of properties for federal buyouts among the 43,000 homes in flood-prone areas bought and demolished by FEMA in the last twenty years had as much to do with income as danger.2

Faced with the horrors of climate change, both Rush and Gaul struggle to define or redefine the term “resilience.” What do we mean, they both explicitly ask, when we name a person, place, or thing “resilient”? Reading them, I could not help thinking of my grandmother, and of both the Great Migration and the Underground Railroad, as prior examples of organized retreat—albeit from a different hazard to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Because of our past, which is not really past so long as white supremacy persists, my extended family chose, last summer, to celebrate the Fourth of July at the newly opened Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The park abuts a wildlife refuge between the place where Tubman was born and where she grew up, and so the Blackwater swampland she knew—the plantation, the canal where she floated timber, the marshes where she checked her masters’ muskrat traps, the territory where she sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” to signal that it was time to run—is preserved. We felt that Tubman was the best and bravest model of independence our nation had to offer, since her individual freedom meant nothing to her without the freedom of her community.

I was struck by two forces of nature at the Tubman Center that day. The first was the indomitable spirit of “the Moses of her people” herself—the woman risked her life thirteen times in ten years returning south to lead seventy-some enslaved humans out of bondage. The second was the peril of sea level rise—the marshy landscape Tubman navigated as a brave conductor on the Underground Railroad is slowly going underwater. Thus, at one historic site coalesced two different examples of resilience.

Marsh grasses have sensibly retreated to higher ground to survive the water’s rise. Aerial photographs taken between 1938 (twenty-five years after Tubman’s death) and 2006 (eleven years before the visitor center opened in her name) indicate that five thousand acres of the Blackwater refuge’s marsh have become open water. The ecological system’s ability to adapt to climate change demonstrates the same hardiness both my grandmother and Tubman enacted: reroute or risk death.

The engineers of the historic landmark site studied the implications of marsh subsidence before embarking on construction. The project leaders weighed the risk of climate change against that of consecrating the precise ground that Tubman survived, traversed, and repeatedly escaped. (They also expected the center would generate millions of dollars a year for the state economy.) In the end, builders hauled in tons of extra fill dirt to raise the first floor of the site two feet above base flood elevation. Despite these efforts, by the century’s end, the park constructed in homage to Tubman will likely be flooded. In fact, the Union of Concerned Scientists listed the Tubman site among seventeen endangered national landmarks, long before its official grand opening in 2017. And that’s because the last time carbon dioxide levels were this extreme, the world’s oceans were some one hundred feet higher than they are now.

There’s no longer any scientific doubt that our greenhouse gas emissions are warming the globe and melting the ice caps, raising the level of the sea and endangering developed coastlines all over the world. The question is, how high will the water rise, how soon? Predicting sea level rise is an inexact science. According to the IPCC, we’re looking at between one and three feet of rise by the end of the century. The UN forecasts three. A recent model by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) presents a worst-case scenario of eight. Others experts, like geologist Harold Wanless, whom Rush interviews in her book, believe these predictions are gross underestimates. The current rate of rise is doubling every seven years, he maintains—meaning that if we keep careening along this plunderous track, 205 feet of sea level rise by 2095. Although he doesn’t expect we’ll get that much rise, he believes we’d be wise to prepare for fifteen. The West Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing sooner and faster than predicted. There’s enough glacial ice in Greenland alone to raise sea levels about twenty-five feet. Greenland lost a record 12.5 billion tons of ice in just one day this August, prompting one NASA oceanographer to sound the Klaxon: “We should be retreating already from the coastline.”

Although she appears in only one, late paragraph, I felt affirmed to encounter Harriet Tubman in Rush’s Rising, an elegiac environmental justice–oriented meditation on sea level rise. Rush deploys Tubman’s story as an example of courage combined with practicality, detailing how, on her dangerous missions to lead others to freedom, Tubman marched at night, communed with God, drugged crying babies, and even held a gun to the heads of those who grew weary or wished to turn back, warning, You’ll be free or die a slave. By this point in Rush’s narrative, she’s funneling toward her conclusion about vulnerable coastal communities and their adaptive strategies: true resilience means preparing for collective, egalitarian retreat. Like Heglar, whose essay emphasizes what black people in this country have long known about building movements, courage, and survival, Rush pays respectful attention to those most at risk. She writes:

The reality is that many living on climate change’s front lines are low- to working-class people and communities of color, whose relationships with the more-than-human world regularly go unaccounted for in the “official story” of environmentalism we tell in this country.

Hurricane Katrina underlined this reality most visibly in New Orleans, where white and black residents suffered differently. Since nearly one in three black residents did not return after the storm, it’s no longer the black city that it was. Less visibly, the single most important factor corresponding to where toxic waste facilities are sited in the US is the race of residents, and as a predictor of the distribution of pollution, race is more potent than income. EPA scientists found in 2018 that people of color in forty-six states live with more air pollution than whites.3

Troubled by such inequities, Rush reveals why and where the sea is rising, who in our nation is affected, and what we might democratically do about it. She excels at redrawing our blurring edges—showing, for example, how the state of Louisiana no longer resembles a boot now that its sole is deteriorating; how big, spongy swaths of New York, Boston, Providence, New Haven, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., were developed on backfilled wetlands. Rising is an assemblage of vignettes: interviews with scientists, cautionary photographs of coastal ghost trees killed at the root by salinity, first-person testimonials by folks living in threatened wetlands, and accounts of the author’s travels to transforming shoreline communities, including in Louisiana, Florida, Rhode Island, Maine, New York, and California.

Rising is also a treatise on language. Take the term resilient, which we apply to both people and the environment to describe strength. Rush glosses the word, considering how its meaning varies for people depending where on the shifting shore they stand. While resilience in Manhattan post-Sandy might look like the massive $20 billion hurricane barrier proposed by the US Army Corps of Engineers to protect New York Harbor with surge gates similar to ones in the Netherlands, resilience can suggest something altogether different in lower-income communities of color. In New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward or parts of Bay St. Louis in the Gulf of Mexico, where property values were suppressed by redlining—and where much of my family remained after Mabel fled—it meant that after Hurricane Katrina, people couldn’t afford to rebuild their homes and had to migrate. To me, resilience looks like my cousin Tracy and her husband, Charles, who, after almost drowning while praying to God in an attic with their children, Imani and Omari, perceived that the helicopters swirling overhead weren’t there to save them. In the storm’s aftermath, they picked up and moved to Atlanta, part of a mass ad hoc exodus referred to by some at the time as the “world’s first climate refugees.”

Resilience may also look like managed retreat; in her book, Rush investigates how two coastal communities, in New York and Louisiana, each banded together to secure funds for relocation. After Hurricane Sandy, residents of Oakwood Beach, on the low-lying eastern shore of Staten Island, accepted pre-storm prices for their properties through the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) rather than rebuild their destroyed homes. To get those funds, homeowners had to stop thinking of retreat as defeat, and decide unanimously to leave. Their houses were then demolished so that, through the process of rewilding, the land could act as a buffer against future storms. In the second case, the state of Louisiana paid to relocate and shelter islanders from the drowning bayou community of Isle de Jean Charles with HUD funds secured through a design proposal to the National Disaster Resilience Competition. Both examples demonstrate the wisdom of fleeing together, with support.

But there isn’t enough money in the federal coffers to move every resident away from the risk of rising waters, and people can’t apply directly for buyouts from the federal government. Instead, local elected officials must successfully navigate the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of such programs and also decide which homeowners can participate. Troubling new data show that buyouts have disproportionately benefited wealthy counties.

As a broader solution to the thorny problem of relocation, Rush proposes we institute a nationwide property tax of one cent per square foot per year: the “Seas Are Rising and So Are We Tax.” She argues that without an eco-socialist policy to address the ways in which sea level rise will exacerbate economic and social inequality (while also displacing and possibly drowning half the currently endangered species), we risk even more segregation, exclusion, and extinction. In the recent grim wake of Hurricane Dorian, for instance, 119 Bahamian evacuees were ordered off a ferry to Florida because they didn’t have visas, which they did not legally need. Not only did Dorian’s devastation demonstrate that the most vulnerable populations with the smallest carbon footprints are hit hardest, it also offered a nightmare picture of “climate apartheid,” wherein the rich can move to safety while the poor may be excluded, refused, or killed at the borders of privileged nations like ours.

Dorceta Taylor, an environmental sociologist, explores these divisions more fully in Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (2014). She sees disproportionate responses to natural disasters as one example of environmental injustice. In an Essence interview last January called “Black Women Are Leading the Way in Environmental Justice,” Taylor also cites Harriet Tubman as an early environmentalist with deep knowledge of and spiritual connection to the land.

“After Hurricane Harvey, Trump went to Texas and [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] gave over $100 million. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico”—a US territory—“Trump basically told them to pull up their bootstraps, and it took him almost two weeks to visit…. He still has not actually set foot in the Virgin Islands.”4

Taylor’s crucial inclusion of the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in her definition of the American shore points to the absence of these territories as sites of serious inquiry in Rising as well as in Gaul’s The Geography of Risk. The American citizens of these battered island territories surely have much to teach those of us who live in the contiguous United States about adaptive survival strategies, as does my grandmother Mabel, and the central American migrant caravans pushed in part by climate collapse to our southern border. New York City, an archipelago of more than forty islands, has much in common with island nations like the Philippines, Seychelles, the Maldives, Cape Verde, and Indonesia when it comes to sea level rise. Increasingly, because of climate change, our received ideas of strict national boundaries no longer hold. The burning of the Amazon affects all of us, as does the melting of Greenland, and the decline of honeybees.

Long Beach Island, New Jersey, where a series of nor’easters and other storms have washed away sand, January 2016
Gilbert M. Gaul
Long Beach Island, New Jersey, where a series of nor’easters and other storms have washed away sand brought in by the US Army Corps of Engineers in a ­multiyear project to rebuild the island’s beaches, January 2016

Like Rush, Gaul investigated US coastal communities, including Houston and Galveston in Texas, Charleston, South Carolina, New Jersey’s Long Beach Island, and North Carolina’s Outer Banks. And while his is more a journalistic than literary inquiry, it arrives at a similar conclusion about the wisdom of retreat: with thousands of miles of shoreline to protect along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, and $3 trillion of property at stake, Gaul argues that it’s financially unsustainable to continue rebuilding along our beaches. He notes that in the course of his research, the meaning of a term like resilience became unclear: What made a coast resilient? How much would it cost, and who would pay?

Gaul follows the money along with the pace of destruction to lay bare our colossal failure at national planning. Seventeen of the most destructive hurricanes in US history have occurred this century. In 2017 alone, Harvey, Irma, and Maria resulted in over $300 billion in combined losses. Katrina cost $160 billion. Sandy cost $72 billion. That same year, researchers for the online real estate database Zillow discovered that almost two million homes (half of them in Florida) worth roughly $900 billion could be swamped by 2100. Gaul predicts that soon we’ll be walloped by a hurricane with a $250 billion price tag because we’ve foolishly developed so much property on barrier islands and coastal floodplains. We’ve done so with the encouragement of a bewildering amalgam of federal tax breaks, low interest loans, grants, subsidies, and government insurance policies that have shifted the risk from private investors to public taxpayers, distorting our understanding of that risk. Imagine this: by the end of the century, 80 million Americans could be forced to flee the coasts, redefining whom we consider refugees.

“Climate refugee” is not a legal term, though according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, seven million people worldwide were displaced by the climate crisis in the first half of 2019—before Dorian struck. By 2050, climate collapse is projected to push as many as 1.5 billion to leave their homes. As we’re seeing, the poorest populations least responsible for the problem are the first to migrate. Increasingly, as the crisis unspools, we may have to recognize “climate refugees” as a category, acknowledging not only cross-border migrants but also those, like my cousins Tracy and Charles, who move within their own nations.

Gaul shows that what we think of as our coast is a relatively modern phenomenon. In the postwar boom, many Americans indulged in the purchase of second homes in beach towns. Developers dredged and filled tens of thousands of acres of fragile wetlands, and thousands of acres of salt marsh were destroyed to make way for houses. Private agencies eventually stopped selling flood insurance because it was too expensive to cover the claims, so an arm of FEMA called the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was founded in 1968 to defray the cost to the federal government. Homeowners in flood zones were required to pay for an insurance policy financing future recovery, but premiums were richly subsidized. Unlike the Dutch, who have a national tax to pay for water defenses but no government flood insurance, or Canadians, who’ve responded to escalating environmental disasters by limiting aid to flood victims, in America the NFIP made living in the flood plain seem cheaper and safer than it actually was. The number of residences in hazardous flood-prone areas has quadrupled since the program was founded a half-century ago. Storm after storm, Americans applied for aid and rebuilt.

Development at the coast went on nearly unchecked, and coastal flood claims have increased twentyfold in the last twenty years. Verging on collapse, the NFIP has lurched from one disaster to the next and is now over $20 billion in debt. Vexingly, the most generous taxpayer subsidies accrue to some of the riskiest properties. We’re ponying up to pump sand in front of the summer homes of millionaires, many of whom vehemently protest the idea of “retreat.”

Both Gaul and Rush cover various resilience plans and policies to address sea level rise at local levels. These include widening eroding beaches, replenishing sand dunes, restoring wetlands and marshes, raising streets and houses, designing horizontal levees, constructing floodgates, erecting seawalls, pumping out salt water, building floating cities, reforming flood insurance, competing for backlogged Army Corps funding, and more. But having spoken to enough experts, both writers suggest that these strategies are ultimately just buying time. The water is rising, and sooner or later we’ll have to move inland. Masses of Americans will have to move, just as masses of people elsewhere in the world already are.

Gaul asks us a series of difficult market-driven questions after shocking us with the sticker price to adapt the coast to the warming world. Texans want $61 billion to protect their coast from hurricanes and floods, half of it for a barrier and levee to protect Galveston and the Houston Ship Channel. Say we pay for that. How do we also afford to protect Mobile, New Orleans, Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville, and Boston? Can we, as a nation, pay for over seven million houses and businesses in the floodplains by continuing to rebuild? Can we pay for Miami and Norfolk and Atlantic City and also erect walls around NYC and the entire Florida peninsula? Not factoring in homeowner buyouts, fortifying storm water systems, and other ways to mitigate flood risk, the astounding cost of building sea walls to protect US coastal cities will reach $400 billion by 2040, according to a recent study by the Center for Climate Integrity.5 What’s the moral capital of all that money, and where do we draw the line?

“The issue isn’t the Outer Banks,” Stan Riggs, another coastal geologist, says on a trip with Gaul across the coastal plain of eastern North Carolina. “They can take care of themselves until the water gets them. The politics ignores all of these small, poor places on the Inner banks.” Together they explore the poor, flat, waterlogged country that Riggs dubs “NC Low,” of sleepy towns with under a foot of elevation, some built and settled by freed slaves who’d worked on nearby farms, now dwindling, threatened, and ignored. Most of the focus of the rising water lay where the moneyed property was. “The towns out there on the barrier islands are fine, at least for now,” he says. “But if only the rich can afford to build seawalls and widen beaches, that’s not much of an adaptation. It’s climate gentrification.”

“Real resiliency might mean letting go of our image of the coastline, learning to leave the very places we have long considered necessary to our survival,” Rush writes. While Gaul focuses on the thorny issue of unsustainable cost (without mentioning the current wave of lawsuits against the fossil fuel industry—which many believe should help foot the bill for the destruction it has helped to engender—such as People of the State of New York v. Exxon Mobil Corp.) Rush focuses on the strategy of community-driven resettlement with government support. It is, she argues, the only approach with the appropriate humility and acknowledgment of the scale of the threat. At the end of the chapter highlighting Tubman, she writes that of all the policies being discussed, organized retreat “is the only one that calls for everyone living on the lowest-lying land along the water’s edge, those who can afford to lift their homes and those who cannot, to participate.” Well, yes, but only if managed more humanely than resettlement has ever been managed in the past.

At Tubman’s home in Maryland, I remember spying ghost forests where encroaching salt water has killed off loblolly pines, a sign of habitat loss and a harbinger of flood. Is “flood” the right word? In her influential essay about how the imagination works, “The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison wrote, “You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be.” Loblollies live long enough that some of those ghost trees may have been saplings when Tubman used the moss on their trunks to orient herself in the woods on nights too cloudy to spy the north star. Imagine that. Morrison continues, “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”

My grandmother Mabel’s values were detached from home ownership. Nevertheless, when she fled state-sanctioned white terrorism in Mississippi, it wasn’t easy for her to go. Mabel loved that land, even the beaches along the bay where she was forbidden to swim because of her race. That was the land of her ancestors, who knew it by blood and by toil, though they did not own it. Bay St. Louis was her home.

At times I wonder if the essence of climate denial among disbelieving Americans, most conspicuously our forty-fifth president, is an unwillingness to accept that there is anything in this world so powerful that it could overrule them. It seems to me that many Americans, especially white Americans, have been taught to believe that this nation belongs to them, all of it, and they are loath to concede that ownership. My grandmother was a refugee. She prized community over property. By cleaning the homes of white people—by dusting their bookshelves and scrubbing their toilets down on her knees—she was able to raise her three children in Michigan. They all lived well into old age. She ensured their survival by running. This required sacrifice, humility, strength, and faith. This is what Mabel knew, and she knew it from people like Harriet Tubman. When something is going to kill you, you run. Your chances of survival are stronger if there’s a pathway to carry you. If there is no path, you forge one. It would behoove this nation to follow the example of people like her.

  1. 1

    Medium, February 18, 2019. 

  2. 2

    See Christopher Flavelle, “Rich Counties Get More Help to Escape Climate Risk, New Data Show,” The New York Times, October 9, 2019. 

  3. 3

    Sociologists Robert D. Bullard and Beverly Wright explore the history of such inequality in The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How the Government Response to Disaster Endangers African American Communities (NYU Press, 2012).  

  4. 4

    See Samantha Willis, “Black Women Are Leading the Way in Environmental Justice, Essence, January 11, 2019. 

  5. 5

    See Jim Morrison, “Who Will Pay for the Huge Costs of Holding Back Rising Seas?,” YaleEnvironment360, August 5, 2019.