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Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush

In 2012, on assignment in Bangladesh researching a story on the world’s longest border fence, journalist Elizabeth Rush “inadvertently” became interested in sea level rise. By 2015, she’d become obsessed. Now, after immersing herself in the subject, Rush is out with Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, a tour-de-force of literary reportage.

Rising takes readers on a graphic tour of coastal communities in the United States that are already grappling with the devastating effects of climate change. From Maine to Miami, the Gulf Coast to the Bay Area, Rush reveals how lives, livelihoods, and entire ecosystems are undergoing irrevocable changes that are destined to leave many of these communities uninhabitable.

Take the southern edge of Louisiana which is experiencing some of the fastest rates of land loss on the planet. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, between 1932 and 2000, Louisiana lost nearly 1,900 square miles of coastline, an area about the size of Delaware. In another fifty years, scientists anticipate another 1,750 square miles will be under water.

Rush visits what is, perhaps, the hardest-hit of the state’s coastal communities: the Isle de Jean Charles, the long-time home of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians. Over the past sixty years, tribal members have watched as more than ninety percent of the island’s land mass has steadily disappeared. Rising sea levels and powerful hurricanes are to blame—but only in part. So, too, Rush reports, is erosion triggered by the channels that oil companies cut but never filled, and by the mismanagement of the Mississippi River, whose sediment-rich waters replenished the wetlands before dams and locks, levees and floodwalls impeded the river’s flow.

The result of this perfect storm, islander Chris Brunet tells Rush, is that Jean Charles is “a skeleton of its former self.” And so, too, is his tribe. Today, Rush writes, for every house on the island that sits on sixteen-foot-high stilts, “there are two abandoned ones. For every person who has stayed, two are already gone.” Gone, too, is much of the flora and fauna that made the island home.

To help Rush visualize the vast transformation the island has undergone, Brunet hands her a 1959 photograph of his father tilling soil. Standing where Brunet’s father stood, Rush adeptly contrasts what is and what was. “The cypresses are all in the same places, but their leaves have vanished. Some of the land where gardens once sat remains, but salt rests in the soil; the plants won’t grow, and the land lies fallow. And what was once a wetland rich in fowl is now open water. In the photo Chris shows me, his father stands surrounded by pastures. You can even make out a black cow in the upper right corner. In the sixty years since, the meadows where the cattle used to graze have all slipped beneath the surface of the sea.” 

Rush says she considers those who have fled the island “some of the world’s first climate refugees.” By 2050, she writes, “there will be two hundred million of them worldwide.”

Rising intermingles chapters on vulnerable communities, like the Isle de Jean Charles, with powerful first-hand accounts of life—and lives lost—inside them. It explores the science behind rising sea levels and wetland degradation, and explains why climate change is an existential threat to neighborhoods that hug the shore. Of course, the residents most at risk are those living not just near the water’s edge, but on the financial edge. For them, every storm, every flood, ushers in the starkest of choices: “retreat or perish in place.” As one Miami resident tells Rush, “I used to have a nice garden here, and now you see how it is. The water comes in and sits. And everything dies because of the salt. It’s not rain that floods this place. It’s the ocean… I wanted to leave this house to my kids, but soon it’s going to be worthless.” On his stoop, Rush notes, “sit two pairs of rubber boots, ready for the flood that is already here.”

With Rush’s keen eye for detail and prose verging on poetry, Rising is a powerful meditation on threats posed by the varying effects of climate change. It is not an uplifting read, but it is surely an important one.  

***

As I write this review, Hurricane Florence heads steadily toward the Carolinas and Georgia. Forecasters say it could be the most severe storm to hit that area in more than 60 years. One of the reasons for its expected ferocity: climate change.

Welcome to hurricane season 2018.

This season follows 2017’s historic year, when ten consecutive storms became hurricanes. They are the title of Rush’s Afterword: “Franklin. Gert. Harvey. Irma. Jose. Katie. Lee. Maria. Nate. Ophelia.”

In that Afterword Rush writes, “What might currently seem like an anomaly—the “record-breaking,” “game-changing,” “unprecedented” 2017 hurricane season—will soon become all too common. Recent research shows that events comparable to Sandy (once considered a four-hundred-year flood) could happen as often as every twenty-three years by century’s end. And I would be willing to bet that in the future this figure, like so many others in the world of climate science, will only continue to rise.”

Having read Rising, I wouldn’t bet against Rush.