Photographs by Ira Wagner, Essay by Rachael Shwom

Published on 07/30/ 2018


by Rachael Shwom
People ask me, “Why did you buy a house near the rising seas in a floodplain, knowing all that you know?” What they mean by “all that I know” is that I have a PhD in sociology and have spent almost 15 years researching climate change and society. I have had the honor of working and publishing with some of the most respected climate scientists in the US. I am not skeptical of them when they tell me that sea level will be around nine inches closer to my kitchen floor in 2030 or three and a half feet closer when my children are in their 90s in the year 2100.

I do not doubt them when they tell me that while hurricanes may not be more frequent, they are likely to grow stronger, drawing energy from the warming oceans. More hurricanes will have higher wind speeds, stronger storm surge, and increasing precipitation. I also know the research of my colleagues in sociology and public policy who study how society’s folly is to build near hazardous conditions and pretend that all is OK until the harm that was just a probability becomes a reality and people suffer—and then stay and rebuild despite the fact that they or their children are likely to suffer again. From their perspective, buying my raised home was a terrible decision.

That is “all that I know” from the systematic production of knowledge by my peers in academia. But there is also all that I know experimentally. Because in 2011, I had moved into the top two floors of a rental house that had not historically flooded but was in the lowlands of Highlands, New Jersey, during Hurricane Irene.

I returned to a town that looked like a war-torn country.
And on October 27, 2012, I evacuated those top two floors with my two- and five-year-old daughters while Hurricane Sandy powered five feet of water into the bottom floor of the house. Five days later I returned to a town that looked like a war-torn country.

It turned cold and snowed, and Red Cross trucks with their microphones traveled the streets and announced that they had hot meals. I was lucky that the top two floors were well out of the way of water, and so it was only what I had in storage in the ground-floor laundry room that had been destroyed.

I survived the month of no electricity or gas, no laundry machines, and no hot water heater—but had little to overcome to “get back to normal.” My friends are still fighting with FEMA, still living in rentals, and still rebuilding their businesses. When they saw Harvey hit Houston, they remembered the terrible smell the sludge left behind on their belongings, the spoiled food in tipped-over refrigerators, and the loss of heirlooms and irreplaceable pictures.

Beyond the storm, there is the collateral damage that takes place after the fact. Longtime residents holding roles in local government, taking care of our children, and running markets now find themselves able to pay their mortgage but not able to pay the increase in flood insurance and without the financial wherewithal to raise their house to reduce their flood insurance premiums.

But also included in all that I know are the people and community. I met my neighbors right after Hurricane Irene. I had lived in a townhouse in the central Jersey suburbs for three years and not met one neighbor—and here they were on my first days in town. Neighbors invited the kids over to feed their fish in the little pond and offered a beer. Soon we would casually have pizza in each other’s backyards on Fridays and chat in our driveways as we swatted mosquitos. The kids would knock on the doors and ask to play, ride bikes, and swim in the bay after school.

I met older and younger neighbors; banker, mechanic, and unemployed neighbors; Republican, Democratic, and apolitical neighbors. Some neighbors had lived there their whole lives, and some were new just like me.

As my friend Val, a coffee shop owner, exclaimed one day, “In my town where I grew up, I was the quirky one. But here everyone is quirky!” The sign taped to her register read: “This is Highlands—not the Hamptons.” And I knew what she meant: not wealthy and polished like the Hamptons or edgy and hipster like Asbury Park, but quirky and well-loved by its inhabitants.

Not to wax poetic, but in the shadow of New York City’s skyline that I could see from my porch, I found dense small-town living where I could walk to the schools, farmers’ market, tiki bar, and yoga, and enjoy a pretty good meal with people from all walks of life. I too know that Highlands is a lovable, quirky community.

Read the rest of Rachael Shwoms’ essay in Ira Wagners’ new book, Houseraising: The Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy