The Irish Pub near Atlantic City’s famed boardwalk doesn’t have any locks on the doors as it is open 24 hours a day. So when Hurricane Sandy crunched into what was once known as the Las Vegas of the east coast in 2012, some improvisation was needed.
Regular drinkers helped slot a cork board through the frame of the door, wedging it shut and keeping out the surging seawater. The wild night, which severely damaged more than 320 homes and caused a week-long power blackout, was seen out by those taking shelter with the help of several bottles of Jameson.
But Sandy was just the headline act among increasingly common flooding events that are gnawing away at the thin island upon which the city sits.
“Sandy, as devastating as it was, isn’t the greatest barometer because we have flash floods,” said Cathy Burke, who has run the Irish Pub since 1973. Burke, a gravelly voiced institution along the boardwalk, has hoarded treasures from Atlantic City’s zenith. The upstairs of the pub is replete with vintage furniture, gramophones and china dogs.
“We can have floods at the drop of a hat,” Burke said. “Without even realizing we’re going to have them. It’ll be raining and within seconds you’ll see flooding in the street. You don’t read about it in the paper. You don’t hear about it on the radio or television. You just have water that just comes up and if you don’t have warning and move your car, you have water in the car.”
These flooding events have increased seven-fold in Atlantic City since the 1950s, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and are spurred by rainfall or simply a spring tide abetted by unhelpful gusts of wind.
The casinos and boardwalk are protected on the ocean side by a network of beach dunes. But the western side of the city, where few tourists venture and poverty lingers, is more vulnerable. Several times a month water swells in the bay behind Absecon Island – the barrier strip dotted by the resorts of Atlantic City, Ventnor, Margate and Longport – and with nowhere to go can slosh into the streets, wrecking cars and stranding residents.
The rising ocean, fed by melting glaciers and the expansion of warming water, is piling up water along America’s entire eastern seaboard. To compound the problem much of the mid-Atlantic coast is sinking, a hangover from the last ice age, meaning life and property is being swamped like never before.
And yet with no overarching national sea level rise plan and patchy commitment from states, many coastal communities are left to deal with the encroaching seas themselves. Wealthier areas are raising streets and houses, erecting walls and pumps. Those without the funds or political will have several state or federal grants they can access but often make muddled choices in the face of this sisyphean task.
“There is no central place that makes all the decisions, so you get one town building a pump station to push water out and another town pumping the water back to the same place,” said Rouzbeh Nazari, an environmental engineering expert at Rowan University.
Nazari is critical of outdated flood maps, risky building in areas prone to flooding and what he considers an undue haste to buy up water-ravaged houses on the cheap to compensate homeowners rather than improve ragged coastal defenses.
“It kind of feels like we’ve just given up, that we can’t do anything about it,” he said. “I’m less worried about a Sandy-like event than nuisance flooding. They are losing 20 cars a month to nuisance flooding on Absecon Island. We need a regional solution but New Jersey has no specific plan to deal with it.”
A spokesman for New Jersey’s department of environmental protection disputes claims that it lacks a plan, pointing to work with the army corps of engineers over future levees and a solution to “inadequate” stormwater systems that can exacerbate flooding.
“We will be working very closely with coastal communities in identifying problem areas and the best ways to deal with them,” the spokesman said. Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor, has previously said there was no evidence that Hurricane Sandy was linked to climate change. Asked about flooding at Cape May last year, Christie said: “I don’t know what you want me to do, you want me to go down there with a mop?”
In Atlantic City’s heyday, its Steel Pier hosted concerts by Frank Sinatra and the Beatles, as well as a recurring attraction where a horse was required to dive off a 60ft platform into a pool of water – a “colossally stupid idea” according to the then president of the US Humane Society. Today, it abuts the shuttered Trump Taj Mahal casino, which was sold by the president last year, as well as a tidal gauge that is quietly recording the fate of the city.
The numbers are stark – the sea is rising at nearly 1.5 inches (38mm) a decade, streaking ahead of the global average and eroding away the tips of the island. Slender barrier islands such as Absecon aren’t easy to tame even with a stable sea level. Native Americans used to holiday, but never live, on the shifting sandy outcrop because they knew that it would be perennially mauled by the sea. Today, there are about 40,000 people living in Atlantic City, with the boardwalk drawing in millions of tourists to its hulking casinos.
“The Native Americans were a lot smarter than the European settlers,” said James Whalen, a former Atlantic City mayor turned state senator. “The barrier islands up and down the coast really should not have been built on, but here we are.”
And then there are the storms. Ben Horton, a climate scientist at Rutgers University, said that a Sandy-like storm used to occur on the east coast once every 500 years, before industrial activity began loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Now such a storm arrives once every 25 years or so. Should the sea level continue to rise sharply, by 2100 Sandy would visit Atlantic City every five years.
“If you chat to people here and you say, ‘How sustainable is the New Jersey shore or Atlantic City to an event of the magnitude of Hurricane Sandy occurring every five years?’, you’ll get a very negative response,” Horton said.
The sustainability of Atlantic City consumes the thoughts of Elizabeth Terenik, the city’s spry planning director. Terenik said the rise in nuisance flooding has become a “major quality of life issue” for back-bay residents. Many of those able to have raised their homes – new buildings must now be a foot higher than previous codes due to the flooding.
Terenik is plotting new sea walls, a curb on new development in flood-prone areas and an underground canal that can funnel away stormwater. Perhaps most ambitiously, she is taken by an idea, put forward by Princeton University, that would raise the streets and houses in Chelsea Heights, a vulnerable neighborhood, and allow the water to seep into vacant land to create a sort of New Jersey twist on Venice.
“It’s an exciting project but one that really needs to be looked at closely before anything’s moved forward and of course it would need funding,” Terenik conceded. “A lot of funding.”
Miami Beach: ‘climate gentrification’
Funding isn’t such a problem 1,200 miles south at another barrier island facing a daunting challenge from the seas – Miami Beach. While it shares much of Atlantic City’s bygone glory, with its art deco grandeur and former celebrity playground status, Miami Beach – linked by causeways to the mainland city of Miami – has managed to retain much of the wealth that has allowed it to hurl money at the sea level rise problem.
Pancake flat and built on porous ground that is slowly sinking back to the seabed, Miami Beach is surrounded by seas accelerating at an astonishing 9mm a year – vastly more than the 3mm-a-year global average. Should slabs of Antarctic ice start to crumble away into the ocean and fuel a 6ft sea level rise by 2100, Miami Beach will pretty much be swallowed up.
“We are facing an existential threat here,” said Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, Miami Beach’s city commissioner. Gonzalez, a former college tutor, focused heavily on sea level rise when she was elected last year. It’s not really much of a choice these days – the mayor, Philip Levine, paddled down a flooded street in a canoe as part of an election stunt.
Once known as a “sunny place for shady people” due to its popularity with pre-war gangsters, Miami Beach is now often referred to as ground zero for the sea level rise phenomenon. But it’s perhaps more like a living laboratory experiment into what happens when you give a cashed-up place the task of avoiding drowning.
Miami Beach is spending $400m on a network of pumps, sea walls and raised streets in order to beat the tides. One vulnerable neighborhood, Sunset Harbor, has had its streets raised by 2ft at a cost of over $30m. All over the island, predominantly in the wealthier neighborhoods where properties go for $10m or more, streets are being torn up.
“We’re literally going to have to rise above this,” Gonzalez said. “That’s very scary for many of us because right now, we can’t really picture what that looks like. It is so hard to imagine parts of Miami Beach disappearing. A lot of this island is fill. We filled it in once. We’ll fill it in again.”
City engineers admit that they are merely buying themselves time, perhaps 20 years or so, until Miami Beach will need to work the problem out again, possibly with some new technology. The seas are relentless, and rising ever further without end in sight. Much of southern Florida will eventually be reclaimed, but for now there is trillions of dollars of real estate to save.
Retreat isn’t on the agenda, but as in Atlantic City there’s an equity issue at play. The affluent can afford to raise their homes, lobby for sea walls and water pumps, and stay in a nice hotel if it all gets a bit much.
Poorer residents are less able to do this, nor can they foot the bill for the work – Miami Beach has eye-watering average water bills of $350 a month in order to pay for the street work. Some people may have to leave if the costs mount further. Even some of the wealthier residents are buying insurance properties in areas of the mainland, farther from the coast.
Valencia Gunder calls this phenomenon “climate gentrification”. Gunder is a nascent climate campaigner and resident of Liberty City, a Miami district known for its problems with crime and poverty. Gunder has been agitating, so far unsuccessfully, for some large trees to help shade the Liberty City populace from increasingly frequent heatwaves. She gives a wry smile at the mention of Miami Beach’s extreme engineering.
“We’re noticing things like heatstrokes and people passing out because it’s so hot outside, people can’t take the heat,” she said.
“I do understand that you want to take care of the community that’s right on the shore, but we all are affected. Four hundred million dollars, yes, is needed for resiliency, but just to put it in one neighborhood I think is ridiculous.
“We pay taxes. We live here. We go to school here. We work here. We deserve the same treatment as other communities.”
Federal leadership for communities like Atlantic City and Miami Beach is unlikely to arrive before the situation escalates further. Donald Trump’s administration has already taken aim at existing coastal resiliency funding and has disparaged basic scientific understanding of climate change.
Should the seas rise by 6ft, 13 million Americans in coastal areas will have to relocate by the end of this century, according to recent research. There will need to be a plan, beyond just cutting emissions, well before this time.
In the meantime, threatened cities such as New York and Boston will mull gargantuan sea barriers, Miami Beach will hoist itself further upwards, and Atlantic City will hope a solution, or a combination of solutions, is found before the next Sandy arrives.
What links these places is the reluctance to abandon them. “Miami Beach is one of the most special places in the entire world and we don’t plan on going anywhere,” said Gonzalez. “We’re going to be here for the long haul. I love this city. It’s my home. I can’t imagine there not being a Miami Beach.”
Back in Atlantic City, Cathy Burke, surrounded by her Boardwalk Empire-style refinements, is similarly defiant.
“I am a diehard Atlantic City native,” she said. “I love Atlantic City. I don’t want to live anywhere else.
“I’ve seen hotels demolished. Storms, whatever. And as far as I’m concerned, Atlantic City will always be here and it will only get bigger and better than ever.”