In Atlantic City, residents feel injustice of climate change

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Global sea level rise went up 50 percent between 1994 and 2014, according to a study published this week in the journal "Nature Climate Change." In 2014 alone, it went up an eighth of an inch. But if you want to see what those numbers actually mean, take a look at the increasing number of flooding events along the east coast of the United States. The nonprofit Climate Central looked at 90 cities from Massachusetts to Florida. Included in that list are Atlantic City and other towns on the New Jersey shore.

I recently spoke to the reporter of that story, John Upton.

SREENIVASAN: You worked on this for six months. Why focus on Atlantic City? I mean, Atlantic City to a lot of us think, we think casinos. The Trump Taj Mahal, et cetera, et cetera. But there's a lot more people that live there.

JOHN UPTON, REPORTER, CLIMATE CENTRAL: The Climate Central scientists actually conducted analysis. They looked at hundreds of U.S. coastal cities and examined the increases that are expected in the flooding risks in each of those. They identified about 90 that face vey sharp increases in flooding risks.

A lot of these cities tend to be built along bays, along rivers, near the massive estuaries. So, they have a very low topography and the highest risk ones tend to be along the mid-Atlantic and Atlantic City simply showed up as being one of the cities that faces the greatest risks. But in addition to that, it is also has great inequity among the rich and poor, it's a city in economic decline right now. So, I want to examine (ph) how they're adapting to the changes in sea level there.

SREENIVASAN: You also took video in your article. I know you spent six months working on this project. There's a piece of sound that we have from one of the residents there. Let's take a listen to her.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It wasn't that bad. It wasn't bad when we first moved in here. It was eight inches before. And now, it's ten inches. It's going to be in the house. Right now, we're going to try to put a washer and drier up, in our living. It's replaceable but it's very hard and very inconvenient and money, you know.


SREENIVASAN: This is not after Hurricane Sandy. This is after what kind of weather?


UPTON: This is when there's a full moon or a new moon, you get higher tides at normal times. And just yesterday, I was retweeting some pictures from the street Arizona Avenue and Atlantic Avenue that were flooding, simply because there was a high tied associated with a full moon. At the same time, there was a storm. The storm pushed water from the coast towards the land. So, you have the tide actually rising up in the streets, coming through the storm water drains.

And the same time as that, you have heavy rain or any rain, and the rain can't drain away. So, what you get is a very substantial flooding in some of these neighborhoods that are built along bays in Atlantic City and that was the case in the video that you just saw

SREENIVASAN: And this is just people getting used to this as a fact life on — if the circumstances are right, basically a full moon and heavy rain or storm and it's over.

UPTON: This can happen — this is happening monthly. This is happening all the time. The residents have their own systems for dealing with it. They alert each other when they see the water rising.

They've all lost cars. They move their cars. They pack them in a garage in the downtown area or higher land.

They put their furniture up on blocks. They take precautions because they've all experienced serious floods. And so, they just take measures to minimize the impact each time it floods.

SREENIVASAN: What does this do to property value? I'm imagining right now, after I see the story or at least people who know what they're looking for, I'm not going to buy a house that's on that street. And so, the people are there if they can't sell it.

UPTON: And so, that it's not only that it's unappealing because it's flooding but Atlantic City is in such serious economic climate. It had 5 percent of their population leave just over the last decade. All the jobs are drying up. The tax base is drying up. Nobody wants to be buying property in Atlantic City, let alone in these very vulnerable areas.

And over the last 12 months, two houses in this one block street that I went to Arizona Avenue, two of them had sold for less than $35,000 each. And what that means is that residents who are some out of work, all of that equity is tied up in the house. They now have no equity left.

They can't sell their house. They don't have work in Atlantic City. They want to move but they can't sell their property. They feel very trapped. Some of them really express very strong emotions to me. They feel stuck.

SREENIVASAN: Isn't the Army Corps of Engineers working at a different part of the same town or the same city to try to shore up the defenses to downtown?

UPTON: Sure. So, using Sandy recovery funds, the Army Corps is engaging two fairly major projects quite close to Arizona Avenue, close to these, you know, working class neighborhoods in Atlantic City.

One is in the downtown area. That's a big sea wall being built to protect the casinos and downtown area. They're also about to spend tens of millions on sand dunes to protect ocean front homes, often costing millions of dollars, often occupied only during the summer. These are holiday houses. So, they're getting protection, even though they've actually sued to try to prevent the project because they don't want to lose their views.

So, all around these residents, they can see the federal government working to alleviate flooding risks. But these working class residents of Atlantic City are getting nothing.

SREENIVASAN: You focused on Atlantic City but you also have an interactive map on the site. It's just very interesting and it points out how this is happening in different coastal populations all over the country. I mean, you know, if you kind of click through and you see kind of Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, and you have the sort of bar graph that talks about what the flood risks are going to be now and then, you know, 20, 30 years from now. Almost in every one of those places, obviously, it's getting worse.

UPTON: Yes. And the areas that are built along bays, the areas that are built along river, these working class neighborhoods, they face the greatest risks.

You know, we have to be serious here. We have to stop putting so much pollution into the atmosphere. That's causing the seas to rise. We need to take measures to stop that.

But even if we — even if we stop polluting the atmosphere tomorrow, we locked in so much sea level rise at this point, it's such a slow-moving disaster that we've begun that we're still going to see the risks increasing very dramatically in a number of these cities around the U.S. and also around the world.

SREENIVASAN: How is a house insurable in a neighborhood like this? So, when you look at downtown Miami, these condos are expensive and they're there. And here, we have a situation that 30 years from now, all the projections say it's actually going to worse.

So, if I'm on a 30-year mortgage, A, who's getting me that mortgage. And then, what's the insurance? Who's giving me the insurance?

UPTON: The only reason that you can get insurance in these areas is that the federal government has always subsided, has always provided flood insurance. It's promoted and encouraged and effectively subsidized house building urban development, home buying, in very vulnerable coastal areas. And —

SREENIVASAN: And we're all paying for it.

UPTON: We are all paying for it. The flood insurance program is currently more than $20 million in arrears. And so, there have been attempts to reform this flood insurance program. The problem is what Congress discovered is that once you take these subsidies away, the homeowners, the voters suddenly see very sudden and substantial increases in their insurance rates and they're suddenly paying what the market would have to offer and that's very unpopular, it's a very hard thing to change now that we got that in place.

SREENIVASAN: All right. The report is on Climate Central's website. John Upton, thanks so much for joining us.

UPTON: Great to be here. Thanks for your interest.

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