From a satellite’s point of view, New Jersey’s barrier islands barely register, like fine white bones pulled from a body of green, separated by a vascular tissue of wetlands and shallow bays. Twenty thousand years ago, when the Laurentide ice sheet covered much of Canada and the northern United States, the coast of what would be New Jersey reached to the edge of the continental shelf, nearly 100 miles east of the present shoreline. For the next 10,000 years, as the last ice age came to an end and the sea level rose by more than 300 feet, the New Jersey coastline moved steadily west.
This alluvial coastal plain is stratified with quartz and glauconite sands, silt, clay and at least eight different aquifers going down beyond 6,000 feet before there is any semblance of solid earth — a slab of bedrock formed between 550 million and 300 million years ago. Geologists like to say that New Jersey’s coastal plain sits “unconformably” atop this Paleozoic base. Most unstable are the handful of delicate barrier islands at its edge, which shift naturally with the push of waves and tides, currents and winds. Henry Hudson passed these ribbons of land in August 1609, days before meeting the river that would bear his name. Johannes de Laet, who chronicled Hudson’s voyage several years later, dismissed the coast as “white sandy beach and drowned land within.” Walt Whitman, a frequent visitor to New Jersey’s coast, was awed by the way shorelines breathe. He called them a “curious, lurking something.”
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For millenniums before being driven out by the Dutch and English, the Jersey Shore’s original human inhabitants, known today as the Delaware, ventured from the mainland in the spring, along the creeks and thoroughfares of the back bays and onto spots like what is now called Seven Mile Island, in New Jersey’s southernmost county, Cape May. They set up their summer camps within dunes blanketed with beach grass and sand pea, amid thickets of bayberry, oak and red cedar. They spent their days harvesting fish and oysters, some of which they smoked to preserve for the winter months. The Delaware knew better than to permanently settle on such terrain. When fall arrived, they broke down their camps and retreated, traveling a north-south trail that some historians have suggested is the rough footprint of U.S. 9, now a designated coastal-evacuation route.
The barrier islands today display ample evidence of their battle with human development: failing bulkheads bowing against the corrosive press of water; lumpy and cracked streets, the result of the earth’s constant settling beneath them; high tide bubbling from sidewalk seams; beaches wiped away by a single anonymous storm. In winters, without the crush of tourism — the roughly $24 billion seasonal economic engine of four shore counties — the only traffic comes from contractors demolishing old homes to erect bigger ones, raised on stilts to cartoonish heights. Whole blocks are cordoned off as armies of workers elevate roads and replace old, overwhelmed storm-water plumbing with higher-capacity systems.
The enemy, of course, is the water. Early development on the islands was concentrated toward the oceanfront, but the static nature of infrastructure was in conflict with the shoreline’s need to breathe. Boardwalks, homes and roads and the jetties, sea walls and bulkheads constructed to protect them did little more than accelerate erosion. So, in the late 1980s, New Jersey began entering into 50-year agreements with the Army Corps of Engineers, in which the federal government pays for much of the regular replenishment of the state’s beaches and dunes. The projects, which have already pumped 134 million cubic yards of sand across 130 miles of Atlantic coast, at a cost of more than $2 billion, have been effective at protecting beachfront property. But until recently it largely missed a simple fact of geography: From ocean to bay, barrier islands naturally slope from thick to razor-thin.
At Avalon, located on Seven Mile Island, the ocean did an unexpected thing during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. When it hit one of the most carefully managed beachfronts — and stable dune systems — the nearly 10 feet of storm surge was simply redirected from the shore to, and through, the island’s two inlets, where the water faced little impediment from the low-slung bulkheads of back-bay homes. While the ocean famously breached several locations farther up the coast, here the floodwaters mostly came from behind. This flooding caused by Sandy obliterated any notion that beach replenishment would be enough to protect the barrier islands as the sea level there begins what a Rutgers study predicts will be a rise of at least a foot over the course of a century. The next Sandy is a grave concern, but such devastating weather events are still rare. What most worries these communities is “nuisance flooding,” the quiet inundation that can amount to a few inches or several feet of standing water and that is getting worse.
In many places on the barrier islands, nuisance flooding now accompanies practically every full-moon high tide, heavy downpour or strong shoreward wind. These events rarely show up in the news, but in their persistent submerging of lawns and roads for hours at a time, they represent the primary existential threat to the beating heart of the Jersey Shore.
In 1981, a coastal scientist named Stewart Farrell began the work that would become the Stockton University Coastal Research Center, now located on the mainland just north of Atlantic City; the center’s “beach profile” surveys have served as blueprints for many replenishment projects along the shore. But he has come to question the islands’ ability to keep back the highest tides in coming decades. “On the oceanfront, where the sand dunes are 10 to 12 feet, maybe two feet of sea-level rise is no big deal,” he says, “but on the back bay, two feet means you have to splash through water twice a day, every day, just to get to your house. That’s not going to do property values a whole lot of good.”
Over the last century, the sea level at the Jersey Shore has risen twice as fast as the global average, because the land here is also sinking. The water’s upward climb — 18 inches in New Jersey — has increased nuisance flooding up and down the coast, just as it has in low-lying communities around the world. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which maintains about 100 gauges to measure nuisance flooding throughout the United States, has found that episodes of nuisance flooding have doubled since 2000. Last year, 14 locations on the Southeast Atlantic and Gulf coasts experienced record numbers of flooding events, thanks in part to a historic hurricane season. By 2030, NOAA predicts, the national median rate of nuisance flooding will be two to three times greater than it is currently; the rate will be five to 15 times greater by 2050. “The acceleration has begun,” William Sweet, a NOAA oceanographer who leads a team that writes an annual report on the phenomenon, told me. “And inches matter, now more than ever.”
You could be forgiven for thinking the Jersey Shore’s local governments are not terribly concerned by such warnings. According to a report from Climate Central and Zillow, some 4,500 homes, worth $4.6 billion, were built in New Jersey between 2010 and 2016 in areas where, even if global greenhouse gas emissions decrease moderately, there will be a risk of flooding once per decade, at a minimum, starting in 2050. The report also notes that no state has built new homes in a risk zone at a faster pace — not even Florida, with far more shoreline. And that was before the pandemic and the resulting urban exodus and real estate boom. Houses built 15 years ago are being torn down and replaced with bigger ones that occupy as much square footage as zoning rules allow, Martin Pagliughi, Avalon’s eight-term mayor, told me. In the last two years, the median price of the homes sold in the borough climbed by $700,000. The era of the quaint fishing cottage is dead.
Pagliughi’s full-time job is coordinator of Cape May County’s Office of Emergency Management. A septuagenarian who moved to the shore during college — when it “was the Wild West,” he says — Pagliughi has lasted so long as mayor in large part because he understood earlier than most that being able to quantify the losses from disasters, like the amount of sand displaced by a hurricane, means more government aid. Avalon was Farrell’s first client; the town hired him in 1981 to survey the borough’s rapidly disappearing oceanfront, and Pagliughi has kept Coastal Research Center beach surveys in the budget under his leadership. In the early 2000s, Avalon installed the county’s first pumping stations for bayside flooding — electric-powered underground pumps that can move tens of thousands of gallons of water per minute from the streets, through pipes that drain into the back bays. Despite the increase in flooding, Pagliughi says he doesn’t “buy into” the Rutgers forecast that sees a 17 percent chance that the sea-level will rise by more than six feet during this century. “We’ll address the hazards as they come,” he told me. “But a hundred years from now? I don’t know, I won’t be here to worry about it.”
Pagliughi, along with another mayor nearby, became the first to hire C.R.C. to map local nuisance-flooding risks. In a multiyear project that began in 2017, C.R.C. collected millions of data points from cigar-size sensors called HOBOs, which are zip-tied to the undersides of storm drains, where the water creeps in first. The data quickly began to produce incredibly granular pictures of nuisance-flooding risk, certainly far more detailed than NOAA’s tide-gauge analyses. The two approaches are very different: Whereas NOAA’s median threshold for an official nuisance-flooding event in New Jersey last year was 1.85 feet, the HOBOs record increases greater than a tenth of an inch. But, as Sweet notes, both “speak to exposure.” A handful of other barrier island towns soon followed Avalon’s lead.
Around the time Farrell delivered the first results of the nuisance-flooding project to Avalon, in August 2019, I visited him at C.R.C., which is housed inside a drab single-story building plunked six miles from the university’s main campus, not far from Atlantic City. He wore an old T-shirt tucked into denim carpenter’s shorts, rumpled white knee socks and worn black Skechers. Farrell stopped teaching years ago after the C.R.C. work for shore towns, the state and the Army Corps of Engineers became a full-time job.
Farrell said that even for him the monitoring data were “striking.” Over the course of a year and a half in Avalon, C.R.C.’s sensors recorded 151 nuisance-flooding events across 13 locations. “These events don’t matter much now,” Farrell later told me, “except for the fact that if you don’t pay attention to them, and sea-level rise hits the expected three-to-four feet by 2100, a normal high tide is going to be at the level of the worst of these events every day, twice a day. Your home’s an island at high tide.”
The tiny borough of Beach Haven, on Long Beach Island, also took part in C.R.C.’s nuisance-flooding monitoring. Last year, I went there to meet with its mayor at the time, Nancy Taggart Davis. By then, I had talked to dozens of Jersey Shore mayors, engineers and other municipal officials about the billions it will cost just in the short term to fight the water. None of them had seriously considered curbing development to reduce risk to life and property. But Davis, who is in her 70s and is an emeritus professor of pathology at Stockton, was different. Despite her commitment to investing in pumping stations and higher bulkheads, she nevertheless acknowledged a near future when homes would have to be bought out and real estate surrendered. She wished she could put on “blinders,” she said. “It really saddens me.” Then she added, “But somebody’s going to have to face it.” Beach Haven’s construction official, Sean MacCotter, who took part in our conversation, nodded. “Eventually,” he said, “the water will win.”
For the last five years, the Army corps has been conducting its own New Jersey back-bays study, as part of the agency’s long-term strategy for managing the risk of coastal flooding. It estimates that the state’s 950-square-mile back-bay areas and oceanfront will soon be sustaining $1.57 billion in annual damages over a 50-year period if no new flood-mitigation measures are implemented. One of the study’s visions for the future imagines a coast armored with concrete and steel. But the scale of that sort of work dwarfs the projects currently underway on the barrier islands: Storm-surge barriers alone would cost more than $16 billion. The study’s authors concede that “in some cases, just as ecosystems migrate and change functions, human systems may have to relocate in a responsible manner.”
No town is more vulnerable than Atlantic City, the Jersey Shore’s largest and poorest municipality. Beginning in 2030, according to the corps study, the city will start incurring more than $300 million annually in flood-related damages over the same half-century; by 2050, NOAA estimates that Atlantic City will have 65 to 155 nuisance-flooding events yearly.
What began, in 1854, as a vision of a resort where urbanites could experience the healing powers of the Atlantic’s salt air has, over the course of a century and a half, mushroomed into a carnival by the sea. By the mid-20th century, about 16 million visitors were coming to Atlantic City during the summer months, overrunning its beach and boardwalk and amusement piers. City officials hastily filled the surrounding salt marshes with mud and sand to make room for a year-round population that peaked at 69,000 in 1947. When state and federal laws in the 1970s put an end to the indiscriminate filling of wetlands, it was already too late: Miles of housing — disproportionately occupied by working-class immigrants and African Americans, as a result of redlining — sat on sinking land.
When Farrell arrived in South Jersey in 1971, as a freshly credentialed 29-year-old Ph.D., Stockton’s main campus had yet to be completed, so he taught his geology and marine-science classes in the bottom-floor suites of a failing hotel near Atlantic City’s boardwalk. The city was at the tail end of a long decline, thanks in part to the development of nearby shore towns that were far less crowded. In the 1980s, the city tried to reinvent itself as a gambling mecca; at the water’s edge, real estate tycoons like Steve Wynn, Carl C. Icahn and Donald Trump built expansive casinos. But small businesses in the surrounding neighborhoods withered, and the city went into a second decline. Sandy brought collapse. The poverty rate has soared to nearly 40 percent, the highest in New Jersey, and Atlantic City’s dire flooding problems have effectively been ignored. “There was no interest,” Farrell told me.
One morning in February 2020, I visited Atlantic City’s new director of planning, Barbara Woolley-Dillon, whose first days on the job had been consumed by the urgent need to slow down the flooding. Woolley-Dillon’s office downtown occupies a palatial corner of City Hall, a harsh cube of concrete and black glass. Since 2016, the city’s imperiled finances had been under state oversight, and in that time the planning-and-development department temporarily dwindled to two people. The view through the huge windows took in the city’s northeastern flank, where the rebranded Hard Rock and Ocean hotel-casinos loomed over rowhouses and apartment complexes. The view, said Woolley-Dillon, who is in her 50s, “is my inspiration for having to do better for the residents.”
In its back-bays study, the corps imagines protecting Absecon Island, which is divvied up between Atlantic City and three other towns, with a storm-surge barrier and a cross-bay barrier along with connections to levees and flood walls. The projected costs could surpass $6 billion. Woolley-Dillon was a former planner for another barrier-island town, Mantoloking, which was leveled by Sandy just before she started there; she is a seasoned veteran in matters of disaster recovery. But when I asked her about the corps’ plan, she sighed. She echoed a comparison I’d heard other shore experts make many times. “Do you know what happened with Katrina?” she said. “They didn’t anticipate the worst-case scenario. Once the levees breached, you were stuck, you were in a swimming pool with your house not bobbing. We don’t want to be in that same position.”
I noted that the corps’s study also mentioned retreat. Woolley-Dillon said that if homeowners wanted to sell their homes to a buyout program run by the state, she couldn’t stop them. But she preferred to focus on the city’s official position — that it was resolved to adapt in the face of climate change rather than withdraw. She talked about what they were building: a medical center; a resilient microgrid; and an expansion of Stockton’s Atlantic City campus that would include an institute focused on coastal resilience. Since we met, the city has positioned itself to be the jobs hub for New Jersey’s burgeoning offshore wind industry, with a training facility, conferences and research center. “We’re doing a lot of things toward resiliency,” she said. “But when you are on a barrier island, it is very difficult. How much more can you do?”
Not long after our conversation, Woolley-Dillon and other city officials met with New Jersey’s home-buyout program, Blue Acres, which acquires clusters of repeatedly flooded properties from willing sellers and demolishes them. Once homes are razed, the land is preserved as open space, a buffer zone for nuisance flooding. Blue Acres’ chief, Fawn McGee, informed Woolley-Dillon that a “list of families” in Atlantic City had submitted applications for buyouts. The program had emerged as a national model — since Sandy alone, more than 700 properties had been purchased. But all were in low- to middle-income communities on the mainland. Not a single home had been acquired on the barrier islands, where new construction was a constant. Atlantic City, however, seemed poised to be the exception. In the city’s wounds of neglect, managed retreat finally appeared to be finding a foothold on the oceanfront.
Last summer, I met an artist named Michael Cagno in Ducktown, an Atlantic City neighborhood. Cagno, who is 48 and runs the Noyes Arts Garage, a gallery and workshop for local artists, wore mirrored sunglasses and a blue short-sleeved polo that revealed faded tattoos. He has spent his life on South Jersey’s bay and ocean shorelines, drawn to the juxtaposition of the built and natural worlds. His paintings depict marshlands, water, mud and grasses reclaiming the landscape, overwhelming the man-made.
Early in the 20th century, Italian immigrants — who raised waterfowl in this slice of Atlantic City — lived and worked in compact, redbrick rowhouses and small shops along the neighborhood’s narrow, tree-lined avenues. Today, Ducktown’s 2,500 mostly Latino and Asian American residents, about 70 percent of whom are renters, live and work in those same buildings. It is one of Atlantic City’s most historic neighborhoods, and one of its poorest, with a poverty rate that exceeds 40 percent. It is also one of the most flood-prone. Virtually all of Ducktown’s bay front is unprotected: High tides constantly breach its decades-old, disintegrating bulkheads. In 2020, the state stepped in with $20 million, transferred from Blue Acres, to help the city with a series of flood-mitigation projects, including the replacement of Ducktown’s bulkheads. It was an odd twist, perhaps — Cagno had heard that a dozen or so Ducktown homeowners had given up and submitted buyout applications to the program. (Blue Acres does not comment on applications.)
As we walked along one quiet, shaded avenue, Cagno estimated that more than 100 properties in the neighborhood had been abandoned. Some were still damaged from Sandy. He had only just learned about the potential buyouts. He couldn’t blame anyone for wanting to retreat, though he hoped that some of the Blue Acres applicants were not absentee property owners with tenants who had no interest in leaving. Cagno was part of a community group that had recently put together a “Revitalize Ducktown” plan, a first among Atlantic City’s 11 neighborhoods. Part of the plan was to advocate a transfer of ownership of Ducktown’s abandoned properties to developers interested in rehabilitating them. Demolition was not something the group envisioned.
We lingered for a while at the end of Turnpike Road, where a rotting bulkhead and strip of gravel shoreline barely separated asphalt and water. From the windows of some nearby homes, you could cast a fishing line into the bay. Cagno swept a hand to the east. At the ocean’s edge, the Bally’s, Caesars and Harrah’s casinos thumbed the blue sky; in the foreground, a line of multicolored rowhouses leaned into one another like crooked teeth. There was a white picket fence around one yard, and across the street the bay glimmered in the early summer light.
This scene was one of several Cagno wanted to paint. If the Ducktown he knew couldn’t be saved physically, then it ought to be preserved in oil on canvas. The houses were more than just structures; they were also the story of a community. “These are real people,” he said. “Real lives.”