The Day Climate Change Ruined Our Lives

romano-FE02-climate-change-main-tease
A trailer park destroyer by Hurricane Sandy in Holgate section of Long Beach Island, New Jersey, Oct. 31, 2012. Noah K. Murray/The Star Ledger,via Corbis

The sand was the thing we noticed first. Mostly because it hadn’t been there yesterday, or any day before yesterday, and now it was absolutely everywhere.

For the first 23 hours after the storm, we hadn’t been able to see much of anything at all. On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy had made landfall just south of Long Beach Island, New Jersey, the narrow strip of coastline where I spent my childhood summers and where my parents have lived, full time, for the past eight years. Now a day had passed, and information was hard to come by. My parents were fine; they had evacuated earlier that week to friend’s place 45 miles inland. But the power was out, and the 18-mile-long barrier island, which is home to 20,000 year-round residents, was basically abandoned, so we still didn’t know how much damage our house in North Beach had sustained, or if there were even any houses left in North Beach to sustain damage. Also, the rumors were starting to spread. The Ferris wheel at Fantasy Island has collapsed. A shark is swimming around Surf City. The waves breached the dunes. The ocean met the bay. Whole towns have been washed out. The rumors were not helping.

And then I stumbled upon Jay Zimmerman’s Facebook page. Zimmerman is a volunteer fireman in Harvey Cedars, the town next to North Beach. “North Beach damage,” read the caption on a smartphone video he’d posted on his wall. “Some ocean front houses are ripped to pieces.” Zimmerman had spent the storm on LBI, rescuing holdouts. Afterward he had ventured out to survey the wreckage. I clicked the play button.

The clip was shaky—shot from the back of a pickup truck as it rumbled north up Long Beach Boulevard—but I immediately recognized our neighborhood, despite all the sand piled on top of it. Bikes and porches and trash cans, buried. Sand mounded around mailboxes. No more roads, really, just sand, knee deep in some places and head high in others, like the soft hills of snow left behind after a blizzard. That’s what North Beach looked like, only less ... temporary. The nice thing about snow is that it goes away. It melts. But the sand didn’t seem to have the slightest intention of leaving.

As Zimmerman approached our block, the sand hills got higher. Another volunteer, a woman, weighed in from off camera. “A lot of debris here, boy,” she said. “Jesus.” Shards of wood were sticking out of the sand. Home appliances—refrigerators, washers, dryers—were strewn across the street.

Just then they pulled over, and Zimmerman happened to pan from the ocean side to the bay side. And that’s when I saw it, hovering above the scrub pines. Above the sand. Pixelated but unmistakable. The tiniest split-second glimpse. The corner of our roof.

I rewound. I pressed pause. Bingo. The house was still standing.

I sent the screenshot to my mom. “Look,” I wrote. “It’s still there.” I wanted to make her feel better. I wanted to sound optimistic. “People will come back to the shore,” I continued. “I bet we’ll all be surprised by how much better everything is looking next summer.”

But all my mom could see was the sand. Whenever a storm surge overwashes the dunes, the sea pushes heaps of sand ahead of it; do that again and again, and the whole barrier island retreats a few feet toward the mainland—right through your foyer, if necessary. She replied 35 minutes later. “It’s hubris to challenge Mother Nature—to live on a fragile strip of sand a hundred yards away from the ocean,” she wrote. “So yes, people will come back ... I just find it difficult right now to think they should.”

***

romano-FE02-climate-change-second After the hurricane, Long Beach Island was covered in sand. Mark Wilson/Getty

After a storm like Sandy, America tends to talk a lot about rebuilding. Returning. Restoring the shore.The federal government is spending $60 billion on the recovery, and affected states have kicked in another $100 million (or more). As Garden State Gov. Chris Christie—who has been beating this particular drum for months now—put it during a press conference in Bradley Beach after the storm, “There’s nothing more important to the future of New Jersey than to rebuild ... and to get ourselves back to a new normal.”

Christie isn’t wrong. New Jersey has 127 miles of coastline. In 2008 62 percent of the state’s $38 billion tourism haul came from the shore; the same year, local fisheries employed more than 40,000 people. About 235,000 New Jerseyans live less than five feet above the local high-tide line, and tens of thousands of them were displaced during Sandy.

But what happens after the rebuilding—years later, decades later, a century later, even? Human beings have a much harder time imagining such a distant future, let alone planning for it.

In theory, Sandy should help. The storm’s ravaging tides may have been the clearest preview to date of what the 21st century has in store for our coastal areas. Experts can’t say for sure whether climate change was to blame for the size of the storm itself. But they are pretty certain that global warming will cause a lot more Sandy-like storm surges in the decades ahead.

The science isn’t especially complicated, or even controversial. The average temperature of the planet is expected to rise by as much as 7.2 degrees over the next century. By 2100 expanding water, melting ice, and faster-flowing glaciers are projected to boost the sea level by as much as six feet.

romano-FE02-climate-change-map-secaucus By 2100, sea levels could rise six feet. What happens then? Above: projected flood map of Secaucus, NJ. Visit NOAA’s interactive to see the impact of rising sea levels throughout the U.S.

That may not sound like a lot, but the real-life results would be catastrophic. You can already see for yourself, thanks to the interactive sea-level satellite map on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association website. Adjust the slider to three feet of sea-level rise, or four, or five, and blue splotches—floodwaters at high tide—begin to spread over the shoreline. At three feet, the southern end of LBI is submerged; at four feet, my parents’ place in North Beach is inundated. If you set the slider to six feet of sea-level rise, 90 percent of the island is underwater. So is Galveston, Texas; Harbor Island in Seattle; the Navy Yard in Philadelphia; AT&T Park in San Francisco; much of Savannah, Georgia; and all of Miami Beach. In New York, the areas hit hardest during Sandy—Staten Island, Red Hook, the far East Village, Battery Park—would refill with water again and again. And all that is just at high tide, twice a day. Every major coastal city from Maine to Mexico would have a flooding problem; tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, would have to adjust to a more amphibious existence.

Storms are another story. Scientists predict that, as climate change accelerates, hurricanes themselves will intensify; the warmer the water, the stronger the squall. It’s possible these storms will also venture farther north and take shape more frequently. The result is a future that starts to sound a lot like what we saw during Sandy, with huge, powerful storm surges overwashing densely populated swaths of not previously hurricane-prone shoreline. The biggest difference is that, unlike Sandy, these storms won’t have to make landfall during a full moon to inundate the coast. The rising seas will routinely give them a similar (and, eventually, larger) head start.

romano-FE02-climate-change-third Barnegat Light is one of the island’s least tamed areas. Andrew Romano

The collapse of the conventional politics of rebuilding, and of local economies, won’t be far behind. Billions will be spent to maintain our beaches and ports, to rebuild after every storm. Eventually the cost of this perpetual bailout will become so great—and the political burden of forcing inland taxpayers to subsidize the coasts will become so onerous—that the funds will begin to dry up. Some residents will be forced to relocate—a wrenching, impossible-to-imagine process for the millions of coastal dwellers who aren’t beachfront tycoons. Tourism dollars will taper off; property-tax revenue will tank. State and local governments will struggle to make ends meet.

“Of all the ongoing and expected changes from global warming,” writes Orrin Pilkey, an emeritus professor of earth sciences at Duke University and co-author of The Rising Sea, “the increase in the volume of the oceans and accompanying rise in the level of the sea will be the most immediate, the most certain, the most widespread, and the most economically visible in its effects.”

With that rather grim vision in mind, I returned to my family’s home on Long Beach Island. LBI may not have been New Jersey’s worst-hit area, but its distinctive topography—long, narrow, and varied, with both mega-mansions and trailer parks, wilderness and wing joints—made it particularly sensitive to the full spectrum of Sandy’s impact. My goal was to see whether my fellow islanders—and, by extension, the rest of us who live on the water, from New York to New Orleans—are ready to face that future.

As far as I could tell, they are not—and neither are we.

***

I meet Dan Barone in front of the Wawa convenience store at Ninth Street in Ship Bottom, right at the island’s midpoint. We’ve been here before. Actually, Barone and I have known each other since the sixth grade, first as friends and bandmates and later as the sort of teenagers who could often be seen swaying under the harsh lights of Wawa’s 24-hour hoagie counter sometime after 2 a.m.

romano-FE02-climate-change-fourth Gov. New Jersey’s Chris Christie came out in favor of protective dunes. Mel Evans/AP

Now, however, Barone is a coastal scientist. As chief geospatial analyst at New Jersey’s Richard Stockton College Coastal Research Center, he has spent the past seven years mapping and modeling the state’s shoreline—dividing it into 250-foot segments; analyzing each one for beach width, dune width, dune height, vegetation cover, and so on; then predicting how various storm events would affect the coast, from the squalls that strike every few years to the hurricanes that hit only once a century. He’s also a lifelong surfer, fisherman, and resident of Holgate, the southernmost settlement on the island. It’s fair to say that Barone, 31, understands LBI better than almost anyone, even though his style this morning (and most mornings) is more surf-shop clerk than geomorphologist.

“I see you’ve got the proper attire on,” I say. It’s an overcast 33 degrees outside, but my guide is wearing a T-shirt and a baseball cap. Through the open door of Barone’s red 2002 Toyota Tacoma pickup truck, I can hear Bruce Springsteen singing his recent single, “We Take Care of Our Own.” Barone laughs.

“This is how I roll,” he says as he fires the ignition. “Let’s see what the shoreline’s been doing.”

Long Beach Island is shaped like a big, lumpy bobby pin. At its widest point, in Ship Bottom, about half a mile separates the beach from the bay; five miles north in Harvey Cedars, the island narrows to less than 1,000 feet. Perched at LBI’s northern tip is Barnegat Light, where Barone wants to start the day.

Barnegat Light is the wildest part of the island. The beaches are thousands of feet wide, with rolling dunes and scruffy vegetation that hasn’t been cut to make room for houses; here, the piling up of sand during Sandy meant little more than the natural movement of one force of nature in response to another. We start walking toward the Atlantic. Soon we’re lost in a thicket of bayberry, Japanese black pine, and sea oak.

“This is what it looked like back in the 1800s,” Barone says. “It just used to be a big beach. And that’s part of the reason why ocean waves didn’t damage the houses here during Sandy.”

Barrier islands, as it turns out, can take care of themselves. Barone kneels down and picks at a tuft of American beach grass that’s been razed by the winter breeze; the sand billows and rolls for hundreds of yards in every direction, and the breakers are a distant din. “We’re basically standing in front of a series of dune ridges that have formed over time,” he continues—a result of organic forces and human intervention.“The general idea is that storms overwash these places. The sand that was on the beach is pushed into the bay, and the whole island moves a little further landward than it was. The dune systems start to establish themselves further landward too. If we weren’t living here, this movement would be a natural part of barrier-island evolution.”

But we are living here. “That’s the problem,” Barone says.

romano-FE02-climate-change-fifth Before Sandy, these beachfront houses in Holgate rested on mounds of sand. (Andrew Romano)

Later that day his boss, the director of the Coastal Research Center at Stockton, Stewart Farrell, explains why. “The geological concept of Long Beach Island is that it’s a snapshot in a movie,” Farrell tells me. “If you look at the whole film from 25,000 years ago, you would see this island move in various shapes and configurations from the edge of the continental shelf all the way to where it is now, 75 miles west. It’s been a 75-mile journey. But we want to put our four stakes in the ground and say, ‘It’s mine forever’ ... Well, our rules are at cross-purposes with nature’s rules. The process is happening in spite of us. And it’s going into overdrive.”

***

Barnegat Light was one of the island’s earliest communities (a boardinghouse for New York hunters opened in 1820) and it remains one of the best preserved; a handful of cedar-shingled Victorians are still standing. For nearly 200 years, they have benefited, like the rest of Barnegat Light, from some fortuitous topography: the town happens to sit a little higher than the rest of LBI.

“This is the place to buy property,” Barone says as we climb back into the truck. “You’re not going to get ocean flooding.”

Settling near a barrier island’s highest point is one solution. But not everyone is that lucky, or that prescient. Heading south from Barnegat Light, Barone enters Harvey Cedars. This is where, in 1973, Harvey and Phyllis Karan of Toms River built their dream house. Today the Karans’ place—all 2,112 square feet of it—is standing, right there on 68th Street. A bank of windows faces out onto the Atlantic; oceanfront decks hover above the dunes. The views are spectacular.

The Karan house survived Sandy for a simple reason: a gigantic dune blocks it from the sea.

We know how to protect barrier islands like LBI from rising ocean waves, at least for now. The solution is not very futuristic. In October 1991, “the Perfect Storm”—a hybrid low-pressure system not unlike superstorm Sandy, later made famous by Sebastian Junger’s bestseller and a film adaptation starring George Clooney—flooded the Jersey shore. Soon after, local officials began to petition for wider beaches and higher dunes; one community powwow at the Pyramid House in Loveladies, where Richard Nixon used to vacation, was particularly contentious. The issue was easements: documents that would give the federal government access to a small beach-side slice of each lot in order to build protective dunes. Oceanfront homeowners had two concerns. First, they worried that by allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to access their land “in perpetuity,” as the legal documents put it, they would somehow be granting politicians the right to build boardwalks and bathrooms and all sorts of other eyesores. Second, they thought the dunes themselves would block their dazzling views. To construct a system that would safeguard the entire island, the Army Corps needed 800 signatures.

Some homeowners signed on; others resisted. The Corps built dunes in Surf City, but other municipalities couldn’t convince their holdouts. Finally, in 2008, Harvey Cedars got fed up, invoked eminent domain, and gave the government the go-ahead, even though 15 of the township’s 82 easements still weren’t signed. The bulldozers moved in; the sand began to pile up. During the winters of 2009 and 2010, the Corps added an average of four feet to the Cedars dunes, raising them to 22 feet. They broadened them, as well, to a final width of more than 100 feet. And by pumping millions of metric tons of sand into the water, the Corps repelled the ocean and created a new beach that extended 200 feet into the surf.

romano-FE02-climate-change-sixth Holgate was Long Beach Island’s hardest-hit area. Noah K. Murray/The Star Ledger, via Corbis

And then the Karans sued. In court, Harvey Karan “eloquently described the way the 22-foot-high dune interfered with his view, including blocking the beach and surf view from the second-floor deck and transforming the water vista from the dining room into a view of a ‘wall of sand,’” according to official documents; in return, Karan and his wife were seeking $500,000 in lost property value from the borough of Harvey Cedars. In April 2011, the jury awarded the Karans $375,000.

After a failed series of appeals, LBI’s dune-replenishment efforts basically froze in place; given the Karan precedent, local officials could no longer afford to do what Harvey Cedars did and proceed without every last signature. “Right now, we have 190 unsigned easements total in [Long Beach] township, and if each homeowner receives $300,000, you are talking about $60 million,” Mayor Joseph Mancini said in March 2012. “It’s frustrating to see this happen.”

Sandy came ashore seven months later. For centuries Harvey Cedars had been one of the most vulnerable spots on Long Beach Island; in 1962 a massive nor’easter parked over the coast for days, carving out an inlet 80 feet wide and 20 feet deep at 79th Street and reducing the entire borough to a sliver of sand. One third of the houses in Harvey Cedars washed into the bay.

To see why Cedars fared better during Sandy, Barone and I scamper up the engineered dunes at 86th Street, a few blocks north of the Karan house. They’re almost cartoonishly wide, with little sprouts of evenly spaced dune grass on top and a long, gentle bunny-hill slope down to the surf. The nearby houses, meanwhile, are untouched; not one shingle is out of place.

“This is the start of the beach fill,” Barone says. “The dune eroded, but it withstood. Can you imagine if this wasn’t here?”

“Cedars would just be done.”

“Done,” he says. “[And] this is how much of the rest of the island would probably look,” Barone says, pointing to the pristine homes, “if they built the whole dune system.” He tilts his cap back and scratches his head. “Wait till you see Holgate.”

***

The dunes should have been the easy part. The money—$71 million—was already appropriated. The federal government had already agreed to pay two thirds of the tab. The Army Corps long ago made it clear, in writing, that they would never construct “boardwalks, concession stands, boat rental locations, municipal storage facilities or restrooms” on LBI’s beaches. And yet when Sandy hit, less than half of the island’s homes had engineered dunes in front of them.

The storm did change some minds. Ship Bottom’s Joe Barrett, once a ringleader of the resistance, backed down in December. “I was the one who led the charge,” he says. “It wasn’t about money, though. It was about being strong-armed by the government—them saying, ‘What’s ours is ours; what’s yours is negotiable’ ... But my wife had been up most of the night after Sandy, watching the news and crying. In 37 years she’s never said, ‘I want this, and I want that.’ But that morning she told me, ‘I want you to do this for the town and the people.’ So we did.”

By the end of 2012, the number of holdouts in Holgate had shrunk from 27 to five; the last one relented in February. But elsewhere on the island, dozens of oceanfront homeowners are still refusing to sign. “I don’t need the Army Corps of Engineers,” says Robert Herdelin, a banker who owns three properties in Loveladies, the island’s wealthiest community, including a $15 million oceanfront mansion that was recently named the eighth-priciest home in New Jersey. “I spent in excess of $100,000 to build my own bulletproof dunes. It cost me a lot of money. And I think if you’re going to live on the ocean, you ought to have the wherewithal to turn around and protect yourself.”

The day before I meet up with Barone, I drag my dad, an MSNBC Democrat, to a Chris Christie town-hall meeting at the Saint Mary of the Pines Parish Center in Manahawkin, on the mainland. True to form, Christie begins to rip into the dune holdouts as soon as he steps up to the microphone.

“Let me just tell you how I feel about this. Some of you may like it; some of you may not. But here’s the bottom line. There are going to be homeowners up and down the shore who again don’t want to sign these easements and have these dunes built. Who don’t want the dunes to block their view.” Someone in the audience lets out a decidedly unsympathetic “awww.” That seems to be the governor’s cue. “We had people lose their lives in the storm!” he shouts. “We had people lose everything they owned in this storm—to protect your view.” He stares down at his mike for a second, then looks up to deliver the punchline.

“Sorry.”

The crowd roars. It’s a masterful performance—a concerto of sarcasm and umbrage—and Christie concludes with a flourish. “These people need to know I’m going to do everything I can do,” he says, “to make sure these dunes get built.”

But it’s still not clear how much the governor can help push the holdouts—and easements are only part of the problem. When a storm surge assaults a barrier island, it doesn’t just smash into the oceanfront dunes; it rushes into the bay behind the island as well, pouring over bulkheads and filling streets and yards with water. During Sandy, a nine-foot bay-side surge inundated much of LBI, including the areas protected by engineered dunes. “Half of the Sandy damage was tidal flooding,” says Barone’s boss, Farrell. “You can’t stop it. But there is an answer: it’s called raise ’em up.”

As with the dunes, that’s much easier said than done. Since 1969, every house erected on the island has been perched on pilings, with living quarters suspended at least 10 feet above sea level. Few if any of these homes were totaled by Sandy. But much of the island’s housing stock is still pre-1969.

After the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reminded residents that it was updating its outdated flood maps; the new maps, long in the works, would tell coastal dwellers exactly how high they’d have to elevate their homes in order to avoid paying vastly higher flood-insurance premiums in our warmer, wetter future. The response was outrage—raising a house requires hydraulic jacks and typically costs tens of thousands of dollars—and in Manahawkin, Christie gets an earful from middle-class locals struggling to come to grips with the impossible choice they’re now being asked to make.

“Nothing whatsoever happened to my house in this last storm,” says Susan Grossman, a retiree in a red V-neck sweater. “But then I got a letter from my flood-insurance company saying they’re going to put me in the flood zone—and they’re going to raise my rates from $365 to $1,700.” The crowd gasps.

“We’re going to be forced to raise our homes or pay more flood insurance,” adds Joanna Connelly, who has been bunking with her sister in Morristown ever since Sandy forced her to completely gut the house in Beach Haven West that she occupied for 15 years. “They’re pushing the American Dream right out of our grasp. We’re wondering whether to walk away.”

The people who live in LBI’s Cape Cods and in the modest bungalows on the mainland side of the bay are not the same people who occupy the island’s massive beachfront mansions. Long Beach Island is not their summer playground. They are retirees living on fixed incomes, like Grossman, and former public-school employees, like my parents. They are landscapers, construction workers, waiters, and bartenders—the support staff that binds the community together. They are families who have owned on the island for generations; who bought long before the boom; who have yet to receive any money from the stonewalling insurance companies, even though floodwaters totaled their homes; and who are now being told they must pony up for pilings, or higher premiums, or else leave the island. They are despairing. They don’t see a way out.

Christie knows this. Three or four times he tells them that federal grants are on their way. But after a few testimonials like Connelly’s and Grossman’s, he seems to run out of steam. Finally, near the end of the event, he says something that no one in the room wants to hear: that life on the Jersey shore is, sadly, only going to get harder in the decades ahead.

“The fact of the matter is that there are choices that have to be made here, and they are unpleasant choices,” Christie admits. “If you live on the water, given everything that has happened in past couple of years, the damages that have occurred ...” He trails off. “Think about what’s gone on since I’ve been governor. We’ve had Irene. We’ve had Sandy. We’ve had these incredible snowstorms. We’ve had flooding from nor’easters. I’m waiting for, like, the locusts to come flying in.” The crowd laughs. “I mean, it’s been an insane three years. And so, as the risk continues to go up, the premiums have to reflect that. In this new world, living on the coast will be more expensive.”

I noticed my dad, the Democrat, is nodding. He leans over. “If you’re living on the water, you’re going to have to pay the price,” he whispers. “We have to accept reality.” But right now, on LBI—whether because of views or finances or plain old cussedness—it’s clear that many people don’t. And that's the scary thing, because long term, these are baby steps: the steps that Sandy just told us, in no uncertain terms, that we have to take immediately, or else.

The tough part comes later. Even if global carbon emissions suddenly flat-lined tomorrow, we would still be on track to endure several centuries of warmer weather, rising sea levels, and deadlier, possibly more frequent storms. If in 2100 the sea is six feet higher than it is right now—again, a distinct possibility—we won’t be worrying about easements and pilings anymore. In cities like New York, which would, at that point, experience two thirds of Sandy’s nine-foot surge on a daily basis, the debate will revolve around advanced waterproof architecture and a Rotterdam-esque system of dams, barriers, and sea walls. On Long Beach Island, meanwhile, the options will be decidedly lower tech. Raising the entire island: roads, yards, everything. Rolling easements, which would accommodate the landward migration of LBI by relocating oceanfront homeowners to new bay-front lots. And, perhaps, a network of levees around the entire landmass. Each of these plans would be far more painful, and pricy, than the changes currently causing so much controversy on LBI. And in the end, even they may be futile.

***

Barone has been driving south on Long Beach Boulevard for a dozen miles now. A couple of towns back, we passed the house of a friend and former bandmate—a white Cape Cod with teal shutters where we used to nod off in our sandals after long nights on the beach. It looked fine from the outside, the same as we remembered. Inside, nothing was left but two-by-fours. Tidal flooding from the bay had rotted the walls and floors, leaving only the husk of a house behind.

Farther south, in Beach Haven, we cross paths with Mike Curtis, a year-round resident who got stuck on the island when pre-storm flooding made the streets impassable. “It was freaky,” Curtis tells us. “Really freaky. Our whole house is surrounded by fence, and you’re watching that cave in. I was even out in the street at one point, taking pictures. Next thing you know, the storm surge was, like, five feet, coming through. I could have been washed away. I had to leap up on the deck. A minute later, I turn around, and the staircase is gone. I didn’t even know where it went. It just disappeared somewhere.”

Now, finally, Barone is approaching Holgate—the southern end of the island, his home base since 1984. This has always been LBI’s most unstable settlement, geologically speaking: only 19 houses survived the 1944 hurricane, and inlets have sliced the town in half six or seven times since 1800. I ask Barone if he knew what Sandy was going to do to Holgate. “I had a good idea,” he says.

We drive in silence. The oceanfront houses used to rest on mounds of sand; now the sand is gone, and they hover overhead like creatures from a Miyazaki film—sad cabins tottering on spidery stilts, 20 feet off the ground, one after the other. Nearby, a yellow house, torn from its foundation, slumps over in what used to be its driveway; another is just a toppled scalene triangle, its roof half submerged in the dirt. We stop in front of a friend’s place on Inlet Road. It’s crumpled up like wastepaper and leaning into the neighboring property, one lot west of where it used to be. “I spent many a night hanging out on that back porch,” Barone says, shaking his head. “I mean, the storm was amazing. The science of it is incredible. But it’s heartbreaking, too. Part of your childhood, gone in an instant.”

We head over to Barone’s house, a block away. During the storm, four tons of debris—“wood, fencing, recycle bins, bicycles, sand”—barreled into his garage and ripped through the rear wall. “It was very upsetting,” he says. “It still is. It’s upsetting right now.”

I ask if this—Holgate—is the future of the island. “Much of the climate-change science is pointing to more frequent, intense storms,” Barone says. “Combine that with sea-level rise, and it’s just ... going to be bad. The beach was so narrow here, the storm started eating away at the dune early on. It had no cushion. And the idea is that on a developed island, as sea level rises, you’re going to get narrower beaches. If the beaches are narrow and the dunes get attacked way earlier during a storm, there’s not much you can do.”

Barone and I are standing in his backyard, staring at his patio. Thanks to Sandy, it is floating in the lagoon. “So what happens here long term?” I ask.

“A few hundred years long term?” Barone says. “People aren’t going to be here.”

Until then—until they can’t—people will rebuild. They will return. Some will raise their kids on the island; others will come when school lets out for the summer. And they will still live by the sea.

Earlier this year, a few months after Sandy—when the mud had been shoveled from the garage, and the drywall had been replaced, and the yard had been put back together—my parents finally decided to sell the house in North Beach. They’d been considering a move for some time. “I don’t have a good feeling about it,” my dad told me after the Christie event. We were eating enchiladas at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

“You don’t have a good feeling about what?” I asked.

“The future of the shore,” he said. “Fifty years ago, I could have done it. But now everything’s conspiring. The elements. It’s all happening much faster now.”

A few days later a couple came by the house. Potential buyers. A real estate agent showed them around. They were from SoHo, she said, and they were deciding between two houses: ours and another one. We eventually heard that they went with the other one. It was closer to the ocean.

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