Sea Breeze, N.J. was a small neighborhood along the Delaware Bay with a distinct aroma of salt and mud. A year before the New Jersey government bought out the neighborhood, my family made the mistake of trying to drive to our house in Sea Breeze without checking the tides.
About half a mile away from the house, we realized that the water covering the road was too deep. We weren't able to turn around, so my brother threw the car into reverse. For about a mile, my brother backed my dad’s clunky truck down the twisted access road. My brother and grandma were hooting and hollering, trying to navigate the car through the salty water. My dad, who did not find the situation as funny, kept saying that we had to hurry so the salt water didn't damage his undercarriage. Once my brother made it safely back onto dry ground, we had to wait a couple of hours until Mother Nature let us get back to the house.
This was not the first time tides had flooded the road. For generations, my mother’s family battled with rising water. From years of experience, we developed strategies for dealing with it. Like how Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz always follows the yellow brick road, we always followed our road’s double yellow lines. Driving down the middle of the road prevented you from going into the marsh. You also needed to memorize the locations of guardrails. During a flood, they were likely to disappear, and hitting a guardrail would dent your car or poke a hole into your boat. If you needed to escape during a flood, you battered down the hatches, parked the cars where the tavern used to be, hopped in someone’s boat, and navigated down the double yellow lines. Hopefully, your car would still be there when the bay stopped having a tantrum.
Discussions at Penn on rising sea levels emphasize the future. Many of our ecology courses focus on what will happen in decades if we do not intervene today. Conversations on climate change seem to be one–sided: Everyone agrees that the state should swoop in and take action. However, many of my classmates seem to forget that environments are local. My family and the community of Sea Breeze know what happens when the state does not work with locals to develop policies.
Our whole community fought tidal erosion together. Using pilings, rocks, and wood, families built bulkheads, or walls that prevent sediment erosion. If there was no one to build a bulkhead in front of a lot, the neighbors pooled together resources to protect that portion of the road. Despite this, sections of the road washed away over time. Each year, we put down a new layer of dirt and gravel. One year, we made the mistake of buying clamshells, which burned and scratched at our feet until our soles hardened into leather. The neighborhood asked the township for money to help with the road, but it didn't have the resources for us. Instead, it pointed us to the state.
The state decided that it needed to build its own seawall to prevent road erosion. Instead of the community constructing and maintaining its own bulkheads, the state wanted one uniform wall to surround the entirety of the neighborhood. Because a state–endorsed wall sounded so promising, the community members signed an agreement allowing the state to do what it wanted.
As the project began, we realized that we had made a mistake. The Division of Coastal Engineering at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) sent an inexperienced head engineer to Sea Breeze. He started building a wall that was more suited for rivers than the bay. After ripping up our pilings, he sloped cinder blocks down into the bay. Instead of backfilling with gravel or a heavy substrate, he used sand.
After generations of building bulkheads, members of the community knew what worked. Sand was too light, and the tides would wash it away. We thought that the wall would fall within a few years. We voiced our concerns, but the NJDEP did not listen. Sea Breeze was a neighborhood of blue–collar workers, and the head engineer felt that the community didn't have the education to have an opinion on the wall. He backfilled the wall with sand, and the project failed catastrophically within two years. Instead of portions of the road washing away, the entire road was swept quickly into the bay.
Instead of owning up to its mistake, the state decided to purchase all of the homes in the neighborhood. Due to climate change, there would be a challenging combination of rising sea levels and an increase in severe weather events. It seemed like the state didn't think it would be worth it to protect the community. Although Sea Breeze was one of the first communities to be bought out, the state purchased many other coastal neighborhoods in Cumberland County.
If Governor Christie believes that climate change is not a crisis, why was his administration willing to admit that the tides would decimate communities along the Delaware Bay? While the state continues to protect towns that attract tourists along the Jersey Shore, those that are not as flashy do not receive the same aid. Some communities are apparently worth the effort, while others should just melt into the sea.
Within a year or two, Sea Breeze became a ghost town. My mother refused to sell her lot. Now it's just a piece of sand, but we go back a few times a year. Whenever we drive down the washed–out road, a sense of melancholic nostalgia laps over us. Pointing at empty lots of sand, my mom tells stories about the neighbors who used to live there. As she talks, I always think about the experiences that generations of my family lived through that I will never know. The crabs I will never trap. The card games I will never play. The greenhead bites that will never sting me. My own memories of Sea Breeze and the community are fading, slowly eroded by time.
So when my classmates talk about the future of our oceans, my mind is fixated on the past and present. While I want us to take action to protect our oceans, my optimism is fatigued by my own experiences with failed state policies. Rising sea levels may be a global phenomenon, but they have effects on local populations and cultures. By working with and listening to communities, we can build better policies and protect endangered neighborhoods. Although losing my family’s generational home has jaded me, the fight to protect coastal communities is not over. The tides continue to rise.