This is To See Each Other, where we explore how people are reshaping small town America, and why writing it off as Trump country hurts us all. I'm George Goehl, and we're headed to an unexpected front line of climate change in one of the small, traditionally conservative communities that is fighting: Ocean County, New Jersey.
If you talk to lifers from the South Jersey Shore, they sound like poets as they talk about their home, giant pine forests, cranberry bogs, fields of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and tomatoes, the perfect Jersey tomato. Clams and oysters are packed in Barnegat Bay and a deep bluegrass tradition that stretches up from Appalachia is the soundtrack of the community.
Visit the South Jersey Shore in the mid 1900s and you'd find a paradise for white working class families. Mostly year long residents making a living in agriculture or fishing, living in little bungalows, carving out their tiny piece of the ocean. Not everyone saw eye to eye on say political or social issues in this primarily conservative community, but they shared this place. It was a kind of white working class dream, even as wealthy second homeowners from the big cities started encroaching on the shoreline. Today, these folks with their toes in the Atlantic are at the frontline of one of the greatest crises of our time, climate change.
New Jersey is one of the fastest warming states with the most climate impacts. Its temperature has climbed two degrees celsius in the past century, double that of the rest of mainland America. With that rising temperature comes record storms, rain, rising sea levels, and flooding, so much flooding. In the fall of 2012, that crisis came in the shape of Hurricane Sandy, which caused nearly 70 billion in damages across the United States.
Over the course of four days in New Jersey, Sandy reeked havoc. 37 people were killed, two million homes lost power and 346,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. What's terrifying, of course, is that because of climate change, more Sandys are going to come more frequently, more intensely and be even more damaging, but not everyone who's affected by climate change necessarily believes in it.
Many of those folks were in South Jersey. In these communities, whatever their beliefs, needed immediate relief. We're going to hear some of their stories today and also think about how disasters can destroy and create community often at the same time. And in a time where it feels like we're living in one catastrophic disaster after another, we have a lot to learn from these Sandy stories. We're going to hear now from three Sandy survivors, Jody Stewart, Alison Arne, and Chuck Griffin, all of whom had their lives upended by the storm. First up Jody, who was working in the bait and tackle industry when the storm hit.
My town, first of all, is Mystic Island, New Jersey. It's a small community of 21,000 people total on just in a small little fishing community, small houses, 1300 square foot, the original 1960 homes. I've been in this community since 1989 and working in bait and tackle for 25 years. When Superstorm Sandy was barreling up our coast, I thought what's the worst that can happen? Food and water. We're always getting storm areas. I was like so many people, just out there thinking, nothing. And I was preparing my attic, believe it or not, to move into my attic with my husband through the storm. I was fortunate enough though, the night before the storm came, as I was finishing preparing the upstairs in case we had to go up there, people I vaguely knew called me and said, "Do you have a place to go?" And I said no. And they said, "Come to our house."
So I packed up three hours later, ended up at these people's homes with my three cats, my husband, two days worth of clothes and thought I'd ride the storm out with them. It was a couple of miles from my house. I thought, "We'll be fine. We'll be home in a day or two." And three hours later, we lost electricity and things really started changing. The next morning, I got a picture from one of the neighbors, a picture of my house and the water was already up to my windows, and the storm hadn't even hit us yet. The eye of the storm had not come over. So I knew at that moment, we were in big trouble.
Hurricane Sandy is serious. It has already killed 21 people in Haiti, Jamaica, and Cuba, and she is setting her sights on the East Coast of the US.
This storm is basically one of the largest we've ever seen.
You want to get out of the way of this storm. It is going to be a supercharged beast when it comes on shore.
From the air destruction, as far as the eye can see. Fires smoldering, some still burning, even after the worst winds had passed.
The level of devastation at the Jersey shore is unthinkable.
I do remember walking down the street and looking at boats that were hanging on electrical wires. I do remember the first smell opening my house. We couldn't do anything but open the door, look at the disaster and close the door, walk away again. So we didn't even start working on her home probably until three days after the storm, is when people showed up at our house and just started helping us take everything we owned and put it on our yard. Anything that got wet had to go because it wasn't just water that got us, it was black water. So it was contaminated, raw sewage. There was no way you wanted to keep anything including a picture that was hanging on your wall because now it was also infected with mold and anything else that was growing. Of course, the marina I worked in at that time was totally destroyed. Totally destroyed. There was no pathway back for me for employment until the next spring, and I think I didn't go back to work until May. Yeah, so I was out of work a long time. We basically financially lived off of compassionate people.
Alison Arne and her partner were living in Atlantic City in 2012. They had just had a baby girl together and they were preparing to move from an apartment to a new house right before the storm hit.
I think it was just a false sense of security that even though we were on a barrier Island, as long as we were close to the casinos, we would always be high priority. We were really lucky. Fortunately, we didn't have any damage to any of our belongings. We didn't lose anything. Our new next door neighbor was great. Helped us dry out. Our landlord was phenomenal. And we just thought, okay, the storm has hit and now we're going to go into recovery mode. We're pretty much okay and our neighbors are going to be okay. The appearances were good. FEMA was there right from that very first weekend that we were back. They were out canvassing and making sure that people were able to file their claims and get recovery going. And we just didn't know. We didn't know the process and we didn't know how bad people were struggling.
Our landlord and his wife were phenomenal, but he notified us really nicely that he was going to put the house on the market. He didn't know if the buyer was somebody that was going to rent or not. And we weighed our options. Do we wait and see if this new homeowner wants to rent? Are they going to jack up the price? Or are we going to have to within 30 days be out of the house with nowhere to go?
So what was supposed to be just a couple of months maybe separation, I went to my parents with the baby and he went to his with his older daughter. We thought it would be a couple months, and six years later, you know? And I mean, also it put tremendous strain on the relationship, which led to a breakup. And six years later, we're both homesick for Atlantic City, but there really has been no options.
When we were getting ready to move from Atlantic City back inland, I just cried that day because I felt like such a failure that I wasn't able to keep a roof over my family's head, and there were a lot of people who felt exactly the same way, or if they didn't get into the RREM program or they were being clawbacked, they thought it was because they had done something wrong, even though they had followed every direction they were given by a government official or an agency official. And when we isolate and we feel this shame, what we're not doing is connecting with people who are being impacted in the same way. And then we're not fighting for the changes we need.
Because I didn't lose a house in the way that homeowners do or we weren't immediately displaced as other renters were, I just didn't even put it together that I was a Sandy survivor. It took about a year before I was finally able to say, "This disaster impacted my family and we're still feeling the effects of that." And to this day my ex will say, "It's the move that killed us."
Chuck Griffin and his wife Roxie were sheltering safely at an evacuation center during the storm, but their own home was nearly ruined. It saw four feet of water during Hurricane Sandy. And like so many of their neighbors, they had to figure out what to do and who to trust as they got back on their feet.
In like the first six months or so after the storm, everybody was just walking around like zombies. They didn't know the next thing to do. They didn't know the first step to make. Who do I contact? What do I do? Do I build now? Do I wait? Do I tear it down? Do I elevate the existing house? Do I build a new house? People, just all questions and no advice. I don't know if it was six months or a year went by, and then we started to get rumors about the government in an effort to get us to all elevate our houses so we can survive the next storm. The government was going to give us a $150,000 grant if you elevate your house on pilings.
Pretty much when we heard about the grant, we got a builder. He was from up the street and his kids went through the school system and he was the coach of the basketball team. He was the greatest guy in the world. We signed papers with him and we gave him a one-third deposit, which was $50,000. And he never did a lick of work to our house or any of the other contracts that he had signed. So he just gambled the money way. So 40 clients, of which I was one of them, got taken for the deposit that we left with him. So, he had his different people that he did fraud on, and they were in many different counties. So it became a court case on the state level, which took a long, long time. It took every bit of two years before we got the judge to say, "Okay, you're guilty." So that took two years of just waiting.
In the initial aftermath of the storm, aid poured in. FEMA approved 31 million in federal aid for New Jersey. 300 Marines were flown in to help with cleanup efforts. The TS Kennedy, a US Maritime service ship, provided housing for emergency workers and power crews as they cleaned up, but it still felt inadequate.
After the storm, it wasn't the big companies that came in to help us, the Red Crosses and things like that. It was our community who came and stepped forward and started a food bank and knocked on your door. It was the local churches who stood up and said, What can we do? Do you need boxes? Can we help you gut your house? And that's what this community was. I guess it still can be once it's recovered. We're still not recovered. There are still people not home. There's many people who sold and left, and then there's those people who lost their homes because they couldn't afford to keep them. Some of us were getting money from our insurance companies, but we were underpaid so drastically.
And I had no clue who this organization was, but I was called by a friend of mine who said, "Jody, come to this meeting at the local luncheonette." And I showed up and it was packed. And here was a few people talking about the recovery and how we need to make change to be able to recover. And I started understanding that we had to do things as a community to make the changes we needed, or none of us were ever going to get home.
That meeting at the luncheonette was put together by the New Jersey Organizing Project, initiated by Amanda Devecka-Rinear, a long time People's Action organizer and our former national campaign director. A lot of organizers choose to work in places that already lean left. Amanda intentionally went to work in a place that is conservative. Amanda is one of my favorite organizers. She's fearless, she's hopeful and she's visionary. She truly understands that in small town New Jersey, you need to be able to sit at a table and build relationships with people that are wildly different from you. As she says, "What satisfaction do I get in being right? I want to get things done and build a better future."
She is right, of course. Case in point, climate change. Excluding people from the fight because they don't believe in climate change, it won't keep the seawater from rising. It won't keep the floods at bay and it certainly won't stop another Sandy.
In fact, it closes the door on the potential for deeper relationships and a more nuanced conversation on those things that divide us most. So, Amanda went back to her childhood home of southern New Jersey after Sandy hit. She founded the New Jersey Organizing Project with nine other Sandy survivors. It was the storm after the storm, when they wrestled with the longterm effects of the hurricane and asked themselves, what do we do after people are fed and sheltered? How do we prepare ourselves better for the next disaster? How do we rebuild not what we had, but instead what we need for a better future? One answer is the NJOP's work on fighting climate change with clean and renewable energy, working to integrate wind energy into the fabric of the community.
People were in so much hurt. Imagine the worst storm you've ever seen in your lifetime comes and your government is going to take care of you, or it says it's going to take care of you, the federal government, FEMA, and then the state government. And it's just not working. There's this $150,000 grant program you're supposed to be getting through this to get home. Your neighbors and friends and family that weren't Sandy impacted are still saying to you, "Oh, you're not home yet?" And it's like, "Oh, well, what am I doing wrong? How am I messing this up?" And I just felt like there were thousands of my friends and neighbors broadly that were sitting somewhere alone being like, "Well, what am I screwing up?" And I knew that it was important that we could create a place that all of them could come to no matter who they voted for or what party they were registered for and understand, you're not screwing up. There's a system in place that needs to be fixed in order for you to succeed, and we have to come together and do that.
You cannot battle it out as an individual. Only if we join all of our experiences and all of our stories, can we diagnose this properly. And then only can we have the oomph that we need to reform the system at the state level.
My understanding is the extreme weather events like Sandy do politicize people or wake people around climate change. That's an assumption. And then also, I know you're an organization that you can be a part of the organization whether you believe in climate change or not. That's not the thing. How do you hold that complexity?
It is complex. It's remarkable how we can be next to each other and experience the same thing and have just wildly different interpretations of it. But what I've learned is no matter how wildly different our interpretations are, we can often end up agreeing about the thing that we need to do, especially immediately to fix it. So I think the thing with climate change is no matter how we understand it, we are all stuck in our houses when it floods and we can't get out, can't get to work, can't go to the doctor, can't go to the store and pick up something you're out of. So what we try to do is just we've got some scientists that are part of the organization that are local folks that have also experienced Sandy, and I'm so grateful for them. And we try to say, "Look, these people think this thing and our organization does too, but you don't have to agree with us. I think no matter what you think, we can agree we've got to do something about the flooding."
So we can look at immediate mitigation efforts. I just lifted my house. That's a huge mitigation effort for flooding. More people need to be able to do that. We could think about roads and expanding the marshes. There's all kinds of ways we can shift our communities to be able to live with the water we're seeing. I don't know anybody that doesn't agree with that, no matter why they think that's happening. So we can all unite around that. Then it gets a little bit harder, if you think about, well, we've got to adjust to live with the water that's happening, but how do we prevent it from getting worse? So that's when you start to get into the question of does this have something to do with fossil fuel and emissions? You just picture those spewing smokestack.
And if you think the answer is yes, then that means wanting to shift to other kinds of energy and other ways of fueling things. And again, you come to this decision point where you say, "Look, we love the idea of New Jersey expanding offshore wind," which is something that our governor was really focused on, "and we want to make sure it benefits our communities." And you can work with us on that if you think it's important to have offshore wind because it's related to climate change, or if you think it's important to have offshore wind because you want to see better jobs. Either way, come on it and let's work on this together. I don't know why we think everybody has to agree with us. Being right doesn't really matter, but we get so attached to it. What we need to see is changes in our community that make us have better lives. And I don't have to be right about anything to get that.
I feel like you all have a unique experience to bring to the fore right now, in that you've organized in a disaster and brought people together that maybe wouldn't be together in the context of a disaster. What do you feel like you have to teach as we're in one of the greatest disasters in American history?
Stop blaming yourself. Something's going wrong right now. And even if you could do everything exactly right, you are still going to be struggling, and don't let that isolate you from people you care about or other people who might be facing the same problems. This is such a critical time for all of us that are the experts in our own experience. What each of us is going through now with COVID makes us an expert in that. We've got to bring that together, share those and create a picture of what's going on, diagnose the problem. And we're going to have to do something about it.
Damn, I'm glad Amanda's an organizer. Letting go of that self-blame when disasters strike and honoring our own lived expertise, as we navigate through disaster, that's a lesson to take to heart. And those lessons, they're going to be necessary as we stare down another hurricane season, another election season and further attempts to divide us. We all have something we want to protect, be it our homes, our families, our communities, or our natural landscapes. And for most of us, they're one in the same. The risk of losing the communities of the New Jersey Shore due to rising waters isn't hyperbole or a metaphor. It's a reality. But when the community comes together to organize, we can hold onto the hope that we can transform that reality. And maybe even, as you'll hear from Jody, Alison and Chuck, have the opportunity to transform ourselves.
The water is our livelihood and our lives. It's who we are. If you asked my husband tomorrow if he would move anywhere else, he would say no, he has salt water in his blood. This is what keeps him alive. So it's our life. But I know from reading scientific research, that my house ... Well, I can't say my house, because I'm 15 feet in the air now. I am elevated. But there will be water underneath my house by 2050. If we don't do something to change things, there will be water, so my community will be gone. They've already done a study for Mystic Island, which is part of Little Egg Harbor, a couple of years back, to buy out 100 homes. Then there was another one to buy out 500 homes. So they know that my community will be disappearing and they're thinking about what to do.
My thought is I don't want to leave. This is where I live. This is where I breathe. This is what I fight for. But there's a chance down the road, especially if I have another storm, we will have to leave before. It's always underwater. I know my community is doing what it can, but it's all a bandaid. It's a bandaid. We're raising streets. It's a bandaid. We are building living shorelines. It's a bandaid. But the main thing is changing people's thoughts, minds, having policies set in place for change. And if there is another disaster, we're already ready for it, prepared for it and make it easier on the next people so it's not as traumatic.
Alison, for her part, isn't letting go of that vision of New Jersey community, not for herself or her young daughter.
As a parent, you look at your kid and you think your kid's perfect and great. And my daughter's always had a flare for drama, even as an infant. I think one day I just looked at her as a baby and was like, "She's just going to realize how great she is one day. And she's going to take off. This is just not going to be a big enough arena for her and she's going to go find her way in the world." And then she found Jersey tomatoes. And I realized that even if that day ever came or she moved away, she'd always come back home and she'd always be a Jersey girl. And now I look around at this child who loves the beach. She goes all the time at my parents and she's such a Jersey girl, but I just look at communities that are dealing with flooding and how it's coming inland and how outside interests talk about managed retreat.
And now I'm worried that it's not going to be that Amara wants to leave New Jersey. It's going to be that she has to leave New Jersey because I can't think what would happen if all of a sudden we started to lose our barrier islands as a place to live. I just get really worried that there's going to come a time where her choices are going to be taken from her. And that's, I think really why I fight so hard, is because I don't want anybody to feel like they don't have a choice. If you want to leave because you feel like that's what's secure for your family, that should be your choice, but it should also be a choice for communities to either retreat together or to adapt together and figure out what that is. And then the resources need to be there to help them do that.
The New Jersey Organizing Project has done just that. Chuck, who was displaced from his home for more than five years, is finally back. He's doing direct actions. He's telling his story to politicians near and far, and he's bringing his neighbors along with him in the fight.
On the wall in my mother-in-law's house, she has a picture on the wall and it's me and Senator Menendez and Cory Booker and our new Governor Murphy. And she has that hanging on the wall and it's amazing. I never knew a politician in my LA life. And here I am with it with these guys, and I had met with them many times, and told them what was on my mind, and I had learned how to do it in a nice way. And then one of the most inspirational things we did is we spent three days in Trenton across from the State House. We set up a big wall that had all of our pictures and newspaper articles and whatnot on it. And we slept on the sidewalk and we marched back and forth all day and we answered questions to anybody who had them, and the politicians came in and out of the State House and came over to say hi. I said, "Boy, getting stuff done is neat."
So, I liked it. And also I was helping me and I was helping everyone else. It was so nice. If I was at someplace and you saw somebody that was down in the dumps about ever since the storm, they haven't been able to get themselves back. And I would say to them, "Look, you call this number and we will get advice to you. I might not be able to answer every question, but we'll be able to hook you up with somebody who can." And that was good. Being active in this thing, I've either gotten other people to become active in it also, or I've answered questions to people, so a lot of people know, "Hey, you can ask Chuck this." We had an open house meeting at this house, so everybody came here to my house and met me and heard my sister, Florie. And you give out a lot of advice and it's nice. So, that whole being involved part, I never would have thought that would be me, but it is me, and it's good.
At People's Action, we call people to act in the spirit of joyous rebellion. I can think of nothing more joyful than Chuck growing into his power in his community as he helps others navigate their way through a disaster. In the aftermath of Sandy, one could say, "Damn, this is crushing me, my family and my community. I'm sad about it. I'm mad about it. And it's not my fault that I'm in this situation." But much of what we are taught is that every single bad thing that happens to us is our fault. It's an impossible standard to hold ourselves to. And the shame that comes with that can be as personally devastating as the disaster itself. It certainly can keep us from recovering. As Amanda points out, it actually isolates us. And that separation hurts on so many levels, not least of all in our rebuilding efforts.
We live in a period of crisis. Last winter, I read Jill Lepore's These Truths, an incredible history of what became the United States. And reading a 750 page account of the US, you see periods of relative stability alternating with periods of extended crises, one after the other, often lasting decades. In that cycle, like it or not, apparently it's our turn to live in a period of upheaval. One of the gravest upheavals, climate change, it's a relentless disaster. It will wreak havoc on entire regions, countries, and continents, which will need to be rebuilt and reorganized. While we do all we can to prevent that decimation from happening, we also have to learn from the rebuilding and recovery that we do do. We must think about the storm after the storm, the health and economic effects of a climate event, yes, but also the storms of all of our ongoing crises.
The longterm stress of living with coronavirus, the impacts of police brutality on black bodies and on our collective souls, and even the toxicity of this election season. They all have the potential to make us give up on each other. But I do feel hope in our re-imagining of the future. I feel hope seeing people on the South Jersey Shore come together to rebuild after a disaster, even when they don't agree on the cause of that disaster. And I feel hope in the place we'll travel next, a rural county in North Carolina, creating an identity outside of its history of white supremacy and elevating groundbreaking voices to lead the community from within.
For more incredible stories of strength and transformation and how you can learn more about the New Jersey Organizing Project, head to our website peoplesaction.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. To See Each Other is produced by People's Action and The Mash-Up Americans. It is executive produced by Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer. Our senior producer is Sara Pellegrini. Our development producer is Melissa Lo and our production manager is Shelby Sandlin. To See Each Other is sound designed by Pedro Rafael Rosato. Original music by The Tang Brothers.