In Massachusetts, Coastal Residents Consider How To Adapt To Climate Change

Feb 17, 2017

Living by the ocean might sound nice, but in the era of climate change, it's a risky proposition.

As sea levels rise, coastal residents are faced with tough choices: try to fortify their homes, move to higher ground or just pull up roots and leave.

Homeowners in Nahant, Mass., are grappling with these wrenching questions. The community lies on a rocky crescent moon of land in the Atlantic Ocean just north of Boston.

For its entire history, it has been at the mercy of the ocean.

To get to the town back in the 1800s, you would cross a beautiful beach at low tide that connected it to the mainland. At high tide, you had to take a boat. These days, there's a four-lane road built on that beach, and it sits just a few feet above the water.

Climate scientists predict that devastation of these areas from storms will become more common. Higher seas mean even a less powerful storm could push the tides up over Nahant's seawalls.

That is a problem Sam Merrill spends his days grappling with. He works with a firm that helps communities protect themselves from storms.

"The unfortunate thing is what we're really facing in so many of these coastal areas is what you can rightly call an extinction threat — the extinction of a community," Merrill says. "We don't know how to deal with extinction. It's not really a conversation in our public sphere."

Use the audio link above to hear the full story.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Living by the ocean might sound nice. In the time of climate change, it can be risky. As sea levels rise, people who live near the coast have tough choices - try to fortify their homes, move to higher ground or just leave. Sam Evans-Brown, host of New Hampshire Public Radio's podcast "Outside/In," has this story about homeowners dealing with these decisions.

SAM EVANS-BROWN, BYLINE: Nahant, Mass., is a rocky crescent moon of land out in the Atlantic Ocean just north of Boston. For its entire history, it's been at the mercy of the ocean. To get to the town back in the 1800s, you'd cross a long, beautiful beach at low tide that connected it to the mainland. At high tide, you had to take a boat. These days, there's a four-lane road built on that beach, and it sits just a few feet above the water.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

DAVE LAZARRO: Hi, how you doing?

EVANS-BROWN: I'm doing well. How are you?

Dave Lazarro is a retired bartender and a woodworker.

D. LAZARRO: When the weather's good and in the summer, there was no prettier, nicer place. We have a private beach. We have a great view. The shipping lanes of Boston come right in front of our house, so all the big ships that come in, we can see. And I love it. I love my house.

EVANS-BROWN: The house Lazarro shares with his wife, Chris, is full of his carvings. It's kind of a comforting nautical clutter. He and Chris have lived on Willow Road for nearly 50 years in a house that at high tide is a stone's throw from the water.

More than 120 million people live in counties on the United States Coast, but anyone living on the water knows you get the beautiful summer days but also the brutal storms.

D. LAZARRO: When a storm comes in, the house shakes. You can literally feel it.

EVANS-BROWN: Back during the Blizzard of 1978, Dave Lazarro tried to ride out the storm in his home.

D. LAZARRO: When we finally decided to leave, the current was so strong in front of the house that I had to take - I had a boat at the time, and I had an anchor in the cellar. And I took the anchor, swung it around, threw it over across the street and hooked it onto the chain-link fence. And we use that as security in case we got swept.

EVANS-BROWN: As the seas rise, climate scientists predict devastation like this will become more and more common. Higher seas will mean even a less-powerful storm could push the tides up over Nahant's seawalls. This is a problem that Sam Merrill spends his days grappling with. He works with a firm that helps communities protect themselves from storms.

SAM MERRILL: The unfortunate thing is, what we're really facing in so many of these coastal areas is what you can rightly call an extinction threat - the extinction of a community. We don't know how to deal with extinction. It's not really a conversation in our public sphere.

EVANS-BROWN: One independent group of climate scientists estimates that about 12 million people could be at risk. That's 12 million people who need answers.

MERRILL: You always have three options - fortify, accommodate and relocate.

EVANS-BROWN: If this sounds like a simple choice, try spending some time in a place like Nahant. Just a few doors down from Dave Lazarro lives Ken Carangelo. He's single, no kids and an executive at a big company in the film industry. In front of his house, there's an imposing seawall, tall enough that you can't reach the top of it from the beach and deep enough that there's another 10 feet buried in the sand.

KEN CARANGELO: And everything that's down there has a solid footing and Kevlar-coated rebar so the salt doesn't get to it as much.

EVANS-BROWN: That wall would be option one - a fortification. Ken bought this house in 2008, but he says the seawall cost the previous owners more than $200,000.

CARANGELO: It's the equivalent of building a sandcastle, and you kind of know what happens. You know, after a while, the ocean will do what the ocean's going to do. It depends how hard you want to fight it I guess.

EVANS-BROWN: Plenty of people in coastal communities believe the federal government should help pay to protect these sandcastles. But Sam Merrill, the coastal engineer, says the cost of protection, especially if you're trying to protect every building from every storm in every community in the country - we're talking about spending billions every year for a century.

MERRILL: Well, I don't think it's feasible to protect every community.

EVANS-BROWN: So what about option number two, accommodate?

ENZO BARILE: Seawalls can only do so much. You're not going to stop the Atlantic Ocean...

EVANS-BROWN: Enzo Barile is a local official in Nahant. He grew up here, owns a garage in town and took me on a tour. He was pointing out all of the places the town doesn't allow construction - low-lying baseball fields, golf courses and public lands.

BARILE: It's open space - can't be built on. It helps us keep our cost down.

EVANS-BROWN: Nahant is doing other things to accommodate the occasional flood, too, like requiring buildings in at-risk areas to be built on elevated foundations that let the water pass underneath. But even with all of these strategies, coastal communities are risky places. Some homes get flooded over and over and can use federally administered flood insurance to rebuild each time. If you think of it in health care terms, this is kind of like the chronically sickest patients going to the doctor again and again, driving up the cost of insurance.

BARILE: Where do we draw the line?

EVANS-BROWN: That's Enzo Barile again.

BARILE: I don't know. I think that - personally I think that once FEMA has paid you and if they've paid for your home, you've lost it because it's in a ridiculous spot (laughter), enough's enough. We have to say no because the country is paying for that now.

EVANS-BROWN: Flood insurance which is administered through FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, removes the financial risk for families. And that's why option number three, relocate, is pretty rare. Insurance rates are rising for coastal residents, but it's happening super slowly. It could take another 10 to 15 years before many of them are paying what the private industry would consider a rate that truly reflects the risk. For Dave and Chris Lazarro, the push and pull between the risk and the allure of living by the shore is clear when you ask them about their insurance.

Do you guys think you could live here without flood insurance? Do you think that, like, you would take that risk?

D. LAZARRO: No.

CHRIS LAZARRO: Yes (laughter).

D. LAZARRO: As long as we could afford it.

EVANS-BROWN: Dave says no. His wife, Chris, says yes. Clearly this idea of relocating is fraught, tied up in the emotions of abandoning your dream home. The Lazarro's home on Willow Road has been flooded six times over the past 40 some-odd years, and Dave doesn't question that the seas are rising.

D. LAZARRO: Storms are getting more intense, and there are places where once you can live that now you can't live. I don't think of Willow Road that way.

EVANS-BROWN: Lazarro feels this way even as he acknowledges that more and more of the odds aren't in his favor.

D. LAZARRO: Is this house going to be safe here in the next 25 years? I'm not sure about that because I think that those storms that come in - if you're in the path, you're in trouble.

EVANS-BROWN: Sure, he knows he'll probably be flooded a seventh time, but he's not ready to give up the house he loves quite yet. For NPR News, I'm Sam Evans-Brown.

MCEVERS: A version of this story first aired as part of WBEZ's climate-change project "Heat of the Moment."

(SOUNDBITE OF MANU DELAGO SONG, "BIGGER THAN HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.