There’s evidence that climate change is already causing serious damage to communities across New England, where waters along the East Coast are rising, shorelines are eroding and severe storms are becoming more frequent. By the end of the century, New England could see sea levels up to 7 feet higher than they are now.
The effects of climate change have been devastating for those Massachusetts towns and communities along the water’s edge, where intensifying storms and flooding have ruined both homes and livelihoods. In Boston alone, damage from storms could cost the city billions of dollars this century.
Facing the threat of rising sea levels, many coastal residents are deciding to stay and adapt their homes and infrastructure, rather than relocate.
“If you don’t want to risk losing your home … don’t build on Plum Island,” says Verne Fisher, who has lived on the island for more than 20 years. “If you love this environment and the way of life you take the risk. I take that risk.”
The lengths to which seaside communities like Plum Island and residents like Fisher go to stay at the water’s edge are measurable, costing taxpayers millions of dollars a year. When residents seek to rebuild part or all of their home after a storm, they are required to follow flood adaptation mandates –required guidelines for new coastal construction from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the town’s Flood Mitigation Assistance and Hazard Mitigation Grant Programs – and they often receive funding from local and federal grants. Critics argue that public money is wrongly, and repeatedly, going to residents who are rebuilding houses in high flood risk areas. In 2015, one Scituate homeowner received $180,000 in federal grant money to rebuild a vacation home hit by at least 10 storms in a dozen years; it was the second grant the home had received.
Most homes located on beaches in places like Scituate and Plum Island are raised 20 feet on steel or concrete pilings that are planted an additional 30 feet into the ground. The communities are also constructing and redesigning different types of seawalls and natural barriers in the form of dunes, rocks and concrete walls that travel the length of the beach. These are expensive solutions with no long-term guarantee with climate change. Last month, Scituate received $1.7 million in federal money to repair one seawall, an amount that covered just 75 percent of the project.
After a busy summer of rebuilding, the towns are now bracing for the start of winter.
“Last winter, waves were crashing on the second story of that house,” says Scituate resident Devon Barrie as she points across the street to one of her neighbors. “But we just buckle down and ride it out. I know that the sea levels are rising and in 20, 50, 100 years, who knows if this will be here anymore. But given the chance to live here now, there’s nothing like it,” Barrie said.
Across New England, coastal waters are rising due to climate change. Plum Island, on the North Shore of Massachusetts, is particularly vulnerable to major flooding from storm surges and beach erosion. “Don’t build here if you’re afraid of losing your house,” says longtime resident Verne Fisher. (Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert/GroundTruth)
Homes hover dangerously close to the cliff’s edge in Plymouth, on the South Shore of Massachusetts. With up to 68 percent of beaches on the East Coast eroding, some residents are moving out. But many are not budging, choosing instead to bolster their homes and adapt to climate change. (Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert/GroundTruth)
A girl reads her book by a raised cottage on Peggotty Beach in Scituate, on the South Shore of Massachusetts. Where there were once more than 50 cottages, the number has dwindled to a dozen as storms have eroded the beach and forced homeowners to vacate the area. Those houses that remain have been moved onto stilts. (Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert/GroundTruth)
Next to a raised home in Scituate, a seawall crumbles—the result of years of ocean waves pummeling the shores. Most coastal towns along the Massachusetts South Shore have man-made sea walls in place to help protect the ocean front from storm surges. But recent storms have breached the seawalls and weakened them for future storms. (Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert/GroundTruth)
A wheel excavator travels up the rocky shore south of Egypt Beach in Scituate as construction workers rebuild a damaged seawall, originally built in the 1930s. The crew is increasing its height and strength with additional steel support and rocks. (Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert/GroundTruth)
Scituate residents walk along the shore just south of Egypt Beach in Scituate as workers replace the aging seawall. Recent studies estimate that the sea level could rise in New England by 2 to 7 feet by the end of the century – a result of climate change that would drive more storms and flooding and put thousands of homes and businesses at risk. (Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert/GroundTruth)
Scituate residents attend a town meeting on flood adaptation, preparation and management. Worry is evident on the faces of homeowners as they discuss the newly revised Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps, which place more and sometimes unexpected homes at risk of flooding. According to the National Flood Insurance Program, a federal program managed by FEMA, floods are the number one natural disaster in America and in 2015 the national average policy premium was nearly $700 a month. That year, Massachusetts ranked among the top 10 states to receive the highest claims from the program —a total of $9,736,052. (Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert/GroundTruth)
Homes along Salisbury Beach in Massachusetts and neighboring Hampton Beach in New Hampshire face the Atlantic Ocean and are backed by miles of marsh. As sea level rise elevates the water table, flooding can come from the marsh instead of the ocean. (Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert/GroundTruth)
Marcos Rego fishes for striped bass on Plum Island early in the morning. During high tide, the water slaps against the building behind him. (Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert/GroundTruth)
The breakfast rush at Mad Martha’s Cafe on Plum Island. The restaurant is one of several local businesses built on a fragile ecosystem of sands that are constantly shifting. It is at risk of flooding and damage from rising sea levels and intensifying storm surges. (Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert/GroundTruth)
Fourth generation construction worker, Chris Pratt, of Pratt Custom Building, works on the deck of a raised home in Scituate. Business booms for Pratt during the summer months, when homeowners rebuild their houses after storms and prepare for future severe weather. (Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert/GroundTruth)
A wheel loader scoops up detritus from the ocean while rebuilding a road in Scituate following a 2015 winter storm that flooded dozens of homes, destroyed streets and power lines and even pulled buildings into the sea. Some homes in the town have been damaged and rebuilt more than 10 times with funding from the federal government and community tax money. (Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert/GroundTruth)
A group of friends head to the water with paddleboards on Plum Island, in front of several new homes that have been raised off the ground and adapted for rising sea levels. (Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert/GroundTruth)
Scituate homes are being raised 16 to 20 feet above sea level to comply with the ‘100-year-storm flood marker,’ a level that fluctuates depending on location. The town offers select grants to homeowners to adapt their homes for flooding through the Federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. Financial assistance can provide up to 75 percent of the total cost of the climate mitigation project. (Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert/GroundTruth)
Scituate resident Devon Barrie and her son, Kailub Sullivan, live along the beach in Scituate near the new town seawall under construction. Sullivan likes to imitate the working crew with a toy dump truck, moving dirt from one side of the yard to the other. (Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert/GroundTruth)
Scituate resident Peter Caruso observes the construction of a new seawall in Scituate with his grandson, Santo Arias. The town hopes that bolstering the seawall will mitigate the severity of winter storms and the effects of sea level rise. “It is a tough spot to try and live and the storms are more frequent than they use to be,” says Caruso. (Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert/GroundTruth)
Homes and businesses on Plum Island come face-to-face with the Atlantic Ocean. “The big problem with climate change and sea level rise is that it’s a slow motion disaster and people don’t really perceive that it’s happening,” says Mike Morris of Storm Surge, a nonprofit organization in nearby Newburyport that helps communities prepare for the effects of climate change. (Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert/GroundTruth)
GroundTruth fellow and photojournalist Lauren Owens Lambert grew up on the South Shore of Massachusetts, and spent last summer documenting how residents there and along the North Shore are preparing for climate change. Reporting on and above the ground along the coast of the Bay State, she sheds light on the challenge – and controversy – of climate adaptation in vulnerable areas.
Arial flights made possible by LightHawks.