I live in my Grandmother’s house. We are lucky. My family has owned this home on the Jersey Shore for four generations. After my parents divorced when I was two, my Grandmother’s home was my home.

Our home is on the water and the water is part of who we are. My Dad paid for grad school by clamming in the bay and was the first in his family to get a college degree. I was compelled to return home in 2012, after my Gram suffered a stroke in August and then Superstorm Sandy devastated my family and community the following October. Since her passing away this past September, my home now means even more to me.

I understand the risks I face, that our communities face, from storm surge, sea level rise, and flooding. And sure, someone on the outside might say, “why don’t you just leave?” Leaving home would be like losing a family member. And my community doesn’t cut bait and run—we stand together and fight.

When I look around my living room I hear my Grandmother tell me she’s glad I live here now, and I am too.

In the year or so after Sandy in 2012, it quickly became clear that New Jersey’s working families were struggling to recover and rebuild. I started talking to folks to figure out why and how, and what we could do. As a long-time community organizer, I knew the “experts” were the people on the frontlines of the disaster, and if we fought together we would win. We had to act—two years after the storm, less than 500 families in the state’s homeowner recovery program were back and rental assistance programs were ending.

Fast forward to today, and that group of amazing community members and leaders across New Jersey’ most impacted counties has built a powerful grassroots organization. Nearly four years later we are proud of the changes community leadership has created—New Jersey now has a rental assistance program and a state law to slow or stop foreclosures on Sandy families.

Our community worked together to move an agenda based on what we experienced and needed. Now we have the opportunity to be continuing protagonists in our own story.

Here’s what’s hard. Despite that good work, the storm still took a toll. Last October the New Jersey Resource Project released a report, The Long Road Home, based on a survey of more than 500 Sandy-impacted families. The report measured how they were doing between four and five years after the storm.

The findings show that the health and economic impacts of Sandy have been significant. Fifty-six percent had trouble paying bills and/or affording food and gas since the storm—with some families reporting that things became more difficult in the last two years as storm-related problems dragged on.

In addition to shouldering the cost of rebuilding, 41 percent of respondents say their livelihood was affected by Sandy. Factors associated with job loss include losing a job or hours at a job because of Sandy; the impact of the storm on a family-owned business; the demands of dealing with the recovery process; and health issues that worsened or developed after the storm.

Thirty-two percent of families fell behind on mortgage/rent payments, taxes, or other expenses related to their Sandy-damaged homes. And more than 70 percent of respondents reported that they had developed new physical or mental health problems or a worsening of pre-existing health conditions since Sandy.

Many individuals described anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders, often in combination with respiratory, cardiovascular, or other conditions. Many people also described an increased dependence on alcohol, tobacco products, or drugs. Of families with children, nearly 40 percent report that their children’s school performance has suffered because of the difficulties their family has faced since the storm.

These hard-earned lessons tell us something critical. We learned from Sandy that programs meant to help us could be used for political gain, or benefited banks more than homeowners, or were not sufficient, or simply did not exist.

In the saga of rising seas and chronic flooding, we must be the protagonists. We cannot ignore the fact that sea level rise is happening and it’s worsening chronic flooding.

Indeed, new research from the Union of Concerned Scientists highlights the risk to New Jersey coastal homes, which are among the most exposed. It includes some sobering details:

  • New Jersey is second in the nation, behind Florida, for most homes at risk from chronic flooding due to rising seas, both in 2045 and by the end of the century. By 2045, more than 62,000 of today’s residential properties in New Jersey, valued at about $27 billion today and currently home to about 80,000 people, are at risk of chronic inundation. Of New Jersey’s beach towns, 10 are projected to have at least 1,500 homes at risk by 2045, with Ocean City topping the list at more than 7,200. The total number of at-risk residential properties jumps to about 251,000—currently worth more than $107 billion and home to roughly 376,000 people—by 2100.
  • The New Jersey homes at risk in 2045 currently contribute about $390 million in annual property tax revenue. The homes at risk by 2100 currently contribute roughly $1.7 billion collectively in annual property tax revenue, which places New Jersey second in the U.S. for largest possible hit to its municipal property tax base.
  • Many of the New Jersey communities facing chronic inundation in the next 30 years are home to people with fewer resources to adapt. Communities such as Monmouth Beach and West Cape May for instance, which have elderly population rates above the national average, could see more than 15 percent of their homes at risk by 2045. And in communities such as Atlantic City and Wildwood, 40 percent of homes at risk by 2045 and roughly one-third of residents are living below the national poverty line.

As a nation, there are clear steps we can take. We need to modernize the National Flood Insurance Program, so it prioritizes flood mitigation measures and allows families to get out of harm’s way, and we need to ramp up investment in FEMA’s pre-disaster hazard mitigation grant program.

When families remain in harm’s way because they can’t, or don’t want to, make investments in flood-proofing to prepare, we can’t trap them in a no-win scenario: stay and keep getting flooded and rebuilding, or sell the house knowing they’re selling the next family the same dead-end scenario.

Families should have the opportunity for a fair buyout, so they can be economically stable while also ensuring the property they leave remains undeveloped. Returning the land to open space can help protect nearby neighbors from flooding. We all need to have a more accurate picture of who and what is at risk—and that means more accurate flood risk maps. At the same time, we need robust affordability provisions for insurance and flood-proofing investments so people like me aren’t just priced out of our homes.

Sandy taught us something key—you are either at the table, or you are on the menu. Now we need to take those lessons and apply them to face a future of rising seas and increased tidal flooding—and the worsening risks and damages that come with it when we have major storms.

It’s up to us to make sure our health and economic well-being are key considerations as we plan to address whatever future we face. If and when there are heartbreakingly tough decisions to make about the future of our homes and communities, we make them—and no one makes them for us.

I have faith in us. We look out for each other and help one another weather storms. It’s time for us to tackle the question of what rising seas and increased flooding mean, together.

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