What you may not know is that the hypothetical “climate displacement” that people talk about has already happened to you. That it has changed you and changed your family. That it is not extraordinary. That it is not hypothetical after all.
In October 2012, my father’s house was flooded during Superstorm Sandy with four feet of water. These repairs—which included the process of lifting the house, as was required for us to receive disaster compensation from FEMA, and so we were in compliance with local building codes and insurance requirements—would take the next few years. We wouldn’t move back in fully until 2018.
What did this feel like at the time, as it was happening? I was a freshman in high school in 2012. I remember driving in the car with my mom the day after, traveling from my aunt’s house where we were riding out the storm back to our town around 20 minutes away. All of the lights were off—on all the billboards, the LED signs of the shops we would pass, the homes with their darkened windows, everything fairly still save for the people lining up for generators in the Home Depot parking lots. On the street where my mom’s house stands there was a massive tree down. It had taken the power lines down with it, leaves and wet pavement everywhere, the water still receding at the end of the street where it had crept up and submerged half of the neighborhood. Lucky us, all we got was a flooded basement. Less lucky were all of our utilities and the boxes of family heirlooms which we kept down there. All just things. But all now gone. It would take a few weeks to get our heat and plumbing back, and longer to rework the infrastructure of the house in anticipation of the next flood.
My dad’s house was in the next town over. We couldn’t get to it. The street was still heavily flooded. We would’ve needed a kayak to reach the front door. Instead of heading inland like us, my father, stepmother, and stepsister had decided to stay, and were still inside. It’s not like we could call them, with the phone lines and Internet down everywhere, so we turned around and left. Later I’d find out that they ended up sheltering on the small second floor, where, if they were to walk out onto the landing of the staircase leading down to the first floor, they could see all of the furniture floating in murky water from the creek out back, which had made its way into the house. It would’ve been around chest-level if they were to step down into it.
What would follow in the years since was a seismic shift in how my family lived and worked. Not necessarily just geographically, though there was some of that—for over a year my dad shared time between our damaged house and his girlfriend’s over an hour north. After that we stayed in a rental. He would come back whenever he could, doing whatever he could to dispose of the ruined furniture, to take apart the ruined floor, to remake the house that we had just moved into a few years earlier so that we could hope to live in it again. I remember when the walls were all gouged out and rebuilt, myself and my siblings were given permission to leave secret drawings and messages on the wooden frame of the house that would soon be covered up with layers of insulation and plaster and paint. I remember him caked in mud from spending hours in the crawlspace down below. I remember years and years spent in debt from the financially draining process of elevating and rebuilding.
What I wasn’t able to realize at the moment was that displacement is not something that has a precise or finite limit to it. It’s not just about location. What you will experience when this happens (and it will happen, and it will happen, and it will happen) is a displacement not only of the body or of the water or of the soil but of the entire self. Displacement is something that you absorb and internalize and experience in continual aftershocks until you yourself take on a permanent state of feeling displaced within the world and the systems you thought you could rely on.
For me, that was reiterated sooner rather than later. Almost ten years later, in 2021, I was living in Somerset, right near the Raritan River. The house I was renting a room in flooded during Hurricane Ida, and the floor of my basement-level room was soaked through with rainwater. Just down the street from me, cars were fully submerged in flood water and major roads were completely inaccessible.
I moved my things up into the living room while my landlord tore out the carpet and told me the room would be repaired within a month or two. These repairs never ended up happening, and I spent the next ten months in that living room before being informed with a month’s notice that my lease wasn’t going to be renewed. In almost every home I’ve ever lived in, a storm and flooding has either displaced or partially displaced me, all before I turned 25. It’s become normal to me, even though it’s anything but.
Ida in particular has shown us that no matter where in the state you live, you aren’t safe from potential flooding. Storms are getting more frequent and more severe. According to Flood Factor, the flood risk for my mother’s house is ranked as “major.” Expected loss of value to the building’s structure over the next 15 years is estimated at around $2,500, but with only an 11% risk of an inch of water reaching the house within that time frame. The flood risk for my father’s house is ranked as “extreme.” Expected loss of value to the building’s structure over the next 15 years is estimated at around $330,800. The risk of at least twelve inches of water reaching the house within the next 15 years is 99%. I don’t want to leave the state that I love, and that’s been my home for my entire life, but I’m worried that in years to come, I won’t have a choice.
New Jersey is one of the states most vulnerable to sea level rise. More than 70,000 homes are expected to see at least one major flood annually by 2050. We need to start thinking critically about what we want for the future of our communities, from the shore to the cities and everywhere in between. Across the state, more and more people are at risk of disaster. Our stories may be different, but they’re connected by the broad effects of extreme weather and rising seas. We must mitigate community impacts, or this cycle will continue, repeat and worsen. We need to stop waiting until more New Jersey residents become disaster survivors.