Photograph by Jessica Kourkounis, Getty
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Children play on a flooded avenue in Atlantic City, New Jersey, last year after an October storm hit the U.S. Northeast.

Photograph by Jessica Kourkounis, Getty

Atlantic City Gambles on Rising Seas

This city’s famous casinos are on high ground, while its poor are in the floodwaters’ path. The people still there "haven’t figured out a way to leave yet," one lifelong resident says.

Claudia Waller’s anxious eyes flit across the living room of a home where her family has lived for more than 80 years as she ponders the moment when she’ll have to leave for good.  

When even a moderate rain falls in Atlantic City, the streets flood, reminding her of when her family lost their house’s foundation to Hurricane Sandy in 2012. 

Flood-damaged, abandoned properties are scattered throughout her neighborhood, roughly a mile from the city’s famous boardwalk, attracting homeless drifters, drug dealers, and sex workers. And making matters worse, Atlantic City’s public services are unreliable as the city is embroiled in a fiscal crisis. 

“I get frightened every time it rains,” Waller says, biting her bottom lip. “It feels like all of us, everyone in Atlantic City, we’re sinking into the ocean.” 

Sea level rise, caused by a confluence of melting polar ice caps and warmer temperatures expanding the ocean, could devastate Atlantic City in what its residents describe as a kind of “slow death,” one that takes the form of sporadic super storms and routine nuisance flooding, crumbling infrastructure, and endemic poverty.  

Only a few portraits of how rising seas will endanger American cities have entered the public consciousness. The most vivid example has been Miami. But Atlantic City—with its severe financial problems and low-lying shoreline—may prove to be another highly vulnerable place. 

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Parts of Atlantic City's boardwalk were washed away in the wake of Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 30, 2012.

A touchtone of American popular culture with its casinos and boardwalk along the Atlantic Ocean, Atlantic City is home to around 40,000 people, more than a third of whom live below the poverty line.  

Benjamin Strauss, a sea level expert at Climate Central, an organization of scientists, says that people in Atlantic City are uniquely vulnerable to rising seas because they inhabit a barrier island with extremely low and flat terrain. 

His interactive map, "Surging Seas," shows floodwaters surging into Boston, for example, would affect a much smaller percentage of the population than the same amount of water hitting Atlantic City. Strauss said that a four-foot surge, for instance, would inundate only 7 percent of Boston but 50 percent of Atlantic City.

The city’s poverty exacerbates the inherent vulnerability that all communities on the Jersey Shore face from rising seas. Wealthier communities nearby may have the luxury to abandon an unstable home and rebuild elsewhere, whereas residents struggling to make ends meet in Atlantic City may not. 

Waller, a 56-year-old employee in the insurance industry, and her 86-year-old mother Ruth, are living a preview of what many scientists say could become a reality for much of the estimated 39 percent of Americans living in coastal communities if global action isn’t taken to reverse climate change. Born and raised in Atlantic City, where she used to work in the now beleaguered casino industry, Waller moved to New Orleans in 1994, only to have her home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Then, seven years after she returned to Atlantic City to care for her aging mother Ruth, Sandy struck. 

“There’s no climate change denial with these folks here because they see what’s happening to their lives,” says Shawn Dickenson, 46, a disaster case manager for A Future with Hope, a charity organization run by the United Methodist Church of New Jersey that rebuilt Waller’s home in 2013. 

Living With Routine Flooding

Dickenson, a woman with a gritty demeanor who was born here, gave up her job as a property manager in Atlanta after friends and family urged her to come home to help the community rebuild after the hurricane. Today, she offers what she describes as makeshift psychological counseling to frightened neighbors, as well as providing more practical information, like how to elevate their home to meet Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations and steer them toward assistance provided by her charity.

“It floods on any rainy day lately, so these folks are obviously petrified of what could happen if another Hurricane Sandy strikes,” Dickenson says.

The arrival of another devastating storm like Sandy, which caused 50 billion dollars in property damage primarily along the coasts of New York and New Jersey, is inevitable, not just plausible, says Ben Horton of Rutgers University, a leading researcher on sea level rise. 

Horton’s research indicates that sea levels are rising faster than they have been in at least 2,700 years. He describes this change as manifesting in oblique ways, like warmer, wetter winters and a growing frequency of violent super-storms.

The creation of artificial sand dunes around the Jersey Shore, intended to blunt the encroachment of the sea, were proposed in the aftermath of Sandy, but have not been implemented due to resistance from property owners who raise questions about their efficacy and cost. 

Horton is critical of the limited measures taken so far to preserve coastal cities and reduce rising levels of greenhouse gases. In January of 2016, after a winter storm flooded parts of the Jersey coastline, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, then a candidate for president, sarcastically asked whether he should “pick up a mop” to help with flooding—a remark that was criticized by environmentalists for being out of touch with the gravity of the situation. Christie accepts that human activity contributes to climate change, but contends that the issue “is not a crisis.”

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A boardwalk and waterfront property in Atlantic City is heavily damaged following Hurricane Sandy, which made landfall at the end of October 2012.

“Climate change is a social inequity,” Horton says. “If nothing is seriously done to save these cities, or the people who live there, it represents a kind of retreat to me.” 

A Herculean Task

At the local level, keeping Atlantic City running is often a herculean task.

Atlantic City Director of Planning Elizabeth Terenik says that a large part of the city government’s financial woes, which nearly caused a temporary shutdown this March, relate directly to damage caused by sea level rise. When damaged homes are abandoned, they no longer provide tax revenue, but the shell that is left behind is often cared for by the city, which must either have it repaired or demolished. The end result is that money is typically flowing out of city coffers and not returning.

“The amount of blighted housing that you see is our main focus,” Terenik says. “When you have this much blight, it decreases the property value and the situation spirals.”

Maps provided by Terenik show why Atlantic City presents such a unique case study for what sea level rise can do to a city. The majority of Atlantic City’s casinos, four of which shuttered in 2014, along with the boardwalk, rest along the highest point of elevation, while the residential portion has a much lower elevation, putting the homes in harm’s way. Names like “Trump” and “Bally’s” dominate the skyline of a community that sees little of the industry's profits.  

“The casinos are a plantation,” says Elwood Davis, an 89-year-old retired government worker who has lived in Atlantic City his entire life. He says that the casinos profit at the expense of the city’s blacks. 

Davis is skeptical that the city government is interested in helping lower income residents avoid flood damage, and believes that its priority instead is to clear the area of blight so that tourists will be more attracted to gambling. 

“Now because of the flooding and everything else,” he says, “it feels like the only people still living in Atlantic City are the people who haven’t figured out a way to leave yet.”

Follow Michael Edison Hayden on Twitter @MichaelEHayden.