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As climate change melts the polar ice caps and raises sea levels, how will we adapt? We visit two locations: On Sapelo Island Georgia, the last remaining Gullah Geechee community fights to save their ancestral lands from the flood waters. Instead of leaving their land, or building a giant sea wall, they’ve chosen to use oysters to create what’s called a living shoreline. We take a look at how they’re built and if they’re working. Meanwhile, in New York, the Army Corps wants to construct seagates to protect the city from another Hurricane Sandy. But, the gates could have massive ecological repercussions and, they might not even work. Scientists think there’s a better way to work with the local ecology and protect residents.
Image Credit: Claire Reynolds; Image Caption: Maurice Bailey at Shell to Shore in Athens Georgia
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The Making Contact Team
The Making Contact Team
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Salima Hamirani: I’m Salima Hamirani and on today’s Making Contact. We talk about how coastal communities prepare for the future as sea levels rise around the US.
Maurice Bailey: We’ve seen it. We, we see it all all the time. So a lot of people that don’t believe in it, never saw the changes, uh, living in one place for this long
Salima Hamirani: We go to Georgia to learn about a living seawall protecting the Gullah Geechee community on Sapelo island.
The idea here is that you stabilize the eroding bank with mostly natural material. And at the same time you are improving habitat.
Salima Hamirani: And we look at the repercussions of the Seagate. The New York army Corps wants to build, to protect the city from another hurricane. Sandy, stay tuned, all that and more on today’s making contact
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Salima Hamirani: We start today’s show in Georgia, where reporter Claire Reynolds talks with Maurice Bailey about the Gullah Geechee community on Sapelo island and his plans to save it from the encroaching sea.
Maurice Bailey: Well we’re Geeche so we’re a proud salt-water Geechee people. There’s not a lot of us anymore. But people hold onto that Geechee part, that proud part.
Claire: That’s Maurice Bailey. He’s a farmer and activist for Hog Hammock community of Sapelo Island, Georgia
Maurice Bailey: So this is our last community on Sapelo Island, we’re going on 13 generation of people from Sapelo Island, so since my family was enslaved over there we was there
Claire: Once there were hundreds of enslaved people who, after the civil war we’re able to farm their own land and they created up to 15 communities. And the islands really remote. You can only get there by ferry or plane.
And that remoteness really lent itself to preserving the Geechee culture. But when tobacco tycoon, RJ Reynolds, who owned a lot of land on the island sold his portion to the state of Georgia, he moved a lot of into just one community and that’s Hog Hammock.
And today hog hammock is the largest existing Geechee community on the. Georgia coast but that consists of only 30 people.
Maurice Bailey: Be down to 30 to sentence. And between the descendants in the losing of land, our community is in danger of just being extinct so well. So we putting forth the efforts to try our best, to, to preserve much as we can and all efforts to preserve the land.
And at the same time preserving the culture because the land we don’t have the culture
We down to 30 descendants and between the descendants and the losing our land, our community is in danger of just being extinct so, we’re putting forth the efforts to try our best to preserve as much as we can and our efforts to preserve the land and at the same time the culture, because without the land we don’t have the culture.
Claire: This population of 30 people plans to sustain their cultural heritage and homeland the way they always have, by cultivating the land. And to do that they’re farming ancestral crops like red peas, sugar cane and indigo
Maurice Bailey: , we not not planting crops to get wealthy off of. The idea is to ship these products all over the world, to tell our story, to reach more people.
Claire: Using agriculture to preserve Geechee land was the idea of the late Cornelia Walker Bailey. She was an activist, a historian and author. And she’s Maurice Bailey’s mother
Maurice Bailey: So to grow harvest and package things from sapelo island is a way of us reaching outside of just Sapelo Island and being another voice.
Claire: Farming is already a really tough way to make a living but it’s gotten even harder now because of the impact of sea level rise
Maurice Bailey: We seen it, we see it all all the time. So a lot of people that don’t believe in it never saw the changes, uh, living in one place for this long, we saw the change, this thing we know what’s what’s happening. Uh, so we, we know that it’s real and we know that it’s happening to us very quickly.
when we was younger, you know, you might see like once a year, you might have just a spring tide, you see some, some salt water that will come into your yard, but now it’s more of a frequent base that salt floods the yards or floods the fields.
Um, so we try to do something to help stop this from happening at the rate that it’s happening at. We’re actually about six or seven years before a lot of land is not usable.
Claire: The tides are already flooding churchyards agricultural fields, people’s homes and their backyards. And according to the National oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the prediction for sea level rise on the Georgia coast is three to five feet, by the end of the century
NIK HEYNEN: the Georgia coast experiences greater than average sea level rise and the hog hammock community, which is the largest, most intact remaining Gullah Geechee community left in the country, uh, is really bearing the brunt of that.
Claire: University of Georgia professor Nick Hanan has been working with Maurice Bailey to revitalize agriculture and hog hammock and has witnessed the rising tides first hand.
NIK HEYNEN: there’s a ditch network on Sapelo island that was created in antebellum times by the plantation owner as a way of getting fresh water off the island so it could be used for agriculture. And now the descendants of the enslaved people who dug those ditches are dealing with salt, water intrusion coming up in through those ditches and flooding agricultural lands, flooding housing at times, um, really creating a lot of, uh, you know, hardship, difficulty.
Claire: As Maurice and Nik work to rebuild Sapelo’s agricultural legacy, saltwater inundation and intense hurricanes threaten to wash away months and years of work
NIK HEYNEN: When Irma came through hog hammock in 2017, we had just planted our first viable field of sugar cane called I call it the mothership. And yeah, and we just saw firsthand how quickly it just, it was brown. It was, it, it just was dying. And fortunately Maurice’s brother , Stanley Walker actually suggested, start flushing it with water. And so we just. Even though it was still flooded and, and, you know, boggy just flooded it with fresh water and saved it.
Claire: Maurice and Nik and their partners on and off the island are getting creative about ways to deal with sea level rise because they have to. There are no other plans to save Hog Hammock.
Maurice Bailey For a long time, people didn’t even recognize that African-American people still lived on Sapelo. So we started losing a lot and now with our population, people really don’t pay us any attention because we don’t matter in any voting arena because we don’t have enough people to even even matter. : We were proud people where at the same time we need support.
Claire: So how do they plan to save Hog Hammock? Well, Maurice and Nik have turned to the Georgia department of natural resources for inspiration. The entire Georgia coast is actually at risk for catastrophic sea-level rise. And Sapelo has become a test site for something called a “living shoreline”.
Jan McKinnon: We’re absolutely concerned with some of the sea level rise projections.
Claire: Jan Mckinnon is project manager with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources At one of their living shorelines
Jan McKinnon: We have six to nine foot, twice daily, tidal fluctuations. And over the last 70 years, we have seen an increase in sea level rise that if added on top of that, I think really showcase what we are seeing today is as a strong title energy that is causing erosion in a lot of locations where it historically has not.
Claire ambi: Well, can we take a look at this living shoreline?
Claire: On Sapelo a natural shoreline might prevent some of that erosion by rebuilding land and habitat instead of using of hard engineering like concrete sea walls which coastal communities often use.
Jan McKinnon: We started in the early two thousands with the concept of wanting to develop living shorelines for coastal Georgia. At that time, we did not have any projects in the ground and other states were making progress with living shorelines in their states.
We have a very high energy coast compared to a lot of the other states, uh, in the U S and I think that was one of the challenges that we faced in terms of are these going to work? Will they stabilize an eroding bank? Will they create habitat? That was uncharted territory at that time.
Claire: It turns out the living shoreline is doing all of those things really well .
Jan McKinnon ambi: as you can also from here you can see part of the structure part of the bag, so the oysters have grown up through creating those reefs so that’s three dimensional now and the marsh grass is part of the living shoreline too and so that was planted here and now has grown up to be this… you know, it looks like its mimicking the natural shoreline…
Jan McKinnon: The idea here is that you stabilize the eroding bank with mostly natural materials. And at the same time you are improving habit. So with the oyster shell, it recruits new oysters, which over time create a three-dimensional reef, which house of different invertebrates and fish.
And behind that, native plants will help to stabilize that portion of the bank to also provide habitat for many species, as you can see, as we stand out here and observe. The idea of resiliency is that over time, these shorelines will, really take hold and change slowly and naturally with the landscape.
Claire: Unlike other states, the state of Georgia doesn’t have any official policies or regulations to require coastal property owners to use or simply consider using living shorelines. So Jan and her longtime collaborator Christi lambert or the nature conservancy have to do the advocacy work
Christi Lambert: and that’s where the nature Conservancy’s interest in prioritization of living shorelines is really to develop them and use them as an alternative to armoring our shorelines. In Georgia, we were seeing a significant increase our shorelines being armored and our development rates with the increase along the Georgia coast, they were expanding. And, we really wanted to come up with an alternative to that. And so Sapelo was just a great, launching area to develop and test those methods.
Claire: Here’s Jan McKinnon again,
Jan McKinnon: What we would like to do is continue to work on many different facets of living shorelines to make them competitive with other types of stabilization techniques. I think we’re making a lot of progress.
Claire: Since the first test on Sapelo, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has constructed six more living shorelines. However, to keep going they need one main ingredient which is in short supply and that’s oyster shells.
Tyler Leslie: so we just counted how many? 71.
71 of those green bins we just put in here.
Claire: Most oysters go from the restaurant to the landfill but some communities have started to recycle oyster shells to return them to the sea for things like oyster farming and living shorelines. One such place is in Athens Georgia, about 280 miles north of Sapelo Island.
Tyler Leslie: let’s see, I haven’t done the math.
Did you do the math?
So how many is that? 5,300 approximately give or take? Probably another couple hundred.
Claire: Nick Heinen and his friends Hunt Rebel, Malcolm Provost and Tyler Leslie created a project called Shell to Shore to collect oyster shells from Athens restaurants. I met Tyler Leslie standing on top of a dump trailer full of oyster shells that have been marinating out in the Georgia woods for several months.
Tyler Leslie: there, they are going to be used to help, uh, Maurice Bailey keep saltwater out of his farm down on Sapelo, cause the saltwater is coming over into his farmland. So these will be kind of built up into barriers to keep natural barriers at the tidal locations
Claire asks – what are they doing over there?
Tyler – they’re dumping shells and it smells terrible. You should go smell it.
It’s part of the process.
Claire: I honestly didn’t have to go smell it. The smell definitely came to me. But so far Shell to Shore in Athens has collected 22,000 pounds of oyster shells for their test projects on Sapelo. Here’s Nik Heynen again.
NIK HEYNEN: what we’ll do in a very experimental fashion right now, is we’ll create what we’re calling a shell weir. In one of the primary ditches to see how it can divert energy through events, where water is coming in through the marsh, if it can slow it down in a way where the flooding is not as extreme
Claire: There’s so much innovation and testing that’s going on using oyster shells. But this isn’t something new, it’s just something forgotten. There’s evidence that shows that the indigenous people of coastal Georgia used oysters for more than food
NIK HEYNEN: On Sapelo, we do know that there are these shell rings that date back to 4,000. 4,500 years that the indigenous folks on Sapelo did use and create infrastructure out of. So you know, again, there’s so many threads coming together here.
Claire: And it’s not just on Sapelo
Stephanie Knox: we also have a lot of research going on involving archeology. There are native American middens on-site dating back 4,500 years, which is essentially a lot of really old oyster shells underground.
Claire: That’s Stephanie Knox, the land conservation manager for the St. Simon’s land trust, which is another island off the coast of Georgia she showed me around the living shoreline at Kenna’s point preserve
Stephanie Knox: So where our living shoreline is, is where the fish camp used to be. And it was an eroding bank. There used to be a lot of structures there and we’ve been able to stabilize the bank here. And part of it is actually was recycling some of the oyster shells that were dug up during an archeological dig on site and putting 4,500 year old oysters back on the bank to recruit new spat or oyster larva to the project. So it’s pretty exciting that we have some 4,500 year old oyster shells that are now growing new oyster shells today.
Claire: I do want to mention that these shells were collected as part of archeological research going on on St. Simons island. And it’s not recommended that anyone dig up oysters to find on their property,
But there’s something so poignant about these 4,500 year -old oysters being brought back to life. Back in hog hammock, Maurice Bailey’s has a trailer full of oyster shells which he hopes can save their agricultural lands. Their backyards and their homes.
Claire: The pressure of farming your land or trying to hold back sea level rise, or trying to save your culture, just one of those things would be such a heavy load. And for Maurice to take on all three of those things and probably a lot of other things that I don’t know anything about. I really wondered how. All of that responsibility affected him so I asked him.
Maurice Bailey: It is a lot of weight and a lot of people don’t understand what’s going on. So, yeah, there’s just to try to convince everybody that this is a, this is going to work, uh, and not have attitude. “Oh, we ain’t got long time” kind of attitudes. Because they seen so much throughout the years of people dying, people, moving off, people, losing land.
So people saw all of that. And then they see that the tide increasing and it just something else that say, oh, we ain’t got long on our land type attitudes. So you have to push that through and to keep fighting. It really has to work everything that, that I do have to work, to where we can hold on to our last community on sapele. So that pressure is on me for, for that reason. Uh, I don’t want to see our last community disappear, uh, within my lifetime or my kids’ lifetime.
Claire: That was Maurice Bailey and I’m Claire Reynolds reporting from Georgia.
Salima Hamirani: We’re jumping to remind you that you’re listening to “How to Hold Back the Ocean,” a piece about rising waters and the technology we’re using to prevent flooding. You can find out more information on our website at radioproject.org. And now back to the show.
Salima Hamirani: Welcome back to making contact in the first half reporter Claire Reynolds took us to Sapelo island, Georgia to talk about what’s called a living shoreline, a more ecologically friendly way to deal with flood water from the sea. But other places like New York want to use bigger, harder structures to keep back the water – traditional sea walls, which are built of concrete. And many activists are concerned about their impacts.
One of the reasons New York wants to build a sea wall is because of a massive storm that hit the east coast in 2012.
Salima Hamirani: Sandy caused 65 billion in damage across the us and 49 deaths just in New York. It was a catastrophic storm, especially because of the storm surge.
Salima Hamirani: And if a storm like hurricane Sandy happened again, New York wanted to be better prepared.
Tracy Brown: So the army Corps, several years ago, came out with alternative proposals to build storm surge barriers around New York Harbor.
Salima Hamirani: That’s Tracy brown president and Hudson river keep for an organization called Riverkeeper
Tracy Brown: They did some work and came up with some draft alternatives and then the project lost funding during the Trump administration but now it is. Refunded and coming back. So we’re all waiting with bated breath. The current deadline is this September.
Salima Hamirani: The army Corps plan is to armor the shoreline against a storm like Sandy, by building concrete structures that would sit in the water permanently like a fence with movable pieces between them like big swinging gates.
Tracy Brown: And then when a storm surge is coming, they would close the gates. And those openings between those structures would seal up and you’d have a full, solid barrier.
Salima Hamirani: And they have a variety of designs under consideration. Most of which are a series of outer gates combined with onshore measures
Tracy Brown: So there’s five alternatives that all involve different combinations of these sea barriers or sea gates. So the ones that river keeper are most concerned about, that may be the tentatively selected proposal, include a gate across the Verrazzano-Narrows and a gate across Throgs Neck.
Salima Hamirani: Activists have raised a lot of concern about the Seagates. Here are some of their worries.
First New York is especially vulnerable to rising seas because it’s so low lying. By the year 2100 sea levels around the city could rise by six feet leaving tens of thousands of acres underwater, but the proposed Seagate were only mean the deal with storm surge.
Tracy Brown: That is one of the huge flaws with the proposal is they don’t account for sea level rise.
Salima Hamirani: They only account for the massive wall of water that floods New York in an event of another hurricane, but because of rising sea levels and climate change, that’s not the only time New York will flood.
Tracy Brown: The other thing that isn’t considered is blue sky flooding. When you have events where sea level rise, the water comes up really high because you have a full moon and you’re at the high tide
Salima Hamirani: and the Seagate don’t account for the storms that come, not from the ocean, but over the land.
Tracy Brown: Like we had in Hurricane Ida. Or we could have in future hurricanes where you have a combination of a storm surge coming, and also a lot of water coming down into the Harbor in what would be inside the barriers,
There’s many scenarios where this could backfire for us. So one of them would be, there’s a storm surge barrier coming and there’s inland flooding. So what do you do? You put you close the barriers and then the storm shifts. And there’s water coming more heavily on the inside than on the outside.
Salima Hamirani: But these aren’t the only problems. Yes, the sea walls can protect the property behind them, but seawalls don’t absorb wave energy. They just deflect it. which means that once the waves hit the concrete, their energy is pushed to the sides around the barrier, which causes flooding outside of the gates
Tracy Brown: You know, In the case of Throgs neck, you’re looking at. Queens the Bronx Nasau county and Westchester county.
And then down at Verrazzano, you’re looking at lower Staten island and Coney island and those coastal communities.
Salima Hamirani: Places like the Queens and the Bronx in New York are traditionally poor black and brown neighborhood. And the subsequent flooding that could occur in those neighborhoods, isn’t totally an accident. It’s the direct consequence of how the army Corps thinks about costs and benefits.
Tracy Brown: So they’re saying, how expensive is property in the lower east side versus the Bronx near the Throgs neck? Oh, the lower east side is more valuable property. So if we put a, a gate and invest infrastructure to keep this community from flooding, we’ll save X billions of dollars. But if we help this community in the Bronx, because it’s much less valuable. We’re, we’ll only say save X, hundreds of millions of dollars, therefore better return on investment to invest in this area. And it, that doesn’t take into account, the unique qualities of communities, the mobility of different communities usually the more affluent communities have more mobility.
Salima Hamirani: And the gates could have massive ecological impacts as well.
Tracy Brown: One of the things that’s gonna happen. That’s been shown by a study that was done by Phil Orton, a scientist at the Stevens Institute is that the barriers, the permanent in water aspects of the barriers are gonna be a collection point for pollution. The sediment’s gonna back up on each side when the tides come in and out. And we have a lot of toxic sediments and a lot of pollution.
And then you add what’s the impact of when it’s closed. And that’s when the real impact happens. And if we look forward to rising sea levels, and even though these gates aren’t designed to address sea level rise as we have more flooding because the sea level is rising, there’s gonna be increased pressure on elected officials, every time we have one of those full moon, high tide events coming to close the gates. And the more often they’re closed, the more impact that has on keeping the fish and keeping their life cycle intact.
Salima Hamirani: The types of seagates that the army Corps wants to build in New York are different from sea walls built right up against the shoreline, but in both cases, they tend to degrade the local ecology.
Melanie Bishop: Where these. Seawalls are constructed, we’re losing natural habitat and that natural shoreline habitat is often things like sea grass, salt marsh, coastal habitats that are really important nursery grounds for fishes that are important in sequestering and storing carbon and are real hotspots of biodiversity.
Salima Hamirani: that’s Melanie Bishop.
Melanie Bishop: I’m a Marine ecologist at Macquarie university in Sydney, Australia, and also the co-founder of living sea walls.
The second ecological issue is what we term coastal squeeze. naturally shorelines are not static, so they will move landward or seaward according to sediment, fluxes and changing conditions. So what happens when you build these structures? Is that rather than having the shoreline that can move seaward and landward according to conditions, it’s now static.
And so what happens is during those times where the shoreline would naturally retreat towards the land. What we’re seeing is that all of this biodiversity the animals and the plants that live. Intertidal zone between the high watermark and the low watermark they’re being squeezed out.
Salima Hamirani: So sea walls and Seagate come with a lot of problems. And at the same time, we have to contend with the future in which our current shorelines will be underwater. And places like New York need to protect people from another deadly hurricane.
So what alternatives do we have? Well, in the first half, our reporter talked about using oyster shells to build up a living shoreline. You can also create natural shorelines with coral reefs and mangrove forest.
Melanie Bishop: And what these habitats do is multifold. Something like a shellfish reef or a coral reef can actually serve as a natural Breakwater. So there’s been some interesting studies actually from North Carolina that compared the performance of structures, such as bulkheads to marsh and oyster reef in providing coastal protection through hurricane events. And they actually found. That the natural habitats were doing a much better job. They weren’t suffering the same damage and there was much more resilience in these systems to cope with multiple storms.
Salima Hamirani: And because many of these natural shorelines are alive, they continue to grow.
Melanie Bishop: Things like a mangrove forest, they trap sediment and they can naturally grow vertically through time. And so in many instances, they can actually keep pace with sea level rise.
Salima Hamirani: Finally, there’s a hybrid option where the sea walls are half artificial, half natural.
Melanie Bishop: So a traditional sea wall is vertical. It is fairly flat in nature, so it’s either a smooth concrete surface or it’s blocks of rock that have been grouted together. And so what this means is that there’s really nowhere for Marine life to hide from predators and also from environmental stressors.
And so it’s all about reintroducing those nooks and crannies, those little hollows for things to hide in and get protected. And so rather than having a vertical structure, can you actually slope it to provide more area for things to attach to?
Can you actually create stepped blocks? Can you cut those blocks in a heterogeneous manner and. Though they’re not all the same and smooth, and there’s spaces in between where things can hide.
Salima Hamirani: For Tracy and organizations like river. Keep the hope is that as New York prepares for its future engineers and community members take a tiered approach to protecting the shoreline one that respects the life giving as well as the life taking aspects of the ocean.
Tracy Brown: One of my personal worries as we head into the impact of climate change is that the life taking aspect of water and the threatening aspect of water will become what’s forefront in everyone’s mind. And we have to remember that water is also life giving and life sustaining and water is full of life. And, that building walls and channelizing water, and just moving water from one community to the next community, is not a good solution. It’s not good.
Salima Hamirani: That was Melanie, Bishop and Tracy brown, talking about sea walls and seagates. And that does it for today’s Making Contact. To get more information about today’s show, please visit us at radioproject.org. Follow us on Twitter. Our handle is making_contact and on Instagram we’re makingcontactradioproject. I’m Salima Hamirani. Thanks for listening to Making Contact