A nor'easter floods coastal areas of Cape Cod. Credit: Meera Subramanian

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They Know Seas Are Rising, but They’re Not Abandoning Their Beloved Cape Cod

Lifelong residents are building higher with each flood. But while they contend with climate change, some say they aren’t sure what to believe about the cause.

“It flooded in early January, and then it happened again two or three months later,” says Matt Teague of Barnstable, Mass., about the slew of storms that hit Cape Cod in the winter of 2017. “We’re like, what are we doing here?” he says, opening his arms skyward.

It is now the peak of summer as I stand with Matt in the seaside community of Blish Point at the front door of the house he owns—a house that’s about to be demolished. Matt, 43, with a trim graying beard and a belt buckle in the shape of a fishhook, is the owner of REEF Design & Build, which works all across Cape Cod. He bought the house with his brother and father more than 10 years ago as an investment. Blish Point, an area where native fishermen once laid out their nets to dry, today contains a couple hundred homes nestled between the mouth of Barnstable Harbor and the verdant marsh of Maraspin Creek. Some of the homes are upscale; others are simple cottages. The Teague house, one of the simple cottages, was ruined by flooding: five major storms in the past three years alone have struck this area, and two of the four nor’easters last winter inundated the ground-level home.

Locator: Barnstable, Massachusetts

Matt pushes his sunglasses atop his head, revealing a pale strip of untanned skin along his temple, as he stretches out his hand 2 feet above the door’s threshold to show me where the water rose to during the storms. Over his shoulder, a hungry excavator sits ready to begin its work as Matt’s extended family arrives, setting up lawn chairs across the street from the doomed house, joking about who forgot the popcorn. They have come to watch the carnage.

In spite of his own rhetorical question, after the demolition, Matt is going to rebuild—not elsewhere, but right here, only higher.

“The new top of the foundation will probably be about here,” he says, shifting his hand to 3 feet above the flood mark, indicating a spot level with the door knocker, about shoulder-height. REEF Design & Build is raising the foundation not only for Matt’s replacement house, but for many of the coastal houses the company is already building. Construction companies like his are responding to local building regulations, which are in turn responding to the most recent flood maps issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Outside his flood-damaged home, Matt Teague shows how high the replacement house will be. Despite too-frequent flooding, lifelong residents of the area have no interest in a managed retreat. Credit: Meera Subramanian
Outside his flood-damaged home, Matt Teague shows how high the foundation of his replacement house will be. Despite too-frequent flooding, lifelong residents of the area have no interest in a managed retreat. Credit: Meera Subramanian

While Matt the small-business owner is earning a good living from the building boom, there’s also Matt the boy-turned-man who has been connected to the harbor across the street all his life and doesn’t want to leave. “My grandfather worked here. I work here. My son works on a fishing boat here. It’s a pretty special place for us.” Like many Cape Codders, he is not ready to leave, no matter how much the sea encroaches.

“It’s the new normal, unfortunately,” Matt tells me with a shrug. His plan to move up instead of away—an action at once complacent and defiant—is emblematic of the stubborn New England hardiness that has been part of the Blish Point community since it was settled by Europeans centuries ago. But the “new normal” keeps shifting, and flood maps are drawn from the wrack lines (high-water marks) of the past, completely underestimating the likely impact of most climate projections. It’s a gamble to live on America’s shorelines in the 21st century, and those who dig in as they build upward are hoping they can stay one step ahead of sea level rise and the storm surges that increasingly threaten their homes.

Red Blood Among the Blues

Although Massachusetts is a solidly blue state as a whole, it is pockmarked with red regions, including chunks of the Cape. At election time, lawns along scenic Cape Cod byways sprout signs supporting deeply conservative candidates who make nary a mention of climate change in their campaigns. Before the September primaries, signs plaster every intersection in support of the re-election of Barnstable County Commissioner Ron Beaty Jr. —a strong Donald Trump supporter who served time in federal prison for threatening to kill both President George H.W. Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Matt Teague is vastly more moderate than this—though he comes from conservative stock. His father, Edward B. Teague III, represented Barnstable in the state legislature for eight years in the 1990s, eventually rising to House Republican leader, and spent some time as a conservative talk radio host. Matt was a lifelong Republican himself—until about 10 years ago. Then, exasperated by how hyper-partisan American politics had become, he “walked away from all of it,” as he puts it. But not all of it, exactly; he voted for Donald Trump in 2016. “I got to make a living, and I don’t like handing my money out to other people,” he says by way of explanation.

Sea level is rising at an accelerated pace along the Mid-Atlantic coast, from Cape Hatteras to north of Boston, while land in some of those areas is sinking. Residents can try to adapt or face more frequent flooding. Credit: Robert Scott Button
Sea level is rising at an accelerated pace along the Mid-Atlantic coast, from Cape Hatteras to north of Boston, while land in some of those areas is sinking. Residents can try to adapt or face more frequent flooding. Credit: Robert Scott Button

Matt has two top political concerns: low taxes and what will become of his beloved Cape. “What’s that harbor gonna look like in 10 years?” he asks wistfully, taking a momentary breather from his usual fast-paced mode of talk. “I want it to be clean, and I want it there for my kids.” While he generally trusts science, he stops just short of accepting the scientific consensus on climate change. Perhaps, he suggests, the recent rounds of flooding were just a statistical anomaly. He sees the shifting sands in the harbor and can imagine it filling up in a century and becoming a marsh as easily as he can envision all of Blish Point underwater. “Who knows what this will look like?” he says.

What he does know is that he loves the Cape; It “is my whole life.”

Managed Retreat from the Shore? Not Here.

Sea level has been rising since the end of the last Ice Age, around 20,000 years ago, when Cape Cod was formed as the Laurentide Ice Sheet retreated. But the pace of sea level rise in the last century far exceeds the previous incremental increase that took place over eons. As land ice melts at the poles and warm ocean waters expand, sea level is rising at an accelerated rate along the Mid-Atlantic coast, from Cape Hatteras to north of Boston. At the same time, in a kind of double whammy, the land is sinking from natural geological processes. If greenhouse gas emissions stay at their current levels, New England could experience seas that are nearly 7 feet higher than they are today by the end of the century, according to state documents.

Residents on Blish Point are concerned about adaptation, to a point. Credit: Meera Subramanian
Residents on Blish Point are concerned about adaptation. A citizen group there helped secure $1.3 million in state funding for the area, money they hope will go in part toward restoring the marsh so it can better absorb flood impacts. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Homeowners can easily dismiss the grave risks of the nearby Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant, one of the country’s worst-rated nuclear plants, which sits directly on the edge of Cape Cod Bay. It’s harder for them to ignore the tenuous future (and value) of their Cape homes when storm damage from sea level rise increases. A report released this year by the Union of Concerned Scientists showed that nearly 90,000 Massachusetts homes, valued today at $63 billion, could be at risk by the end of the century—not just during storms but chronically, dozens of times each year. This past summer, low-lying areas were inundated during new- and full-moon tides, leading to the strange situation of having flood advisories when there was no rain. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists report, more than half of the homes in Blish Point are at risk of going the way of Matt’s cottage, needing to be raised or risk ruin.

Finding Middle Ground

In some parts of the country facing this scenario, communities are opting for “managed retreat,” in which homeowners in vulnerable neighborhoods allow themselves to be bought out all at once by city and state governments, instead of having the government bail them out repeatedly. But seaside properties maintain their special allure on old Cape Cod, which has a flat sandy seascape with an unavoidably low-lying geography—and Barnstable’s Blish Point is not entertaining such a radical idea as managed retreat. Although the state recently passed legislation allocating $2.4 billion toward climate change adaptation and other environmental protections across Massachusetts, of which the Blish Point neighborhood will receive $1.3 million, buyouts are not a priority.

Instead, in the wake of the floods last winter, it wasn’t just Matt Teague, but many Blish Point homeowners who were wrestling with hard decisions as they asked the question: “What are we doing here?” Some, like the Teagues, made plans to demolish and rebuild. Some had had enough, and a flurry of “For Sale” signs appeared by the time the summer tourists arrived. Some formed a citizen group that was partly responsible for getting that $1.3 million in state funding, which they hope will go toward restoring the marsh so it can better absorb flood impacts, and ensuring safe exit routes when it can’t. Meanwhile, the day after the wicked January 4 storm, the neighborhood children ice skated with delight on the flood waters that had frozen, glasslike, in the front yard of Matt Teague’s neighbor—while the same ice seized the interior contents of the houses and transformed them into wreckage.

Appreciating ‘Common Sense Regulation’

Six weeks after the July demolition of the Teague residence, I step off the seventh rung of an extension ladder onto the new ground floor of Matt’s freshly framed house, which is damp after a recent downpour. The plywood we’re standing on is 13 feet above sea level, one foot above the minimum 12-foot base flood elevation height the town requires for this particular spot based on FEMA floodplain maps. Matt hopes to be the builder for nearly two dozen other houses in Blish Point, as they rise up, one by one, a town of extremely elevated homes defining Cape Cod’s new normal.

Builder Matt Teague wants to see strong state and local building codes and common sense regulations based on fundamentally real and good science. Credit: Robert Scott Button
Builder Matt Teague wants to see strong state and local building codes and “common sense regulations based on fundamentally real and good science.” Credit: Robert Scott Button

Matt’s cousin, Ian O’Connell, is there, too, and we all look down at the neighborhood from the new bird’s-eye view. Ian, 40, has a big grin and curly dark hair peeking out from below a baseball cap with a fish logo. He missed the 2016 election, working on boats in the Caribbean and feeling like his vote wouldn’t count in Massachusetts anyway, but he speaks positively of Trump’s efforts to boost the economy. Like his cousin, Ian is fed up with both political parties; he considers himself an independent.

Ian is a service manager across the street at Millway Marina, which is owned by his father-in-law. During one of last year’s storms, he used the snow plow on the front of his truck to part flood waters so he could get to work. Ian scrolls through his phone searching for photos of the storm’s damage. One image shows a fuel pump half-submerged. Another shows a rack of boats. “See how close that boat is to floating?” he asks. “It’s within two inches of lifting off the stands. … It was scary.” At one point, he says, the waters rose so high that a floating dock threatened to rise up off the piling that secured it. Ian had wrangled into waders and scrambled up the piling to bolt a vertical extension post, in the middle of the storm. It was New England can-do spirit in action.

Matt Teague stands on the first floor of his newly elevated house, which is 1 foot above the required base flood elevation height that building codes require. Credit: Meera SubramanianMatt Teague stands on the first floor of his new, elevated house, which
Matt Teague stands on the first floor of his new, elevated house, which is 1 foot above the required base flood elevation height building codes require. Credit: Meera Subramanian

I ask the two men what they think about how climate change, regulations and science all fit into this picture.

“We’re on a warming trend,” Ian says. “We’re coming out of an ice age going towards a hot time. Is it happening faster than it should? I couldn’t tell you.” But he thinks it’s ridiculous for politicians to take sides on the issue. “Leave it to a scientist to tell you that.”

Matt keeps reverting to practicalities as a builder. He is grateful for state and local building codes that get stronger with each iteration. He praises officials for adopting “common sense regulations based on fundamentally real and good science.” Even though he’s not wholly convinced that humans are causing climate change, he says someone should pay attention to the data. “That is the role of the government.” Despite what many of his fellow Trump voters might think, regulations “don’t suck,” says Matt. “They allow me to go to work.” Of course, if a builder is required to construct stronger, taller—and more expensive—buildings because of climate change impacts, he can pass along costs to customers more easily than, say, Midwestern farmers facing extreme weather who rarely have control over what their crops and livestock earn them at market.

Ian isn’t opposed to regulation, either. For those who live near the water, he says, regulations have had some positive effects.

“Remember the sheen that used to be in this harbor when we were kids?” Matt asks, referring to the iridescent layer caused by the oil and gasoline that spewed from inefficient two-stroke boat engines.

Ian brightens, that grin emerging again; he does remember it. “Everything has gotten better,” he says. “Engines got better. Policy has gotten better. Groundwater testing has gotten better. Everyone’s more conscious. Everything is more efficient and economical.”

Ian O'Connell and Matt Teague in Teague's newly framed, elevated house. Credit: Meera Subramanian
“Everyone’s more conscious. Everything is more efficient and economical,” Ian O’Connell says of the impact of coastal regulations. Credit: Meera Subramanian

But while Matt and Ian have gotten used to the benefits from past regulations, they seem unconcerned about the possible dismantling of environmental restrictions that helped their community and beloved harbor thrive.

“They’re not going to say, ‘Dump your waste oil in the harbor,’” Matt says.

“’Let’s bring the two-strokes back,’” Ian says, laughing. “That’s not going to happen!”

But the Trump Administration is rapidly eroding environmental and climate protections. One week after our conversation in the shell of Matt’s house, the EPA announced it would no longer require that coal-fired power plant upgrades include pollution-controlling scrubbers. It was one of dozens of rollbacks already secured or underway that could move the country farther from its Paris climate accord commitments and the Obama-era Clean Power Plan and closer to making 7-foot sea level rise a reality—and one that would arrive on Cape Cod’s shores even sooner than originally projected, along with more powerful storms.

Salty Dogs and a Dose of Reality

Ian tells me to go talk to his father-in-law, Jack Hill, the owner of Millway Marina, if I want an even longer-term perspective of what’s happened along the shoreline. I find Jack sitting quietly at his desk overlooking Barnstable Harbor. Now in his early 70s, he first worked this same harbor’s edge when he was a teenager. Then, trash fish from the harbor were sent to feed mink on farms in Wisconsin, he says, and the tide didn’t come as high as it does now.

Late-summer late-afternoon sunlight spills through the vertical blinds, across Jack’s pale aqua eyes and teal shirt, down to the fading cornflower carpet, all echoes of the world of water that surrounds us. Beyond the window, past a couch with a life-sized plush toy black lab, I can see the extension to the piling that Ian banged into place last winter, mid-storm.

Matt Teague's teardown of his storm-damaged home drew a crowd. Credit: Meera Subramanian
Matt Teague’s tear-down of his storm-damaged home drew a crowd. Five major storms in the past three years have struck this area, and two of last winter’s nor’easters inundated the ground-level home. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Jack is a man both steadfast and simmering. He tells me he voted for Trump. As a small-business owner, he says, his vote was driven by a desire for low taxes, and Republicans offered him more along those lines than Democrats. But about voting for Trump, he now says, “I’m sorry that I did, because he’s a moron.”

And when it comes to the issue of climate change, Jack thinks everyone in office is inept.

“All these politicians with their bullshit,” he says, shaking his head. “There is a climate problem, and what are they doing about it? Nothing.” I ask what he thinks they should be doing about it. Talking, he says. “You can’t just completely say to one side, ‘You’re full of shit,’ because then you’re going to get nowhere.”

Newer building codes call for stronger, storm-proof windows and other measures designed to limit damage from worsening storms. Credit: Robert Scott Button
Newer building codes are designed to limit damage from worsening storms and floods, and many people in Blish Point consider building higher and stronger a better solution than leaving. “Humans have always figured out a way to live where they live,” Matt Teague says. Credit: Robert Scott Button

The salt of the harbor flavors his language when discussing politics, but when a woman pushes open the squeaky door, asking about whale watch boat tickets, he directs her to the next building with a polite “ma’am.”

“I just can’t believe that straight, clear-thinking, halfway intellectual people can’t see that there’s a climate control problem,” Jack resumes, leaning back in his chair. He’d like to see a comprehensive plan to address the problem for the sake of his kids, but “what’s the plan now? Burn more coal? What the hell is that? That doesn’t make any sense at all.”

“You just have to figure out where the curves cross,” he says as we finish talking. “How much can you enjoy without ruining the environment? I’m sure there are people thinking about it, but they sure are awful quiet.”

The Ocean Creeps In

Follow the course of the shifting sands from Jack’s office at Millway Marina and Barnstable Harbor and you’ll wash ashore in Dennis, another Cape Cod town which, under the new FEMA flood maps, saw the number of homes at risk nearly triple. There you’ll find Dan Fortier, a town planner who’s not being quiet as he tries to turn adaptive strategies into reality. He gets some of his guidance from documents such as the state’s climate change adaptation report, which recommends dozens of specific strategies to face the changes ahead. Some read like a Hippocratic oath of shorelines, directing a “No Adverse Impact” approach to managing coastal lands, while others promote using future climate change projections instead of historical data to estimate sea level rise and flood zones. But when we spoke, Dan kept returning to the economic risk for a place whose “export industry is summer.”

With one-third of the residential properties in town being in a flood zone, “the impacts of the next storm are always on my mind,” says Dan, who’s worked with the town for 18 years. “If we lost one-third of our property value, it would be disastrous … the death of our economy.” That’s the bind coastal towns find themselves in. They want to keep their citizens safe, but they depend on the property taxes of the most vulnerable of properties, which also happen to be the most valuable. At least for now.

The most coveted home locations on cape cod are also the most vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surges. Credit: Meera Subramanian
The most coveted home locations on Cape Cod are often the most vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surges. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Dan doesn’t question the impact of climate change on the Cape. “Just in the last two decades, we have a continual creeping in of the ocean,” he tells me. “The ocean doesn’t recede the way it used to. Water is just there more and more because of sea level rise.”

As tides ebb and flow, so do the tourists. By Labor Day, most of the cars loaded down with kayaks and sunburnt families will have driven away over the bridges, and the local kids will head back to school—though an unprecedented heat wave will cause the first day of some schools to be cancelled. By then, the tall concrete foundation wall of Matt’s house will be hidden behind white siding, with shingles covering the upper stories that tower over his closest neighbors. Around the Cape, high-up houses like Matt’s will keep sprouting. The 2018 hurricane season so far has been quiet around the Cape, but farther south, the Carolinas are reeling from an estimated $1 billion in damage from storm surge and flooding from Hurricane Florence.

During one of my conversations with Matt, I ask what he’ll do if the 1-foot-above-flood-plain level that he chose for his foundation’s height proves insufficient. “I designed it so I can jack it up again!” he says. He laughs, then pauses, becoming more reflective. “People are adaptive. Humans have always figured out a way to live where they live,” he says. Consider the desert. The Arctic. Coastal areas. “The problem in the past was that people had to learn the hard way.” Losing homes to floods is pretty hard, but New Englanders are used to hardship and hard weather and cleaning up after storms. Now they’re getting used to building their homes higher and higher, hoping to reach themselves out of harm’s way—and keep the view.

“The fact that there’s enough science out there to provide some predictability for that and to provide for some policy—that makes sense,” Matt says returning to the hope for smart policy based on solid science. “I think that’s as good as you’re going to get.”

Top photo: A nor’easter hits Cape Cod, swamping coastal areas. Credit: Meera Subramanian