Rethinking Home on Long Beach by Doug Sheer

by Doug Sheer on


A person in shorts, sneakers and a hoodie crouching at the water’s edge on a rocky beach at sunrise or sunset.

I can’t remember a time I didn’t love islands.  I was born on one, lived on one for most of my life and even chose to work on one when I volunteered for the Peace Corps.  In all of my island experiences the sea kept me close to nature with its tides, smells, sea life and beach life.  The sea was always to be respected but rarely feared.  Starting in the 1990s, talk of global warming and the effects of rising sea levels brought stories of islands around the world losing ground and salt water inundating low lying land. 

For most of the world these stories of loss were far away and seemed to have little to do with everyday life for most of humanity.  Responsibility for climate change was either met with arguments about the cyclical changes of nature or the warming of our planet due to an increasingly industrialized world.  The sad fact is that more people started to take notice when populated areas of industrialized nations came into the crosshairs of storms.  Super Storm Sandy certainly caught the attention of the Northeast of the United States as it plowed into New York and New Jersey at the end of October 2012. 

When people ask why we didn’t evacuate prior to the arrival of Sandy we’re reluctant to say that after a lifetime on the island of Long Beach we never saw any real flooding.  The night of Sandy’s arrival we watched the water in the canal across from out house pour over the bulkhead and move across the street and right under our front door.  It didn’t stop until it reached a height of 2 1/2 feet but before that the lights went out as we took to the stairs and listened to car alarms go off and nearby houses go up in flames. 

The next morning revealed what Sandy had done to our island home. With cars and boats strewn around the streets and people walking around in a daze we wondered where to turn.  The months that followed left the neighborhood nearly abandoned but soon construction crews and insurance representatives descend on the community.  A year later has 20% of our neighbors yet to return home and dozens of houses either abandoned or razed. 

Now, a year and a half after Sandy we think back about the many months when the military patrolled our streets, neighbors shared stories and consoled one another and the slow process of rebuilding began.  Since Sandy a new view of the waters around our island home has emerged and with it a sense that global warming poses a real threat to hundreds of millions of people who live near the coast.  We wonder how many more storms will ravage communities before serious measures will be taken to slow if not reverse global warming. Will we see the people of low-lying archipelagos abandon homes for higher ground?

Text that states, “Homes are certainly more than houses …” is superimposed over a photo of a pointed rooftop with a chimney against a sky with cumulus clouds.

For many people the risks are too great to stay where the sea has visited.  For those of us who have decided to remain the decision to raze our homes or lift them onto 8’ foundations is not only one of safety from future storms but it avoids the threat of flood insurance premiums rising to unaffordable levels. 

Homes are certainly more than houses.  They contain memories of children raised and parents growing old.  They were tended to and repaired for a lifetime and still need to be worked on.  They are our refuge where their familiarity provides a sense of security.  More than a bit of that was lost after Sandy and a new view of the ocean and bay now pervades our psyche.  We view that water with a wary eye.  We talk of building dunes and sea walls to keep future storms out and often think of moving inland away from the beaches we once enjoyed because they were so close and now seem too close. 

We now see people who suffer from stronger storms and frequent flooding and better understand their suffering.  We know the rules have changed regarding where the sea can go and our relationship to it.  We have a new appreciation for the help that saved us when the government provided housing and meals were served in our streets.  Where we once spent time enjoying the beaches where the sea lapped on the sand and children built sand castles we now know the fragility of our own homes and communities.

Doug Sheer

"Rethinking Home: Climate Change in New York and Samoa" is a Museum Connect Project sponsored by The U.S Department of State and The American Alliance of Museum. Click here to follow us on Twitter!