Transcript

762: Apocalypse Creep

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

From WBZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And let me just-- I'm just going to reach out and retune your signal here a little bit from whatever Public Radio station or podcast streaming service you're listening to. And where we're going to is 101.5 Truckee Tahoe Radio in northern California near Lake Tahoe. And I'm going to retune from today to April of last year.

Dondo Darue

It's springtime and the opening weekend of fishing season, and that means it's time for the return of the 101.5 Fishing Report, brought to you every week by Mountain Hardware and Sports in Truckee.

Ira Glass

101.5 is the one radio station in Truckee, and the Fishing Report runs Friday, Saturday, Sunday every week, three times a day, during the summer, which is about right for a mountain town filled with lots of people who are there because they love the outdoors.

Dondo Darue

Now let's talk fishing. The Truckee River has great flows for springtime right now. It's not too high and minimal snow melt is happening. Please be sure to wade carefully near the shorelines. That's where the fish are hanging out, so be sure not to scare them.

Ira Glass

Each fishing report has lots of helpful information about how much water is flowing through the Truckee and Little Truckee Rivers at various spots, which affects fishing. And then there are long sections that, I have to admit, even though I grew up fishing on the Chesapeake Bay, are complete gibberish to me.

Dondo Darue

Indicator and euro nymphing are producing the best results for anglers. Dry fly favorites include EC Caddis, Parachute Adams, and Cripple March Browns.

Ira Glass

Fly fishing. A listener to 101.5, Emily McAllister, sent us this Fishing Report and a bunch of others, because this past summer, as she listened, she noticed that the 101.5 Fishing Report-- this steady, sturdy, unflappable piece of angling boosterism-- seemed to be telling the kind of story that hadn't ever shown up there before in the Fishing Report. The oddness began in July.

Dondo Darue

Well, right out of the chute this week, anglers are advised to stop fishing the Truckee River from noon until about 6:00 PM due to warm water temperatures. Catch and release is very difficult on the fish right now in the afternoon. So please, fish only early mornings and the last light of day.

Ira Glass

So that was the start. But it was really two weeks later, August 6, that Emily's ears perked up when The Fishing Report told people to carry a piece of gear lots of us don't usually associate with fishing.

Dondo Darue

Anglers are still being advised not to fish the river during peak temperatures. Please be sure to bring a thermometer to test the temperatures before casting. Anything above 66 degrees makes it very strenuous on the fish.

Ira Glass

Bring a thermometer. It was the warmest summer on record in California, not much rain or snow that year. Hence, the warm water. Then at the end of August, something else made its way into The Fishing Report.

Dondo Darue

To provide better public and firefighter safety, due to extreme fire conditions throughout northern California and strained firefighting resources throughout the country, the Forest Service has implemented a temporary closure of nine national forests in California. Anglers are currently prohibited from fishing Boca, Prosser, Stampede, and Jackson Meadows reservoirs, Lakes Basin, Little Truckee River, and any section of the Truckee River that's on National Forest land until September 7.

Ira Glass

He does point out two places where you still can fish, though he says water levels there are very low.

Dondo Darue

And that's it for this week's Fishing Report. Until next time, tight lines and hope for rain.

Ira Glass

They don't get rain. Things don't improve. There's the Dixie fire to the north of Lake Tahoe and the Caldor fire to the south. A day after this report runs, a mandatory evacuation is ordered for a big area south of Lake Tahoe. Lots of other people flee, as well. And Truckee's like a ghost town. But a week later, the September 3 Fishing Report still goes on the air, cheerful as ever.

Dondo Darue

It's time to stop wishing and get fishing. This is the weekly 101.5 Fishing Report, brought to you by Mountain Hardware and Sports in Truckee. The Forest Service has temporarily closed all national forests in the state. These forest closures include local rivers and reservoirs and affect where anglers can fish. Please respect these current closures. The tentative date for forests to reopen is September 13.

Ira Glass

OK, let's jump ahead a month to October 15. Evacuation orders have been lifted. The Caldor and Dixie fires will soon be out. But there's a new problem.

Dondo Darue

The flows on the Truckee River are minimal these days, with flows coming out of Lake Tahoe at around 1 CFS. Yes, that's 1 cubic foot per second. The Upper Truckee River can't really be fished.

Ira Glass

A week later, they beat that record.

Dondo Darue

The Truckee River's flows for this week are Tahoe City, 0.1. That's right, less than 0.

Ira Glass

The water is not moving. I was curious if the guy who reads the fishing report noticed how weird it got last year, so we reached out. He was glad to talk. He's the kind of old-school DJ who goes by one name on the air, and that name is Dondo. Off the air, he also has a last name-- Darue. Dondo says he definitely noticed how out there The Fishing Report got last year when the water flows dropped so quickly. He'd never seen water flows get that low. Then the forests were closed down to fishing, which had never happened for so long.

Dondo Darue

And then on top of that, we had a series of catastrophic fires last year. And it all sort of played its way through The Fishing Report. And you get the information, and I want to make it upbeat and interesting. But reading the raw copy, I would go, oh man. How-- ugh. You know?

Ira Glass

Yeah. So what do you do to make it upbeat? Because you definitely make it upbeat.

Dondo Darue

Well, it helps to have a music bed [LAUGHS] that's kind of upbeat. And although it is hard sometimes when everything's on fire and COVID variants are spreading like crazy and you're trying to be upbeat, like oh, and here's the new Weezer.

[LAUGHTER]

It's kind of hard to make that transition.

Ira Glass

Yeah. It's kind of scarier because you're so cheerful about it. It's almost like it's scarier because we've adapted, you know what I mean?

Dondo Darue

Yeah. I never really thought about that, but I think you're right. There are plenty of times-- thankfully, it's radio-- when you go into something and you turn the microphone off and I just rest my forehead in my hand and go, oh man.

Ira Glass

There's been a lot of that this last year. Dondo doesn't just do the fishing report on 101.5. He's also the DJ during morning drivetime, three hours every weekday. And he says he tries to keep it lighter because they're a music station. People aren't coming to them for the news, really. He's been doing radio 42 years. He's older than anybody else at the station. Calls his daily show "Yesterday's Morning Show of Tomorrow Today," which maybe gives you a feeling for his sense of humor.

He does fish himself, but he only went out once last season. It was hard living around Truckee and Tahoe last summer. It's a place where lots of houses don't have AC, and because of the air quality, you were supposed to stay inside with the windows closed during unusually hot days and nights of almost no rain. Then the Caldor fire got close to them with so much smoke. And at its worst, it was like twilight in the middle of the day.

When the wind shifted, Dondo says, you could taste what was being burned. It was hard to sleep at night, even with three air purifiers they bought for their house. Dondo's lived in the area most of his life and said he's never been so frightened that they'd lose their home.

Dondo Darue

It was scary. The fear was really palpable. And I tried not to talk about it much around my kids-- they're 10 and 14-- because they were frightened by it, as well. When you can't see anything, you know what's going on. And my son, who's our youngest, he would ask me about every other day, Dad, where do we go if we get evacuated?

And we put yellow dots, little yellow, sticky dots on everything in the house that if we had time, we would grab and throw in the car.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Dondo Darue

It was really kind of apocalyptic, in a way. One of the things I would say on the air was like, oh, we have another Martian sunrise today. And just this orange-- the sun was just a colored ball that kind of came up over the horizon.

Ira Glass

Do you feel like that's kind of snuck up on you these last few years, this apocalyptic feeling?

Dondo Darue

Yeah, to the point where it seems like, well, this is how it's going to be every year.

Ira Glass

This apocalyptic feeling that so many of us have, it's not the kind of apocalypse that happens in an instant, like nuclear bombs going off or, I don't know, aliens invading. It's climate change, so it's slow. Dondo says, in previous years, he definitely noticed summers getting hotter, longer stretches without rain or snow. And then finally, it feels like we're past a tipping point. Or maybe we're not. It's hard to be sure. It's like apocalypse creep, the end of the world that we know oozing up around us, one hot day at a time.

Today on our program, we have stories of people in what seems like, from the outside, pretty extreme situations. And they have to decide to notice the creep or to ignore it, to act or not to act. Stay with us.

Act One: Apocalypse Now-ish

Ira Glass

Act one, Apocalypse Now-ish.

[MUSIC - MALVINA REYNOLDS, "LITTLE BOXES"]

(SINGING) Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky. Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same.

Pacifica, California, is a community of about 40,000 people on the ocean just south of San Francisco. This song that you're hearing, "Little Boxes," it was written about the tract housing that was thrown up in neighboring Daly City after the Second World War. Those same tract houses went up in Pacifica.

(SINGING) There's a pink one and a green one and a blue one and a yellow one. And they're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

Those tract houses are actually pretty nice, even if they are the same. And these days, there are newer, fancier houses, too. Some tech types have moved in. But Pacifica is still mostly middle class, about 20% Asian, 20% Latino, 60% white, a beach town with famously great surfing and a Taco Bell that people call the world's most beautiful Taco Bell. But Pacifica is struggling with their own slow-moving apocalypse. Alix Spiegel explains.

Alix Spiegel

For the first seven years after Jane moved in, everything about her house was normal. The building itself wasn't particularly impressive. It was a modest three-bedroom cottage. But that worked fine for a single mom like her. And since the house had been built high on a cliff in the city of Pacifica, her view of the ocean was spectacular.

Jane had always wanted to live by the sea. So even though the house had drained every cent from her bank account, for Jane, it was worth it. Every night, she fell asleep to the sound of crashing waves. Or anyway, that was how it went for seven gloriously normal years until one February morning in 1998.

Jane Tollini

My bedroom was right on the ocean. It opened out onto the lovely little patio with a sliding glass door. And I was in the bedroom in my queen-size bed, sat up, and my backyard was gone.

Alix Spiegel

It was so strange. When Jane had gone to bed the night before, everything about the back of her house had been in order. And Jane's backyard was pretty big, not the kind that usually disappears in the middle of the night.

Jane Tollini

It had a patio in the back that was maybe eight feet wide. Then it had ice plant that was maybe 25 feet. Then there was a fence that was really sturdy. And then on the other side of the fence, there was another eight, 10 feet.

Alix Spiegel

Jane couldn't understand it. It had rained the day before, but during the night, there'd been no storm, no wind, no earthquake. Maybe she was stuck in some strange life-like dream?

Jane Tollini

It wouldn't register, and I went out of my bedroom and into the kitchen and kind of looked out the window, back at my bedroom, and realized that part of the bedroom was not attached to anything. The cliff was gone.

Alix Spiegel

Was it literally like the sea crashing beneath your house?

Jane Tollini

Yes. Yea, it was. My house was essentially-- at least the bedroom part of it-- was hanging pretty much in midair.

Alix Spiegel

Looking back through her kitchen window at her now precariously dangling bedroom, the problem was perfectly obvious. The 70-foot-tall cliff which had supported her house had quietly slid into the ocean while she slept.

Jane Tollini

Just kind of went, ooh, gently into the sea.

Alix Spiegel

Jane knew 1998 was an El Nino year, which meant stronger storms and currents in her part of northern California. She also knew that stronger currents would eat away at the bluffs beneath her house more quickly. But Jane and her neighbors hadn't been worried. Sure, in theory, El Nino could cause their homes to tumble into the ocean. But in their experience, theory rarely translated into practice, so it didn't seem real. In fact, two weeks earlier, Jane had had the whole street over for a raucous El Nino party.

Jane Tollini

And I told everybody to come, bring something, and wear flotation devices. So everybody had on water rings, inner tubes, you know, life jackets.

Alix Spiegel

Jane had worn a necklace of rubber duckies strung around her neck and carried a huge drink for most of the night. Together, they all drank and danced and laughed, secure in the knowledge that, though nature might be hazardous for some, they, themselves, were safe.

Jane Tollini

It was a great party.

Alix Spiegel

But then here they were, two short weeks later, and the laughably distant threat they'd mocked suddenly wasn't as laughably distant. Not to Jane, and not to any of her neighbors.

Jane Tollini

Down the block, the same thing was happening. Everybody was losing their backyards. The guy next door to me lost-- his hot tub went over that was in his backyard. The other side of me, she lost her back porch. So there was 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9--

Alix Spiegel

In the end, 10 houses had to be abandoned. Today, there are only odd-numbered houses on Jane's old street. I know this may seem like an extreme example, but most of us are living some version of this story, dancing and drinking as the world under our feet disappears. I certainly am. It's like we know something bad is coming, but it's so far away, and look, alcohol.

Jane Tollini

I mean, we looked hysterical coming up the block.

Alix Spiegel

The problems and temptations of now feel very pressing. The maybe possible future, very far away and unlikely to happen in our actual lifetime, until one day, when suddenly, the future is here and there's not much to do but take inventory.

Jane Tollini

Oh my god, the patio's gone. The picnic table's gone. The ice plant's gone.

Alix Spiegel

Certainly, that's how it had been in the city of Pacifica for decades, because I got to tell you, this issue of houses in the city of Pacifica disappearing into the sea, that got started long before Jane Tollini woke up to a world without a backyard.

Reporter 1

We've had dramatic video out of Pacifica for the past couple of weeks. It's not getting any better, the situation there. Cliff erosion--

Alix Spiegel

Many date the beginning to 1983, when the ocean swallowed the old Neiland house, a small cottage close to the beach in a neighborhood called Sharp Park. For a while after that, there was just a smattering of disappearances-- a house here, a house there. You hardly even noticed. But then around 2010, whole apartment buildings began to falter and news outlets from all over the world came to Pacifica to gawk.

Reporter 2

Clinging onto the edge of the Pacifica cliffs, these blocks of flats and houses won't be standing for much longer.

Alix Spiegel

Over the years, at least 31 homes and three apartment buildings were lost, a surreal horror movie in extremely slow motion. But few people in town were alarmed by what was happening. In fact, in an eerie kind of Stepford wife-ish way, most weren't alarmed at all. I heard that from resident after resident.

John Keener

No, not really. The town has never seemed alarmed by it.

Deirdre

We almost couldn't get them to pay attention, you know? I would say the only people who were worried about the actual houses and apartments were the people who lived there.

Margaret

It was oh, another anomaly. Too bad. There's some shock about bits and pieces breaking off, but then you settle back into what's normal.

Alix Spiegel

But then around 2018, something happened that many residents of Pacifica did find very alarming. It wasn't anything as flashy as a house or apartment building disappearing into the surf. It was a seemingly innocuous instruction nestled in an obscure guidance document put out by the California Coastal Commission, a small but powerful state agency whose job is to oversee land development along the coast.

The language was dense and technical. But once you parsed it, the message was clear-- people in the city of Pacifica were being asked to pause their dancing, put down their drinks, and for one moment, stand and consider what to do about the creeping apocalypse that threatened the fate of their city.

Alix Spiegel

Can you just read, like, those first two paragraphs?

John Keener

Actually out loud?

Alix Spiegel

Yeah, yeah.

John Keener

Ah, OK. So this is from the state of California, "Sea Level Rise Guidance."

Alix Spiegel

John Keener was mayor of Pacifica in 2018 when this whole thing blew up. On my second day in town, we sat in the living room of the home that he and his wife Kathleen share, a cream-colored tract house built in a part of town very far from the sea. Together in the morning light, we read through the bureaucratic guidance that had so unsettled his city.

John Keener

Climate change is upon us, affecting almost every facet of California's natural and built environment.

Alix Spiegel

Ooh, actually, will you read a little bit slower so that people can understand?

John Keener

OK. Climate change is upon us.

Alix Spiegel

Now, houses falling into the ocean, that's a thing that will happen when you build them on cliffs, just due to erosion. What the Commission was saying was that the problem was really going to accelerate in the coming decades because of sea level rise. The higher water would lead to more erosion and the warmer water would lead to more storms, which would also lead to more erosion.

According to scientists with the US Geological Survey, over the next 80 years, around half a million California homes could be impacted. Another study found that by 2050, around $10 billion worth of property in the state could, quote, "be underwater."

Now, the arrival of this dark future would be uneven. For some places on the coast, it might be 10 years. For others, it could be 30, 40, 50. But the commission was sure that sea level rise was coming and it wasn't going to be good, so it wanted cities to create an official plan for dealing with this problem. Essentially, they wanted every city to identify all of the places in their community where sea level rise would have negative impacts, then choose from this menu of strategies that are frequently used to deal with rising and more violent water. Stuff like putting houses on stilts or constructing massive seawalls that can act as a barrier and keep ocean water from eating away at the land.

And this is where the issue began, because one of the strategies the Commission wanted communities to consider was this thing called managed retreat.

John Keener

Retreat. Retreat strategies are those strategies that relocate or remove existing development out of hazard areas and limit the construction of new development in vulnerable areas.

Alix Spiegel

Basically, the idea is that the government pays people to move or physically lift their houses off the ground and relocate them. You just get houses out of the way and don't build more in places where seawater will become an overwhelming problem. That way, people don't wake up one morning, as Jane did--

Jane Tollini

My backyard was gone.

Alix Spiegel

--to their bedroom dangling over the wide, crashing sea.

Jane Tollini

To be honest with you, I went, holy shit.

Alix Spiegel

Now, the economic arguments for managed retreat can be appealing to a town like Pacifica, which doesn't have much money. See, often, to protect houses like Jane's from the ocean, you have to spend millions building a seawall or some other barrier that stops the water. Then you have to spend millions more to maintain it, because the ocean will eat away at the wall.

Another mark against seawalls is that seawalls, which are built on land near the water, always end up killing beaches. Unless you trek in massive amounts of sand every couple years, which is expensive, the water washes the sand away until the water is hitting the wall itself. Ergo, no more beaches. And a big part of the Commission's job is to protect California's iconic beaches.

Now, to be clear, there are plenty of situations where building some sort of barrier against the ocean makes economic sense-- say, a densely populated area. There, yes, a seawall is expensive, but you're protecting lots of homes and businesses. That's why the Coastal Commission was asking Pacifica to study and evaluate managed retreat on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.

For his part, John saw no harm in looking at managed retreat as an option, especially since the Commission wasn't demanding the town actually choose managed retreat or anything.

John Keener

It definitely wasn't saying that they had to do it. This was a guidance, but they wanted Pacifica to study it, to consider managed retreat.

Alix Spiegel

So in early 2018, the city started putting together a plan to submit to the California Coastal Commission. They hired engineering consultants to take measurements along the coast, analyze which neighborhoods would be hardest hit and when that hitting might occur. Then John and the consultants presented those findings in a series of public meetings meant to educate the public and get feedback.

John Keener

Welcome to another workshop on planning for sea level rise. I'm John Keener, mayor of Pacifica.

Alix Spiegel

In the meetings, the scientists and engineers laid out all of the options-- how they all worked, what they would cost. For some sections of town, it was clear seawalls made the most sense. For others, the consultants explained that managed retreat might be a smart option. But almost immediately, it became clear that there were citizens in Pacifica who thought managed retreat was a terrible idea. They didn't even want to consider it and were disturbed that managed retreat was on the table as an option at all.

Meeting Participant 1

Please don't destroy my house, which is the only thing I have.

Meeting Participant 2

My concern is that it's all going to be taken away from me by something that may or may not happen in the future. That's not right.

Meeting Participant 3

This all kind of bothers me, and things are really confusing.

Alix Spiegel

People were really upset. In fact, eventually, the meetings got so intense that police were asked to attend so things didn't get out of hand. People were demanding that the mayor stand up to the Coastal Commission and say no, categorically reject even the consideration of managed retreat. Will you do that, they asked their mayor, John Keener? Will you?

Meeting Participant 4

Excuse me, but you want--

Meeting Participant 5

OK, answer--

Jeff Guillet

Answer the question!

[LAUGHTER]

God. You said it was question and answer.

John Keener

Sir, I understand. But we've got to keep our cool here, OK?

Alix Spiegel

That frustrated man shouting "answer the question" is a resident named Jeff Guillet. Jeff is not the kind of person who typically raises his voice in public meetings. In fact, before 2018, he'd never been to a city council meeting and didn't even know the mayor's name. I wanted to talk to Jeff so I could better understand the concerns around managed retreat. And he agreed, but admitted that he was a little wary.

Jeff Guillet

I have done several interviews in the last couple of years. And every time that it's done, it was done with the sensational part of Pacifica cliffs falling into the ocean and such, and oh my gosh, isn't this terrible. And I've been painted as a climate-change denier, which is completely not true.

Alix Spiegel

Jeff Guillet is not a climate denier. He believes climate change is real. These days, Jeff is an IT professional who's solidly middle class. But when he and his wife Amy set out to buy a home in Pacifica in 1993, they weren't exactly dripping in money. Jeff was an office manager at a copy machine company and Amy worked a job in truck leasing.

Jeff Guillet

At the time, it was macaroni and cheese and Top Ramen. And it was definitely a stretch.

Alix Spiegel

But then they saw the ranch house on Seaside Drive, a compact, 1950s rectangle painted yellow. And instantly, they could imagine raising a family there. The floor plan was identical to the ranch where Jeff grew up. Also, the house, though not on the ocean, was within walking distance of the water. So Jeff and Amy pulled money out of some retirement accounts, got a gift from an uncle, and made the $20,000 down payment.

Jeff Guillet

And it was like, wow. This is great.

Alix Spiegel

So when you first came, had you heard anything about the sea and houses, structures?

Amy Guillet

It was never something that was on the radar that it was ever going to be an issue.

Jeff Guillet

Yeah. We're a quarter of a mile from the beach, so sea level rise wasn't a thing. I didn't think about flooding or anything like that, because we're just-- we're so far away from it, it didn't directly affect us.

Alix Spiegel

The first time Jeff heard the words "managed retreat" was in the summer of 2018 when he came home from work and found a yellow flyer stuffed through a gap in his gate.

Alix Spiegel

Show me the flyer?

Jeff Guillet

Yeah. OK, so this is the homeowner alert, sea level rise, local coastal program, managed retreat.

Alix Spiegel

The flyer, which had been printed by a local realtor association, explained the basics of managed retreat. And to Jeff, some of the information provided sounded pretty alarming.

Jeff Guillet

In light of projected sea level rise, the city of Pacifica will be considering a managed retreat, which could involve removing resources from the coast, including utilities and roads, removing seawalls, and requiring some owners to tear down their homes and clean their soil at their own expense.

Alix Spiegel

Now, the presentation of this information, as one government official wrote to me, is, quote, "inflammatory." Managed retreat does not mean that the city will come into an area and start pulling out roads and houses, as the flyer implies. It's a very slow-moving and voluntary process that unfolds over decades. But Jeff didn't know that. And after reading the flyer, he felt uneasy.

Still, it sounded so outlandish that he basically forgot about it until a couple of days later, when a local man came to clean their carpets.

Jeff Guillet

The carpet cleaner, when he came out, we told him, this is-- he said, these carpets are pretty old. And I said, yeah, we're going to replace them. We're going to put in new hardwood floors and such. And he said, well, you better do that soon, because with managed retreat, you're not going to be able to make any improvements to your house.

And then it reminded me of this flyer. And so I showed it to him, and he's like, oh, yeah, that's it. You need to look into that.

Alix Spiegel

So Jeff did look into it, and what he found out distressed him. The engineering consultants hired by the city had determined that Jeff's neighborhood could be considered for managed retreat. The consultants weren't saying that it had to be done tomorrow, or in 25 years or 50 years. They weren't even saying that it had to be done. They were saying that it was a decent option for the future and should be considered.

But to Jeff, having the label managed retreat anywhere near his neighborhood was a total catastrophe.

Jeff Guillet

Managed retreat is basically the city giving up on this land. They've decided--

Alix Spiegel

It could mean an increase in insurance rates, denied bank loans. There could be limits on renovations, though it seems like redoing your floors would be totally fine. But without question, the biggest problem for Jeff was this-- publicly saying that a home like his was in a neighborhood where managed retreat was under consideration? That could have an impact on the value of his home.

Jeff Guillet

Because we would be required to disclose it to future buyers, and who's going to buy a house that's in a hazard zone, that you could potentially lose everything? Who's going to buy that house? Right?

Alix Spiegel

So the concern was, if they even say that they are considering this, that, in itself, could be a problem for my housing values.

Jeff Guillet

Right. Correct.

Alix Spiegel

We looked into it, and Jeff wouldn't actually have to disclose that his house was in a hazard zone. But it's true that when you live on the edge of a creeping apocalypse, planning for the future can have some unwelcome financial consequences. That's why Pacifica's homeowners were objecting. They argued that the future, how it would affect their specific home-- the pink one or the green one or the blue one or the yellow one that they lived in-- that was impossible to know.

Perhaps some tech guru from north of the city would invent a great carbon-sucking machine so we could all go merrily along our way. Who knew?

Jeff Guillet

You're going to make me pay now for something that you think might happen in 100 years.

Alix Spiegel

Jeff hates this kind of reasoning.

Jeff Guillet

It's, you're delaying the inevitable. We'll just do what's best. It's going to happen anyway. Let's just do it now. And that infuriates me. Let me ask you this. The sun is going to explode. We don't know when. When do we leave the planet? Should we be building rockets right now? Because it's going to happen.

Alix Spiegel

Just to say, while both the death of the sun and climate change are scientifically certain, one is happening in 5 billion years. The other, right this minute. But anyway, what Jeff knew was that he and his wife Amy had scrimped and saved, eaten their weight in Top Ramen, for this specific house. And obviously, they didn't want to lose that.

Jeff Guillet

I was worried. I got-- yeah. I couldn't sleep. I'm like, did we make a big mistake? We bought this house. We've invested in it. It's our legacy that we're going to give to our kids when we're gone. And are we at risk of losing everything?

Alix Spiegel

Night after night, Jeff lay in bed mentally circling the problem.

Jeff Guillet

Trying to formulate a plan-- what is it that we're going to do next? How are we going to raise awareness? Is it too late?

Alix Spiegel

But then Jeff came up with a plan.

Ira Glass

Alix Spiegel. Coming up after the break, Jeff's plan and a showdown on managed retreat and on who will run Pacifica. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "Apocalypse Creep," stories of the world slowly changing, people deciding what they're going to do with that fact or whether they're going to face it at all. If you're just tuning in, we're in the middle of Alix Spiegel's story about Pacifica, California. A local homeowner, Jeff Guillet, is trying to figure out how to stop all this talk about managed retreat. Again, here's Alix.

Alix Spiegel

Jeff was desperate to defeat managed retreat, so he and a friend did what citizens do. They started knocking on doors, trying to get the word out.

Jeff Guillet

Have you heard of managed retreat? Have you heard what the city is planning, their plan for managed retreat for this area? And invariably, everybody's like, no. What's managed retreat? So you have to explain what managed retreat is.

Alix Spiegel

It took a huge amount of time. Jeff says he did 40 hours a week, in addition to his 40-hour-a-week job, for months. But he felt he had no choice. His financial security was at stake. All through the summer of 2018, Jeff worked phones and knocked doors, talking about managed retreat. Fortunately, at least from Jeff's perspective, there was an opportunity for a public referendum on managed retreat coming up in the fall-- an election.

So as he went door to door, one of the things that he talked about was the mayor, John Keener, and how Keener was a supporter of managed retreat. But though Jeff didn't realize it at first, he wasn't the only party interested in raising the alarm about managed retreat and John Keener in Pacifica. The issue had attracted attention from outside the city, as well.

Real estate groups all up and down the coast of California were flooding Pacifica's elections with money, because like Jeff, they wanted to stop managed retreat in its tracks.

Judy Taylor

My name is Judy Taylor. I have been a realtor on the San Mateo County coast since 1977.

Alix Spiegel

Judy Taylor is a representative for the San Mateo Association of Realtors. That's the group that created the yellow flyer Jeff found stuffed through a gap in his gate, the flyer that first alerted Jeff to the problem and set him on the road to hundreds of hours of activism. Like Jeff, Judy is not a climate denier. She believes that sea level rise is real, and that inevitably, it will challenge the viability of a large portion of the homes that she and her colleagues now sell.

But the answer to this problem, at least from the perspective of a real estate agent like Judy, is not managed retreat, though she admits that some managed retreat will probably have to happen eventually. What real estate agents much prefer is stuff like seawalls. You just have to armor the coastline. Judy says she knows this will be expensive, but she doesn't buy that managed retreat would be cheaper. And so, she says, her organization did whatever it could to convince Pacifica to stand against managed retreat.

Judy Taylor

We got people to city council meetings and we had people communicating with the Coastal Commission.

Alix Spiegel

And one of the ways that the realtors brought out residents like Jeff was by telling them that the state was going to take their homes and not give them any money. But when Jeff first brought this up during our interview, I was surprised, because I didn't think that the government could take a house without compensation. So after we talked, I tried to check out the claim.

Alix Spiegel

He said, they're going to take my house and they're not going to give me any money. And I put that in front of the person who used to be the executive director of the California Coastal Commission. And he said, that's against the law. Like, nobody's talking about that. So it's not the case that they're not going to give you any money, right? Like, that's not their actual plan.

Judy Taylor

No, that is their actual plan.

Alix Spiegel

It cannot be that they're just going to take the houses. It cannot be that they're just going to take the houses and not get--

Judy Taylor

Alix, it does sound preposterous. But the thing is, they can't buy every vulnerable property.

Alix Spiegel

In California, she points out, many of the homes that the government would need to buy are multimillion-dollar properties. And Judy just doesn't believe that the government has that kind of cash, couldn't possibly buy out all of those homes and all the Pacifica homeowners and all the other homeowners in all the other places that are threatened.

Judy Taylor

Ask them how they plan to do that at the same time Santa Cruz is having its problem, at the same time that Pebble Beach is having a similar problem, at the same time that Monterey is having a problem. This is a massive problem, and there is not enough government money to make all of these property owners whole. I mean, there simply isn't.

Alix Spiegel

Now, California is a big place with a lot of money. And if there were the political will, it could buy out at-risk houses. In fact, the state legislature recently proposed a way of doing managed retreat that could save a lot of money-- buy the houses, then rent them back to the former residents until sea level rise makes them unusable.

But Judy and other realtors are skeptical. And when the election came around in Pacifica, real estate associations from across the state threw a bunch of money at it. According to a local resident named Carlos Davidson, who's tracked Pacifica's election spending, the money spent on Pacifica's 2018 local race was dominated by real estate interests.

Carlos was one of dozens of residents I spoke to during my reporting in Pacifica. In those conversations, many expressed shock and dismay at how the money that flooded Pacifica altered the tone in the city.

Carlos Davidson

That was pretty dark, to see that in our small town.

Alix Spiegel

For example, Carlos told me that since moving to Pacifica, he had never seen a negative campaign specifically targeting one member of the local government. But in 2018, that changed. Carlos says it was like the realtors were trying to make an example of Mayor John Keener, punish him for saying that he was open to considering managed retreat, so that politicians all over the state would be hesitant to take that stance in the future.

Now, there's a certain oddness to John becoming a target. John isn't a firebrand for managed retreat. He's not a firebrand for anything. He's more of a steady grinder than anything else, famous for reading every word of the documents that come before the city council. Even his opponents, like Jeff, describe him as a kind old grandfather figure. But that's not how he was portrayed. Here's Carlos's wife, Cynthia Kaufman.

Cynthia Kaufman

There was a really ugly smear campaign against him, and it was practically every week we got a new mailer that just lied about--

Alix Spiegel

Will you describe what you're holding?

Cynthia Kaufman

Yeah. So John Keener with his body-- photoshopped to somebody else's body barbecuing money.

Alix Spiegel

It was a steady bombardment of messages. John Keener wants Pacifica to fall into the ocean. Why is Mayor Keener failing to protect Pacifica? And then there were the signs that flooded into town. Here's John Keener and his wife, Cathleen Josaitis.

Cathleen Josaitis

Their symbol was a red circle with a slash through it, like a no parking sign, but said no Keener and his name on it. And they plastered those signs all over town, all over town.

John Keener

They had a sign on a van that they would move around.

Cathleen Josaitis

It just hurts in the chest to see your family name with a big slash and a circle through it multiple times a day, every day. It was mortifying.

Alix Spiegel

Then came the newspaper coverage, a series of searing articles and editorials in The Pacifica Tribune.

Cynthia Kaufman

Public scorns mayor on managed retreat, gets yelled at in public meeting.

Deidre

They came out with pitchforks after John Keener.

Cynthia Kaufman

Whose side are you on, Mr. Mayor?

John Keener

Pacifica cannot afford managed retreat and Pacifica cannot afford John Keener.

Alix Spiegel

OK, now read this one.

John Keener

Ugh.

Alix Spiegel

Sorry.

John Keener

Yeah, I just don't like reading stuff that says John Keener's a schmuck.

Alix Spiegel

John says that, despite all of this bad publicity, he felt bullish about keeping his position. He thought that the flyers were so over-the-top, they'd backfire. He told me another council member, someone on the opposite side, felt the same way. She was certain that the loud negative campaign would fail.

John Keener

She was saying, you're totally going to get re-elected.

Alix Spiegel

Because Pacificans would see that and say, not in my community? I don't want that kind of-- I don't want that kind of vitriol in my community?

John Keener

Yeah. Yeah.

Alix Spiegel

But once the numbers started filtering in--

John Keener

I was in fifth place.

Alix Spiegel

Wow. Yeah.

John Keener

And I wasn't that close to fourth place.

Alix Spiegel

It was a resounding defeat.

John Keener

I was shocked. I really thought that I would win.

Alix Spiegel

John was replaced by a candidate hostile to managed retreat. And by the end of the year, the government finished the process of approving that plan that the California Coastal Commission had asked for. It probably won't surprise you to hear that Jeff and the realtors got what they hoped for.

I actually saw an early draft of what ultimately became that plan when I went to visit a longtime resident named Margaret Goodale. When she pulled it up on her computer, you could see notes and suggestions in the margins, all the changes that were being proposed.

Margaret Goodale

--plan for it.

Alix Spiegel

So it says plan for 20 or 30 years, not 100. And then where does it say-- ooh wow. So that's a lot of red lines.

At a certain point as we scrolled down the draft, we encountered what looked like a field of red lines. Wherever there was a neighborhood that had been identified as a hazard area because of sea level rise, it was crossed out. And in the margins, there was a note.

Margaret Goodale

The term hazard has negative doom-and-gloom connotations and is not appropriate. Just because a property exists in the coastal zone does not mean it's in a hazard zone.

Alix Spiegel

And in the final draft, when it came to managed retreat, it was baldly rejected. There was no place in the city of Pacifica for managed retreat, the document stated. And the city didn't anticipate there'd be room for that approach at any point in the near future.

Now, some form of managed retreat has been implemented in a bunch of places in red states and blue, usually after a big disaster. But it's much harder when the problem is years in the future. And in California, it's become a political hot potato. Just this past October, Democratic governor Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that his own legislature had passed, providing money for managed retreat buyouts. Many people speculate it's because the strategy is politically unpopular.

It's often politically unpopular to pay now for something that will happen in the future. Paying always hurts, and the benefit of putting it off is that the people in the future aren't around to object or vote. This, of course, is the challenge of climate change in general. The present owns our heart. The future, if it exists for us at all, lives only in our head.

On my last day in Pacifica, I drove to the north part of town, near the street where Jane's house fell while she slept, to a home on a cliff by the sea. Several years before, the back part of this house had disappeared into the ocean, just like Jane's did. I'd seen a picture, a light blue structure sitting on a large concrete slab that juts awkwardly into thin air.

I wanted to see the house because it had been put up for sale. The owners had cleaned up the property, tore off the parts that extended past the edge, and put it on the market for close to a million dollars. I was going to meet the realtor at an open house. On the phone, she said she expected a big crowd. And shortly before 1:00, she pulled up and slid aside the thick metal gate.

Alix Spiegel

Oh, look at that.

As interested buyers started filtering in, the realtor seemed a little nervous about the unprotected cliff drop. She'd brought along a rope, which she spooled out about 3 feet away from the edge, and she kept warning people to take heed of it. She wanted people to interpret the line on the ground as an uncrossable boundary.

Realtor

You want to see the cliff, you'll have to go down there. Please don't--

Man

Yeah, we'll go down the other way.

Realtor

Yeah. Please don't go too far. It just makes me nervous.

Alix Spiegel

I watched people milling until I saw a middle-aged man and his wife pacing out part of the home, trying to calculate how much ground was left between the ocean-facing garage wall and the drop.

Alix Spiegel

Oh, how close is the garage to the edge?

Potential Buyer

A foot.

Alix Spiegel

1 foot?

Potential Buyer

Yeah.

Alix Spiegel

Are you a serious-- are you seriously considering it, or is it just kind of curiosity?

Potential Buyer

No, we are seriously considering it-- I mean, $750,000 for oceanfront. But you've got to consider that cost, too.

Alix Spiegel

And what do you think about that? Does it make you nervous at all?

Potential Buyer

Well, I think if you put enough and big enough boulders over the side, then it'll slow it down.

Alix Spiegel

Yeah.

Potential Buyer

It's inevitable someday that this is going to be in the ocean. [LAUGHS]

Alix Spiegel

And so why would you buy a house which you think inevitably will end up in the ocean?

Potential Buyer

Well, for short term, it's for enjoyment, I guess.

Alix Spiegel

How many years do you think you'll get?

Potential Buyer

Probably more than my lifetime.

Alix Spiegel

For the next two hours, people filtered in and out, oohing and aahing over both the beauty of the structure and the wonder of the sea crashing below on the sand, that thin strip of ground where the present and the future slowly meet.

Realtor

Be careful out there, OK?

Ira Glass

Alix Spiegel is one of the producers of our show.

Act Two: Resilience is Futile

Ira Glass

Act Two, resilience is futile. So with the steady drumbeat in our lives of wildfires and floods and storms that are more frequent and more severe, permafrost and glaciers going, what do you do with that? Well, Mario Alejandro Ariza thinks about this stuff all the time because he's a climate reporter for a climate news outlet called Floodlight, and because he lives in Miami, a place where they're already seeing the effects of climate change in very visible, undeniable ways.

In fact, he wrote a book about Miami's doomsday future called Disposable City. But facing all that head on, even he finds that it's hard to know what to think a lot of the time.

Mario Alejandro Ariza

There's a scar on my knuckle in the shape of a star. I got it from punching Alex Rodriguez in the teeth one afternoon in sixth grade. He and 11 other kids had cornered me by the chain-link fence at the end of an empty soccer field. Alex had metal braces that cut my skin open when I swung at him. Then he and all the other kids went at me like a pack of feral dogs.

When I came home badged with bruises, all I offered my parents by way of explanation was that I'd fallen. My silence made sense at the time. I went to an all-boys Catholic school whose official motto was "Men for others," whose unofficial religion was Latin machismo and whose unspoken mantra was [SPANISH]-- don't be a snitch. My peers and elders told me this cruelty was supposed to make me tough, manly. It was supposed to make me resilient.

Alex is an actor now living in Miami and he's also my friend. He's grown into a kind and gentle adult. We grab drinks often. And the older boy who whipped me with a belt that one woeful time now lives in Brooklyn and has founded a tech company. That sadistic motherfucker can burn in hell. But this isn't about settling accounts. Rather, this is about the sun-scorched Miami fields in which I was beaten and their natural tendency to flood.

You might not think at first that my constantly getting the crap kicked out of me has anything to do with climate change or sea level rise or the death of my city at the hands of an angry, swollen ocean. But that word, resilience-- it's becoming increasingly popular when people talk about climate change in Miami. It means the ability to bounce back quickly, as in what they prescribed to me while I was being hazed and bullied and beaten.

Now we're being told we have to learn to recover quickly from heat waves storms and floods. And we have to do all that, even though we're not sure Miami has another 70 years left in it. By the end of the century, we could witness six feet of sea level rise. The average elevation here is about six feet above sea level. You do the math.

In Miami-Dade County, you can already see this happening. These pulses of water show up. We call them sunny day floods. Didn't have them when I was a kid, and they suck. Under a clear sky, ocean water creeps up from drains like a thief. The bay and the canals that feed into it swell and burst their banks.

In the low-lying places-- and they are legion in this town-- knee-deep water appears. Whole intersections flood and people plow their cars into them. Traffic snarls. Residents are warned not to wade through their streets if they have any open wounds.

God forbid it rains. Not long ago, I stepped outside of my vet's office with an umbrella in one hand and my kitten in a cat carrier held in the other. It was pouring. And the manhole cover on the sidewalk next to me was doing something weird. It's rattling and moaning. Water was shooting up around it, lifting it up inches into the air, bringing it clanging back down, ringing like the bell of a Gothic cathedral.

It was late summer, and the tide was so high and there's so much pressure in the stormwater system that the manhole covers up and down the street were coming alive, jumping up out of the sidewalk. Is it safe? Should I run?

Some scientists predict that in just over 20 years from now, we could have hundreds of these floods a year. There is great romance in loving something doomed. Surrender-- [SPANISH] in Spanish-- comes easier when the heartbreak is unavoidable. But my experience with doomed love has taught me that most of the time, it just means a lot of anxiety. It lives in my body like a copper wire wrapped around my shoulder blades.

On days when tides are high and the rain is hard, the wire constricts my chest, makes it hard to breathe. It tenses and coils.

I can be sitting on the toilet scrolling through Instagram when anxiety strikes with a headline announcing that in Europe, regulators will start requiring homes at risk of flooding to disclose their true risk at sale. That doesn't happen here. What if it happened here? Oh my god. Should I sell my house? I have a moment like this, on average, once a day. The friends I text or call about it are tired of hearing me kvetch. Where would you go if you sold, Mario? Orlando? You hate Orlando.

And there are people I'm willing to stay and suffer for. My mother lives down the street. My grandmother is a few train stops away. I've got a whole oddball clan of Dominican immigrant [SPANISH] and [SPANISH] and cousins scattered across the suburbs. Take my uncle, a lung doctor, for instance. When I had a persistent cough last November and found myself without health insurance, he took free x-rays of my chest and handed me an inhaler.

How could I abandon a city full of relatives willing to give such kindness? And so I stay here. I live here. I'm resilient. My family-- they're super resilient. But here's how I really feel about resilience.

I loathe it, because resilience, when it comes to climate change in Florida, basically translates into construction-- raising roads, installing pumps, hardening power lines. In just the last few months, Ron DeSantis, Florida's governor, announced more than half a billion dollars in statewide resilience spending to help cities adapt infrastructure. I wish that was reassuring. But it's not even close to enough money to address the problem.

And it leaves lots of people behind, especially poor people. They're the ones least likely to be able to afford AC during the coming heat waves. They're the ones that go hungry after a big storm. They're already being kicked off the high ground. If this is resilience, let's not be resilient. Instead, let's acknowledge reality. In 25 years, some neighborhoods could be permanently flooded, and in 40 years, almost 90,000 people could have to move.

And then there's the big one, the hurricane that is going to rip the heart out of this town. The US Army Corps of Engineers fears it could displace up to a million people if it hits during a high tide. And the big one isn't a matter of if, but when. We're overdue for a direct hit. I don't think anyone here understands how to be resilient enough for that.

When I was a kid, I was told that resilience basically meant pretending that, despite the hazing and the bullying, I was fine. I wasn't. As an adult, I'm being told that resilience means pretending that if we raise the roads and fix the drains, we'll be fine. We won't. The water is going to keep on rising, no matter how resilient we are.

Ira Glass

Mario Alejandro Ariza. You can read his climate reporting at floodlightnews.org.

Credits

Torey Malatia

My backyard was gone.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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