Alternate Histories: 5/14, 6/9


I’m anxious about everything. I guess I’m anxious about the next big storm. We invest in stormwater management issues and infrastructure with the Coastal Resources Management Council, and given the rising sea levels, residents have really built too close to the water. Especially when hurricane season starts, I think about it. We bemoan the fact that Sandy hits and costs us billions of dollars and in terms of infrastructure and human lives. We need a long-term strategy as opposed to avoiding it.

What do you think would shift people, get them to stop avoiding it?

There’d need to be a change in the public sentiment that it only happens once in a blue moon … After the initial incident, people regroup and forget about it. And then that change would need to translate into political will, social will, to find the money to invest in long-term planning. Increased awareness in everybody’s mind, more particularly in people who are most impacted by that … And eventually it would have to become a priority for taxpayers. The type of housing, the money spent–people will say, “You choose to live there, so it’s your problem,” and it is a combination of all those things, the wisdom of choosing to be near the water, near the coast, wanting to live there. We’d need to rethink whatever zoning or regulations that determine that. Getting people to see that, to be that selfless.



The next day, L wrote to the office of people who turned her and her wife’s money into more money by buying and selling invisible things, and to the office of people who did the same for the organization she worked for. She wrote, “I want to offer as many people as I can enough money to move their houses back from the water, or to buy a new house far from the water.” She wrote to the CRMC and the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island: “Is there any way we could use parts of houses to reinforce and restore wetlands somehow?”

L deleted “somehow” before sending the email. She was visited, as she often was, by a sense of how little she knew, how helpless and exposed she felt when she stepped outside the inherited snail shell of her habits and patterns. L remembered picking up hermit crabs with her cousins far out in the ankle-deep waters of Cape Cod Bay. Were there hermit crabs there now? She thought of acidifying oceans etching the shells of snail larva into fragility, leaving fewer and fewer to grow large enough to house hermit crabs after a certain stage of growth. How long until there were no shells left to let them grow large enough, old enough, to mate and make more?

She thought, can we live without shells? It’s not just a question of learning. We can learn all we want, but our bodies will always be soft.

Six years later, when the next big storm came, it shook to pieces the empty houses there hadn’t been time to move or reshape, and inundated the lower levels of the infant terraced marshlands and the new rocks and channels and baffles where some of the houses had been. “I guess that’s ocean now,” said people settled near their former neighbors in houses and apartments built or rebuilt to shake in the wind, trailers and campers half-buried in the earth to hunker down. They sipped eel soup made from a careful harvest of the elvers nurtured in the marshlands, and ate bread made from flour shipped in on trucks before the storm came. Someone DJed through battery-powered speakers when the lights went out, and a few people danced. L shivered like a dog. She couldn’t love the storm. She couldn’t shrug. Her wife held her hand.

Thirty years later, L slipped on the slick wood of a saltmarsh work dock, hit her head, and died.

Doctor’s note: for another version of this story, see the alternate history from 4/1/15.


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