No town is more vulnerable than Atlantic City, the Jersey Shore’s largest and poorest municipality. Beginning in 2030, according to the corps study, the city will start incurring more than $300 million annually in flood-related damages over the same half-century; by 2050, NOAA estimates that Atlantic City will have 65 to 155 nuisance-flooding events yearly.
What began, in 1854, as a vision of a resort where urbanites could experience the healing powers of the Atlantic’s salt air has, over the course of a century and a half, mushroomed into a carnival by the sea. By the mid-20th century, about 16 million visitors were coming to Atlantic City during the summer months, overrunning its beach and boardwalk and amusement piers. City officials hastily filled the surrounding salt marshes with mud and sand to make room for a year-round population that peaked at 69,000 in 1947. When state and federal laws in the 1970s put an end to the indiscriminate filling of wetlands, it was already too late: Miles of housing — disproportionately occupied by working-class immigrants and African Americans, as a result of redlining — sat on sinking land.
When Farrell arrived in South Jersey in 1971, as a freshly credentialed 29-year-old Ph.D., Stockton’s main campus had yet to be completed, so he taught his geology and marine-science classes in the bottom-floor suites of a failing hotel near Atlantic City’s boardwalk. The city was at the tail end of a long decline, thanks in part to the development of nearby shore towns that were far less crowded. In the 1980s, the city tried to reinvent itself as a gambling mecca; at the water’s edge, real estate tycoons like Steve Wynn, Carl C. Icahn and Donald Trump built expansive casinos. But small businesses in the surrounding neighborhoods withered, and the city went into a second decline. Sandy brought collapse. The poverty rate has soared to nearly 40 percent, the highest in New Jersey, and Atlantic City’s dire flooding problems have effectively been ignored. “There was no interest,” Farrell told me.
One morning in February 2020, I visited Atlantic City’s new director of planning, Barbara Woolley-Dillon, whose first days on the job had been consumed by the urgent need to slow down the flooding. Woolley-Dillon’s office downtown occupies a palatial corner of City Hall, a harsh cube of concrete and black glass. Since 2016, the city’s imperiled finances had been under state oversight, and in that time the planning-and-development department temporarily dwindled to two people. The view through the huge windows took in the city’s northeastern flank, where the rebranded Hard Rock and Ocean hotel-casinos loomed over rowhouses and apartment complexes. The view, said Woolley-Dillon, who is in her 50s, “is my inspiration for having to do better for the residents.”
In its back-bays study, the corps imagines protecting Absecon Island, which is divvied up between Atlantic City and three other towns, with a storm-surge barrier and a cross-bay barrier along with connections to levees and flood walls. The projected costs could surpass $6 billion. Woolley-Dillon was a former planner for another barrier-island town, Mantoloking, which was leveled by Sandy just before she started there; she is a seasoned veteran in matters of disaster recovery. But when I asked her about the corps’ plan, she sighed. She echoed a comparison I’d heard other shore experts make many times. “Do you know what happened with Katrina?” she said. “They didn’t anticipate the worst-case scenario. Once the levees breached, you were stuck, you were in a swimming pool with your house not bobbing. We don’t want to be in that same position.”
I noted that the corps’s study also mentioned retreat. Woolley-Dillon said that if homeowners wanted to sell their homes to a buyout program run by the state, she couldn’t stop them. But she preferred to focus on the city’s official position — that it was resolved to adapt in the face of climate change rather than withdraw. She talked about what they were building: a medical center; a resilient microgrid; and an expansion of Stockton’s Atlantic City campus that would include an institute focused on coastal resilience. Since we met, the city has positioned itself to be the jobs hub for New Jersey’s burgeoning offshore wind industry, with a training facility, conferences and research center. “We’re doing a lot of things toward resiliency,” she said. “But when you are on a barrier island, it is very difficult. How much more can you do?”