The Sturdiest Place in the World

I once believed there was no safer place than New Jersey’s Money Island. I certainly didn’t think that within most of our lifetimes, all of this would be gone.

IN THE FIRST DAYS of November 2012, I was in northern New Jersey and Staten Island and Long Island, New York, moving from one ravaged neighborhood to the next, observing the wrath of Superstorm Sandy. In the community of Tottenville, on the southern shore of Staten Island, I had my first on-the-ground glimpse of the destruction. Sailboats sat, disembodied, at the center of intersections, hundreds of yards back from the water’s edge. Soggy mountains made of carpet and sofa cushions and televisions and family photo albums rose from muddy front lawns. But also, in the yards of homes that had fared better, were fold-out tables piled high with toiletries, clothing, non-perishables, flashlights, batteries, everything. The damages were staggering, yes, but so was the outpouring of human compassion. Not a few people mentioned in those days and in those places that the last time they’d felt so connected to perfect strangers was in the days after September 11.

Though I was working as a reporter, I couldn’t help but be deeply affected by both the sadness of loss and the communal determination to recover. Also, New Jersey is my home, though I come from an area most people would be astonished to know is a part of New Jersey, a state most usually understood as a wasteland of polluting industry, congested highways, and sprawling suburbia.

People here know labor and they know the outdoors and they know the feeling of being forgotten by a state perpetually focused on its much wealthier environs.

My home is the Delaware Bayshore, the deeply rural belly of the state, where some 85,000 acres of Spartina meadows roll to the lapping edges of the brown Delaware Bay. Though the Bayshore spans New Jersey’s three southernmost counties, its epicenter — what is generally considered the capital B Bayshore — is a 40-mile stretch of coast in Cumberland, the poorest county in the state. People here know labor and they know the outdoors and they know the feeling of being forgotten by a state perpetually focused on its much wealthier environs—they are farmers, oystermen, crabbers, carpenters.

When I was finished reporting up north, I decided to visit home before returning to California, where I was living at the time. I was shocked to learn from my parents that the Bayshore’s waterfront hamlets had been hit hard by Sandy. If you didn’t live in the area, you would have never known that such a place, which sits 30 miles away from where the Delaware empties into the Atlantic, had been decimated by the superstorm. There were no news stories beyond the local papers. No television crews from Philadelphia or New York City. Certainly no deluge of volunteers or donated goods like I had seen that day in Tottenville. The Bayshore’s a small, poor place, I know, but still, the imbalance of attention felt cruel if not expected.

I needed to see what Sandy had done, so I began driving to the first hamlet I could remember, a collection of about a hundred homes called Gandy’s Beach. As kids my brother, sister and I would play on Gandy’s broad, sandy shoreline, trying to see who could flip over — thus save the lives of — the most horseshoe crabs. But when I got to the turnoff for Gandy’s, a county sheriff was there to stop me. The damage from Sandy’s seven-foot storm surge was too great, he told me; the road had been chewed away, the piling foundations of the homes were too unstable. “You can go to Money Island,” he said. “No one will stop you there.”

WHILE SOME OF THE Bayshore hamlets existed as mere local legend in my childhood experience, Money Island, like Gandy’s, I had touched, seen with my own eyes. But only once. And like so many other Bayshore experiences, those of Money Island are anchored by a storm.

It was 1991, in the middle of a hot, rainy summer. I was nine years old and wanted nothing else but to go fishing on the bay. My uncle owned a small boat with a yellowed hull and named after his two children. On most Saturday or Sunday mornings that summer, my father, older brother, and I would arrive at the wharf where my uncle kept his boat. Various relatives in both my mother and father’s families had owned the wharf, called Husted’s Landing, and the land surrounding it for the better part of the last century. Both families were farmers and fishermen and, during Prohibition, enablers of bootleggers who paid off many Bayshore landowners in return for access to the bay. My grandfather often talked about being woken as a child in the middle of the night by the headlights and gurgling engines of the bootleggers’ trucks driving past his home near the Cohansey River, pulling trailers loaded with liquor and concealed by bales of salt hay. In summer, the insects — mosquitoes, gnats, strawberry flies, black flies, and greenheads — can be intolerable. But for the beer-numb old men and women who would sit on the reeking bench next to the fish-cleaning table, they were no problem. Only outsiders, they’d say, had that sweet blood the bugs like so much.

As the crow flies, we lived four miles away from Husted’s Landing — by land, it was eleven, since the road had to trace the circuitous path of the Cohansey River. In the mid-1970s, my parents, who were looking to start a family, found a nineteenth-century hay barn on a farm that abutted the wetlands fringing the river. When they first saw the barn, goats were living inside, jumping in and out of the low, open windows. They fell in love with it immediately, and gradually began converting it into a home. In 1976, they had my sister; three years later, my brother was born. I arrived in 1982. With the woods and fields and endless miles of marshland surrounding us, we spent little time indoors. Our finger- and toenails were permanently crammed with dirt and our knees and elbows skinned from climbing trees and traipsing through briar thickets. No one seemed to care when our television broke and our parents didn’t get a new one until months later.

money island marina
Money island was where the watermen lived, along with a smattering of second-homers, mostly from inland Cumberland County and the Philadelphia suburbs. Photo by Taxwriter2016/Wikimedia Commons.

That summer morning in 1991, as we glided along the inky skin of Back Creek, mallards and mergansers, teal and black ducks, sprang from the narrow ditches hidden throughout the marshland. I liked the way my uncle gripped the base of the throttle, rather than the handle, so that he could make subtle adjustments to the boat’s speed. The way he and my father — they were brothers — simultaneously leaned forward from their ankles into the bow as it rose up on the water. The way the boat’s green and red running lights glowed like Jolly Ranchers in the predawn.

Back then, before the bay began to rise at an alarming rate, eating away many square miles of marshland, it took exactly ten minutes to reach the mouth of Back Creek. My father and uncle grew up fishing and crabbing and duck hunting in the creek (they, like most everyone who grew up on the Bayshore, pronounce it “crick”). They’d done this trip hundreds of times. I was still working on my first few dozen. But I’d been studying. The first bend was called Bridge of Sticks, named for the tiny cedar-pole bridge, built a half-century before by salt hay farmers, spanning a nearby ditch. The next bend, called Drum Bed, was the most exciting. Here, Back Creek opened wide and redirected ninety degrees to the southeast. The width was deceiving: there were two shallow, cigar-shaped sandbars that came to inches below the surface at high tide and were dry at low. Before the black drum were overfished and nearly vanquished from the bay, they would venture up to these shallows every spring to spawn. Outsiders were often running aground here, but it never posed a challenge for my uncle. He opened up to full-throttle, toying with the shallows in the darkness.

The first sign of the last bend was “Deany’s Cabin,” a salt- and sun-bleached clapboard shanty where, as teenagers, my father, uncle, and their friends spent many cold nights during duck hunting season. My mother had also grown up exploring Back Creek and hanging out in Deany’s Cabin, though she was never interested in hunting. Just past Deany’s was where swell from the bay would start trickling in. If the water’s surface went from smooth to agitated, we knew the bay would be rough. If it was choppy and rolling underneath with swell, we knew the bay would be angry. Here, Back Creek whipsawed directly into what was, to my young eyes, a wondrous and terrifying continent of open water — the Delaware Bay.

The conditions seemed fine that morning. A few miles out, we dropped anchor. My uncle tuned the VHF radio to channel 13. The staticky voice of the NOAA marine forecaster — still a human back then, rather than the automated voice used today — filled the silence between the sloshing of the waves. The forecaster’s voice was as familiar to me as my own—on the tank of our toilet at home was a battery-powered radio; there wasn’t a single morning that my mother or father didn’t turn it on the moment they woke up.

While we trusted the weatherman, we were also aware that, around these parts, he could be deceived. Every season had its own brand of foul weather — autumn hurricanes, winter nor’easters, dense spring fog, summer squalls. The ability to adapt to bad weather was essential to living on the Bayshore.

We kept fishing. But soon, boats were streaking along the bay’s western horizon, like white paint drips sliding laterally across a gray canvas. The wind began to swirl. A single drop of rain fell on the boat’s deck, then a deluge, like thousands of buttons being unsnapped all at once. One of the heavier clouds in the distance sparked, and a ragged bolt of lightning drilled into the bay. Gusts whipped and twisted in every direction. Then came the splitting, gut-wrenching boom. “She’s close,” my uncle said.

There were three miles of open water between us and the safety of Back Creek. The wind became more confused, the rain heavier. The boat bucked wildly. My father began pulling the anchor. I stood close to my brother, the fear surging within me, watching our father balance himself on the bow, thighs braced on the rail, arms pinwheeling one over the other as fast as he could make them go, his tanned forearms bulging against the weight of the anchor and the pull of the current.

Once the anchor was in and stowed, my uncle jammed the throttle. The boat danced left and right before finding her line. A column of lightning dropped from the sky directly in front of us and plowed into the water.

During the late nineteenth century, the oyster beds near the mouth of Nantuxent Creek, where Money Island would later be situated, were some of the bay’s most fertile.

My uncle instinctively turned hard to the right, out of the bolt’s way. The sky flickered between darkness and luminous clarity. The air surged with electricity. “I can feel it,” my brother said.

There was no making it to Back Creek — too rough, too much lightning. Maybe if it had been just him and my father, my uncle would have given it a shot, but not with us boys onboard. He yelled that we had two options for taking refuge: Bay Point or Money Island. Bay Point was a little over a mile away; Money Island a bit less. They agreed Money Island was the better choice. “Let’s ride it out there,” my uncle said.

I had never been to Money Island before, but I’d heard about it. This was where the watermen lived, along with a smattering of second-homers, mostly from inland Cumberland County and the Philadelphia suburbs. During the late nineteenth century, the oyster beds near the mouth of Nantuxent Creek, where Money Island would later be situated, were some of the bay’s most fertile. Early maps demarcate the beds, as well as the areas within Nantuxent Cove and Creek for the safe mooring of the multimasted, spoon-bowed oyster schooners that filled the bay during summer. No town yet existed, but there were plenty of recorded accounts that proved the mouth of Nantuxent Creek was a popular place. Before European settlers showed up in the early seventeenth century, the Lenni Lenape Native Americans, who had inhabited the Bayshore region for millennia prior, established summer camps there for stocking up on fish and oysters. By the time I came around in the 1980s, the boom that came with the oyster and sturgeon fisheries had gone bust, but a raucous, antiestablishment attitude — compounded and calcified from centuries of isolation and living by the whims of water and wind — remained in full force.

We tied off the boat to Money Island Marina’s main dock. There was a small luncheonette nearby, and it was full with a rowdy crowd of patrons drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and telling stories. The air was hot and damp and the din was almost loud enough to drown out the thunder rumbling outside. Someone handed my brother and me sodas, on the house. The pouring rain blurred our view out of a large picture window. To that point I hadn’t known any other marina but Husted’s Landing, which only had a leaky, screened-in shack nicknamed “the Gnat’s Nest.” Compared to that, Money Island’s luncheonette was luxury. I could see pastel-colored shanties and trailers stretching from both sides of the marina, the bay sloshing over a sandy beach below them. I thought in that moment that there was no better, or sturdier, place in the world.

I certainly didn’t think — nor do I believe anyone else there that day thought — that within most of our lifetimes, all of this would be gone.

ON OCTOBER 29, the night Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, a reporter from the South Jersey Times, Spencer Kent, embedded with the fire department in charge of much of Cumberland’s Bayshore hamlets, including Money Island. “With the amount of water we are facing coming in from the bay — it has nowhere to drain,” fire captain Cliff Higbee told Kent.

The truth was Sandy would not be the beginning of the end for Money Island, but rather, simply, the end of an already ongoing slow, climate-change-induced retreat.

“If this storm hits the way some experts are predicting, it could be one of the worst disasters this area has ever seen.”

The truth was Sandy would not be the beginning of the end for Money Island, but rather, simply, the end of an already ongoing slow, climate-change-induced retreat. Since the 1990s, the Bayshore marshland has been loosing the length of a football field a year due to a confluence of sea level rise and the natural subsidence of the land. These combined forces mean that the relative rate of sea level rise on the Bayshore, as well as on New Jersey’s Atlantic coast, is nearly twice as fast as the global average. Even if fossil fuel emissions were to cease tomorrow, the amount of carbon dioxide baked into our atmosphere guarantees that, by 2050, the Delaware Bay will rise around a foot above its current level. Should the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets continue to melt at the accelerated rate they have been over the last decade, another four feet or more of rise will occur by 2100. Such inundation will drown some 10 percent of Cumberland County’s land. The Bayshore lowlands and its waterfront hamlets like Gandy’s Beach and Money Island are already regularly flooded, their beaches, which I remembered so fondly from my childhood, long since consumed by the water.

Now, a few days after Sandy, standing among the ruins of Money Island, I could see that what — and who — was left would not be able to hold much longer. In the distance, along the bay, some of the same colorful homes I’d seen as a boy were still there, though they were badly faded and waterlogged, leaning precariously on their piling foundations, the bay sloshing underneath them. The bay side of the hamlet had borne the full brunt of the surge and wind. Waves had rolled through living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms. Several homes had been completely ripped away and thrown into the water. Someone’s shed had been pushed completely across the road and was now sitting, disembodied, out in the middle of a patch of salt hay meadow. The marina’s dock was violently twisted and splintered. I walked out on a flimsy board and watched the dark water beneath me move back and forth. An oil tanker en route to Philadelphia slipped soundlessly along the bay’s razor-edged horizon, its crew probably oblivious to the fact that life existed on this shore .

There was something else that the fire captain, Cliff Higbee, had told Kent that night — a prophetic statement that would form the fate of not just Money Island, but almost every other Bayshore hamlet in the years after Sandy. “This is a little area,” Higbee said, before heading out to patrol the floodwaters. “Bigger places are going to be prioritized.”

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