After Sandy: An Environmentalist Goes Home

Sierra Club President Michael Brune grew up in the Jersey shore town of Chadwick Beach—which took a direct hit from Superstorm Sandy. This is what he saw when he came home.

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Copyright Julie Dermansky

A pile of ruined furniture flooded by Sandy, in Chadwick Beach, New Jersey

For Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, climate change came home—literally. Brune comes from Chadwich Beach, a small town on a barrier island along the New Jersey shore. Like other shore towns in the area, Chadwick Beach took a direct hit from Superstorm Sandy, with the storm surge and strong winds all but washing out the homes and streets along the island. Brune, who is now based at the Sierra Club’s headquarters in San Francisco, returned home over the weekend to Chadwick Beach, where his parents still live. (They were out in California during the storm itself.) It was the first time anyone in his family had seen what Sandy had done to the town, and Brune was shocked, as he told me later:

It was a lot worse than we expected. It’s hard to get a sense of the scale of the damage when you’re far away. But when you’re there up close and you cans see that every house has suffered some kind of damage, it’s pretty powerful… As soon as you go over the bridge and into the island, you just see a series of mountains of junk. It’s the stuff from all the houses that have been knocked off their foundations, just laying in the middle of the street, piling up. Towards the ocean you can see  streets and buckled houses that have clearly been decimated. There are no roofs on then patios and you can see boats laying in the middle of the road.

You can read more about Brune’s trip back to Chadwick Beach over on his blog. I’m posting it as a reminder this Thanksgiving that those of us lucky enough to have avoided Sandy’s wrath should feel gratitude—and do all we can to help those who were less fortunate. That includes people outside the U.S.—Brune notes that Sandy has left over 200,000 Haitians homeless.

(PHOTOSThe Toil After the Storm: Life in Sandy’s Wake)

Part of helping those affected by Sandy involves rebuilding what they’ve lost—though as I wrote earlier this week, it would be a mistake to build everything back as it was, with little protection for the growing communities clustered near the water. And while Sandy may have happened with or without climate change, it would be a mistake to simply shrug off the threat of global warming and rising seas. “The storm has changed at least the current short-term political atmosphere” around climate change, says Brune. “It’s having a powerful effect.” We know the cleanup will take months, if not longer. Hopefully that changed atmosphere Brune referred to can last at least as long.

MORE: After Sandy: Why We Can’t Keep Rebuilding on the Water’s Edge