Project description

“The Injustice of Atlantic City’s Floods” is a 3,400-word multimedia-rich story, featuring a data visualization of future national flood risks, produced by Climate Central, a nonprofit based in New Jersey that researches and reports on the changing climate.

Many stories in the U.S. about rising sea levels have focused on Florida, examining expensive actions being taken by wealthy cities to reduce flood risks. We took a different approach, focusing on government inaction affecting poor and working class Americans, even as publicly funded construction of sand dunes, seawalls and other flood fixes protect wealthier neighbors.

Data produced by our scientists helped lead our journalists to Arizona Avenue, a single-street block a mile from Atlantic City’s entertainment strip. From there, we tell a vivid story informed by the latest science that illuminates many of the key themes of climate change, including a looming migration crisis linked to rising seas.

“It comes in the front door, the back door, and then from the bottom of the house, in through the sides,” a school crossing guard told us, as water blanketed her street and climbed her patio steps during a winter storm as high tide approached. “You watch it come in and it meets in the middle of the house — and there’s nothing you can do.”

The story reveals how flooding and financial crises are working in concert to tear at families who pay the bills by serving beer, cleaning bathrooms and dealing poker at New Jersey’s storied gaming mecca, and whose voices are rarely heard. It explains the mental health and economic repercussions of rising seas. As we wrote, “While the wealthy may be able to adapt to the effects of climate change, the poor oftentimes cannot.”

What makes this project innovative?

The story was produced through an innovative collaboration between scientists and journalists.

Reporting was initially guided by data produced by Climate Central’s sea-level scientists, and the journalism story “The Injustice of Atlantic City’s Floods” was published on the same day that the scientists published their paper in a peer-reviewed journal.

The discovery by our journalists of vastly inequitable impacts from sea-level rise in Atlantic City has inspired our scientists to explore a new research agenda examining how past and future sea-level rise may depress the home values of those who can least afford it.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

The story was published in partnership with PBS NewsHour, Scientific American and Grist, revealing heavy impacts of rising seas on the working class residents of a city in economic decline. PBS NewsHour also broadcast a 7-minute segment based on the story, featuring Climate Central’s footage and a studio interview with reporter John Upton.

Source and methodology

Climate Central scientists analyzed future flood risks threatening hundreds of U.S. coastal cities by considering elevation and other geographical data, flooding frequency, projected rates of sea-level rise, and rates at which land is sinking. Atlantic City, a low-lying city sandwiched between bays and the Atlantic, was among the cities found to face the greatest risks.

Given Atlantic City’s economic plight, our journalists visited throughout the winter, often during storms, investigating how its fiscal problems were affecting efforts to adapt to rising sea levels. Aided by Climate Central’s national flood risk map, by exploring the city during storms, and through interviews with residents, a former local reporter and others, Upton identified working class neighborhoods tucked away from major streets where floodwaters routinely reach over patios, through front doors and into homes, but who are being overlooked by public projects designed to reduce flood risks nearby.

Technologies Used

For the scientific research effort component of the project, determining future water levels in cities involved custom building an analysis system of over 100,000 lines of Python and C++ code, churning through terabytes of data on a 46-core machine.

The Geospatial Data Abstraction Library of open source code was used to read and process high-resolution elevation data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to support generation of coastal flood maps. These were intersected with U.S. Census data on housing and population to project local impacts at different water levels.

Sea-level rise projections and extreme flood statistics were combined using MATLAB to determine chances of flood thresholds being exceeded, and to develop a flood threat index integrating the maps and Census data.

The final tables were injected into a SQL database and rendered in a user-friendly interactive map, embedded within the Atlantic City story, made from Javascript and the D3 data visualization library.

Project members

John Upton (Reporter)
Geoff Grant (Editor)
Craig Hunter (Editor)
Ted Blanco (Multimedia)
Benjamin Strauss (Scientist)
Scott Kulp (Scientist)
Dan Dodson (Data and Interactive Map)
Justin Kemmerer (Production)
Megan Martin (Production)
Abbey Dufoe (Social Media)

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