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Ira Wagner’s ‘Houseraising’: Uplift, denial, and Hurricane Sandy

Ira Wagner's "Houseraising" shows efforts to rebuild houses after the storm and literally lift them up, against future floods and storm surges. You can see this as a story of valiant recovery, but you can also wonder about climate change, climate denial, and our way of responding by engineering and construction, rather than addressing the causes of the storm.

Ira Wagner, author of "Houseraising."
Ira Wagner, author of "Houseraising."Read moreCourtesy of the author

The Jersey Shore After Hurricane Sandy
By Ira Wagner
Daylight Books. 112 pp. $45

Reviewed by John Timpane

The photographs in this book speak for themselves, although what they are actually saying may depend on who's looking. The product of years of work, Ira Wagner's Houseraising documents how owners of houses damaged by Hurricane Sandy have responded by, literally, raising them. All over Brick, Mantoloking, Highlands, Seaside Park, and elsewhere, houses have been elevated on box cribs, awaiting their new foundations or stories, to be built beneath the uplifted house to keep it clear of future floods and storm surges.

In Wagner's direct images, we see sites in all stages of rebuilding after the 2012 storm. Some houses seem as if they've been aloft for a long time, patiently awaiting the addition that will lift them clear. Some additions are in progress, the cinder blocks not yet knit into a new story. And in some, all is done, the painting dry, the new life begun. And there are a few vacant lots, grass growing in the sand or up through cracks in the asphalt, speaking (you have to guess) of a house no longer there or a house not yet arrived.

The first takeaway from this collection is the realization of the extent of the damage. Sandy was worse than anyone was prepared for or expected. In the years since, tremendous human effort has salvaged, cleared, hoisted, rebuilt, and reinforced dwellings that took the brunt of the storm, many years' worth of legal battles, insurance wrangles, fraud, abandonment, hardship, and uncertainty.

To be sure, these photos speak to us of the will to survive, the indomitable ingenuity of people determined to live where they wish and to brave out the worst nature can do.

What these photographs may be saying most eloquently, however, very much like an invisible presence in these images, is climate change.  

Bookending these photographs are two essays that make us rethink what we're seeing. The preface, "All That I Know," is by Rutgers sociology professor Rachael Shwom, who ponders the mindset of those who live in an environmentally threatened place. "Why would you live there?" the outsider asks. "And, now that this has happened, why stay? Why do all this work, rather than move to higher ground?"

Shwom explains why she and others live where they live and why they want to stay. She grants that her decision may lack some practical wisdom, but I love her answer: "I have never run my life like a business where I maximize profit … and few people do. Because for many, life is rarely about maximizing wealth and rather about finding a way to pay the bills while finding joy in what you can."

Clearly true. So many salespeople pound us to run our lives like businesses, when we choose to run them like … lives.

Environmental scientist George Marshall's closing essay, "Building on the Silence," hits hard. "People respond to climate change," he writes, "by deliberately distancing it: placing it far in the future, or only affecting people or wildlife at the farther ends of the Earth." His heavy implication: Denial drives the stubborn resistance to the fact of climate change among those most likely to suffer from it.

Marshall speaks to Dina Long, mayor of Sea Bright, but (he says) she wants to see the story as one of "valiant recovery." She acknowledges climate change, but seems skeptical that she can or should motivate her townspeople to take social action; the problem, she says, is too big. Then Marshall moves to his main point: In the pictures of the rebuilt houses you see no solar panels, no energy-saving measures. We have adapted – in very American ways, through ingenious architectural and construction efforts – but we haven't taken steps to mitigate the effects of what caused the damage in the first place. Where are the emissions reductions? The bicycle paths?

We are, to be sure, poorly served by our leaders, who are reluctant to tell us bad news and suggest changes. We allow ourselves, though, to be misled, and, denying all the way, we mislead ourselves. The houseowners in Houseraising did not cause Sandy (at least not by themselves), did not deserve it, and have responded, generally, with patience, courage, and hard work. But Wagner's images and these essayists' words raise questions bigger than the entire Shore itself, questions of human nature, the environment, and the limits of our civic imagination.