Workers try to divert water into drains as rain pours down on Oct. 24, 2021, in Marin City. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
This story is part of KQED's series "Sacrifice Zones: Bay Area Shoreline Communities Reimagining Their Homes in the Face of the Climate Emergency." The project looks at communities of color facing the worst of rising seas and fighting to thrive. Read more of KQED's reparations coverage.
The long-neglected water system in Marin City, an unincorporated community about 5 miles north of San Francisco, is one of the most vulnerable to climate-driven flooding in the entire Bay Area. The neighborhoods of mostly one-story homes and apartments abut Richardson Bay, separated from the water by Highway 101 and a narrow bike trail.
A single tidal gate allows water to escape into the bay, and it's regularly filled with sand and debris. When atmospheric rivers dump rainwater, the water from the gate backs up into the channel under the freeway and floods the only road in and out of Marin City, rendering it impassable by car.
"Marin City is like a bathtub with only one drain," said Kristina Hill, director of the Institute for Urban and Regional Development at UC Berkeley.
By the end of the century, climate change may make these deluges from the sky up to 37% wetter, according to a June 2022 study by Bay Area climate scientists, and the flooding in Marin City far worse.
At the same time, warming temperatures could push San Francisco Bay up from sea level rise — as much as 10.2 feet by the end of the century. Brackish water could displace and corrode underground sewer pipes and other infrastructure.
"All these low-lying areas are going to have a flooding threat that is much bigger than we anticipate when looking at just sea level rise," said Kris May, founder of the Pathways Climate Institute. Marin County found that sea level rise could flood half of all commercial properties in Marin City (PDF) and displace those in low-lying areas. Residents have long said that Marin City's neglected water system is an ugly example of racism in the region's past housing policies.
Nearly 3,000 people — 63% people of color — dwell within Marin City's 344 acres. About 13% live below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, despite the fact that the area is part of Marin County, one of the richest in the country.
People in Marin City have higher asthma rates, shorter life expectancies and huge cost burdens when compared to the rest of the state. Add climate change, and residents here face a double vulnerability, as do many communities of color around the world.
"Marin City has flooded for over 80 years," said resident Terrie Harris-Green, swiveling in a black, pleather office chair to prop up an inundation map of Marin City on a nearby chair.
The 72-year-old Black woman wears a bright red floor-length dress and a cloud-colored cardigan. She's the founder of the nonprofit Marin City Climate Resilience and Health Justice and has fought for environmental justice for this community for decades. She said the local government hasn't adequately invested in this community and its infrastructure.
"We're left out of so much when it comes to this county, but we're going to continue to fight," she said. "We're at a place in Marin City where we're saying enough is enough. It comes to race. It comes down to it. It comes to race."
Harris-Green and other residents are wrestling with officials they don't trust for agency over climate plans and flood protections, vowing that Marin City won't continue to be neglected. They are calling for reparations to repair the harm caused by decades of government inaction.
Four megafloods this century
An atmospheric river parked itself over Marin City last October, turning looping residential streets into rivers, swamping Donahue Street, and filling the freeway underpass and the only entrance into the city.
Chinaka Green and her 14-year-old son were driving home from a high school football game when the storm hit. They sat for hours, stuck behind a line of cars, sandwiched between the highway and San Francisco Bay.
"We were trapped," said Green, Harris-Green's 41-year-old daughter.
She abandoned her car on the side of the road in the neighboring city of Sausalito, a ritzy tourist destination with quaint houseboats and wine bars, and trudged a quarter-mile through knee-deep water. She said sewage spilled from utility holes, merging with the stormwater and drenching their shoes and clothes.
"We took off everything, put it in a bag and threw it away," she said. Fast floods caused by atmospheric rivers are incredibly dangerous. The same year, two people died when their car was submerged in a flooded underpass in Millbrae. The main underpass into and out of Millbrae regularly floods, like Marin City's.
"The problem is we built our infrastructure assuming these events were very rare," said Swain. "Now, they are something you should be expecting."
As many as four megafloods could swamp California this century, according to Swain. How bad the megastorms will be for Marin City will depend, in part, on how fast the world reduces emissions that cause climate change.
The worst-case scenario for Marin City is a megastorm wailing on the community at the same time as a king tide, trapping residents for many consecutive days.
"Our tolerance for making mistakes is getting really, really small," said UC Berkeley's Hill. "We just don't have any room for error anymore."
'They don't want to see us'
In 2014, a storm dropped nearly two inches of rain on Marin City, a deluge that coincided with a king tide that pushed tides 8 feet higher than usual. Flooding cut off access into the neighborhoods and swamped Highway 101, backing up traffic for miles.
Marin County launched a study of the issue following that storm. Since then, flooding has shut down highway traffic completely and blocked Marin City's only egress three more times. During a 2017 flood, residents reported that a school bus driver left children (PDF) to "walk through contaminated water to get home."
During last October's storm, Lauren Mims and her father worried that floodwaters would overwhelm their car on the way to the grocery store. She's one of a handful of teens who train with Harris-Green's climate group.
"We are not really paid attention to because there's a lot of African Americans here, and they don't want to see us," Mims, 14, said.
Harris-Green and others have pressed officials for new flooding infrastructure for decades. The last major drainage improvement project occurred in the mid-1990s when a shopping center was built next to the freeway along with a temporary floodwall to block rising water.
Thirty-some years later, the aging drainage system of pipes, a tide gate and culverts don't "function as originally designed," according to a 2017 county drainage study (PDF).
"When you talk about sea level rise projections in 2050 with 3 feet — we have that right now," Harris-Green said.
In the early 20th century, Marin City was green pastureland and bustling dairies. In the 1940s, shipbuilders constructed rows of motel-style apartments to house thousands of workers who built warships in Sausalito for the Navy during World War II.
Harris-Green's family relocated to Marin City from Texas, migrating here as many Black people did from the South and the Midwest for work in the shipyards. When the war was over, many families stayed, including Harris-Green's. But county conservation land restricted Marin City's growth. Many of Marin City's Black residents were displaced when, in the 1960s, officials tore down temporary housing from the shipbuilding effort.
"White families were able to go out and buy homes. Not so for people of color," Harris-Green said.
Some Black families bought homes in the hillsides around Marin City that increased in value over time. In the 1980s, these homeowners aged or passed away and many of their families could no longer afford them. They were forced to sell, mostly to white families.
'We want equal treatment'
On a bright April day, Marin City residents gathered at Rocky Graham Park, the only park in Marin City, for a community-led reparations event.
Harris-Green spoke from behind a lectern under a silver-and-green metal gazebo. She said the health inequities people in Marin City experience are especially unjust as Marin County is ranked the healthiest county in the state.
"We need reparations here in Marin City," she said. "Too much sickness and disease is happening and been happening in our community."
California is exploring how to repair the harm of a violent history of slavery and centuries of oppression through the work of a statewide task force on reparations.
Harris-Green said, as part of that effort, leaders must engage residents in climate adaptation plans for issues like flooding, not just in one-off community engagement-type meetings, but in direct involvement.
"We've gone to our political leaders long enough, because they treat us as if we don't exist," said Harris-Green. "We want to participate in planning and decision-making."
Shannon Lee Bynum, 65, was raised in small, military-style apartments within Marin City. His family was one of the first Black families to buy a home.
Bynum's father ran a funeral business and tried to buy a house elsewhere in Marin County but was denied because of racist housing policies.
"We want fair justice and we want equal treatment," he said. "We deserve it and we work for it."
Bynum said justice looks like "healthy stuff like everybody else," affordable homes, easy access to parks and all of the privileges synonymous with Marin County.
For Black people living with the legacy of slavery and facing climate threats, the two issues are as interconnected as air is to lungs, said Maya Carrasquillo, civil and environmental engineering professor at UC Berkeley.
"We see the way it affects people and mostly people that look like us," said Carrasquillo, who identifies racially as Black and ethnically as an Afro-Latina. "You can't look at one without the other."
If climate solutions center communities of color, she said, they can be a form of reparations.
"It's not enough to just say, 'We're gonna try to protect you,'" Carrasquillo said of the flooding. "We need to make sure that you're out of harm's way, period."
Neglect and a culture of mistrust
In 2020, Harris-Green's group and the San Francisco Estuary Partnership surveyed 280 residents (PDF) and found that 85% were concerned about aging pipes, 43% about sewage contaminating their drinking water and 40% about chemical dumping in Marin City during WWII when shipbuilders operated before modern environmental regulations.
The Marin Municipal Water District regularly tests water flowing into Marin City and hasn't found elevated levels of contamination, according to health officials.
The state hasn't tested the soil because it doesn't have clear documentation that toxic waste was dumped there.
That's a dissatisfying answer to Harris-Green.
Her group is leading a series of independent actions, mapping pollution-filled utility holes and unmarked waste sites and partnering with environmental groups to test for contaminants.
A consulting firm found heavy metal pollution at a pond that drains into the bay. It recommended the contamination be removed, which has not happened.
After residents complained about cloudy and brown water coming out of their taps, Harris-Green's group began circulating cardboard test boxes to more than 50 homes so that residents could have their tap water examined for metals or other pollution. Her staff is still compiling and analyzing the data.
Aalaya Wheeler, a 26-year-old who works for Harris-Green's group, helped residents with the effort, running sink water over thin test strips and collecting samples in clear plastic bottles. She doesn't understand why little has been done to fix contamination and flooding issues.
"We have the same breath in our bodies that anybody else has," Wheeler said. "We should have the same environmental rights and freedoms as everybody else."
Finally getting attention
County and state officials are struggling to meet the demands of Marin City residents and expedite climate adaptation here.
Marin County Health Officer Matt Willis said he is in regular contact with Harris-Green. He said comprehensive soil and water testing is needed to alleviate the community's concerns about potential contamination.
"We have not found yet any evidence of elevated levels, but I think we need to be even more comprehensive," Willis said.
Regional and state officials have pledged to walk the community with Harris-Green, but this has yet to happen.
Marin County District 10 Supervisor Stephanie Moulton-Peters, who is white, acknowledged that Marin City has not received significant investments for flooding or testing issues because of "systemic racism."
"I believe we need to change up our systems," said Moulton-Peters, who represents Marin City.
Moulton-Peters and county officials have pursued several grant opportunities to pay for flood prevention around Marin City that have so far been unsuccessful.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), Marin City's representative in Congress, convened a series of private stakeholder meetings to respond to the concerns of residents.
Huffman told KQED in an emailed statement that funds from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, intended to rebuild crumbling roads and bridges, could help fix flooding issues in Marin City.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also has convened a working group to improve emergency response to the area and access to and egress from Marin City.
Geography of hope
The work Harris-Green is slogging through daily — pressing leaders for change, holding rallies and testing for contamination — is building power for people of color to have agency over the decisions that affect them.
These acts of shifting power dynamics create what UC Davis professor Beth Rose Middleton Manning calls a geography of hope, a way the community can force social and ecological outcomes in the face of injustice.
"A geography of hope is very much about people's relationship to their place and envisioning how to get out of difficult situations," said Middleton Manning, associate director of environmental and climate justice for the UC Davis Institute of the Environment. "[It] is the practice of making that real."
The actions of Harris-Green, Wheeler and Mims could push Marin County to end a culture of racism while protecting Marin City from flooding caused by climate change.
"When our people came here from the South, they came here to make life better for themselves, which included their community. Ingrained in me is [the idea]: 'We got to help one another,'" said Harris-Green.
On an unseasonably cool July day, Harris-Green sounded hopeful. State Sen. Mike McGuire had just called her and said, "Terrie, I have some good news for you."
California allocated $10 million in its latest budget to start planning solutions for Marin City's flooding issues; it's the first time officials asked Harris-Green what needs fixing in Marin City. She called it a "historic moment" that "gives us a sense of hope."
A few days later, Harris-Green read an article in the Marin Independent Journal about the Marin City flooding plan that quoted state officials talking about the importance of protecting Highway 101. She felt like the officials might be favoring the highway and called McGuire back to say, in no uncertain terms, that the flooding in Marin City must be the priority.
KQED's Annelise Finney contributed reporting to this story.
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