Science Meets Fiction
Nov 2, 2022
Season 2 | Episode 3

Science Meets Fiction

We know what the science says about the future of sea-level rise. The unknown? How humans will handle it.

In September, Jason Box, a glaciology and climate professor, was camping on top of the Greenland ice sheet when he noticed something startling. “We could see it in the sky, these wavy dark clouds,” Box said. Those clouds are called asperitas, and they were an early indication that a storm was coming. Jason and his crew needed to get off the glacier immediately. That same day, 12 billion tons of ice melted into the ocean.

It turned out that Greenland was experiencing an unusual late-season heat wave, ”a clear indicator of a warming climate,” according to Box. The ice sheet is one of the top contributors to rising sea levels in the world, and that melting ice is coming for Miami.

South Florida could see five feet of sea-level rise – or more – by the end of this century. This episode, we’re breaking down the science, and explaining why Miami in particular is so vulnerable. Plus, what will all that water mean for the people living there? For starters, sunny day flooding and storm surge are going to get way more intense.

But science can only tell us so much. Later in the episode, we explore how society fares in the aftermath of disaster with novelist Bruce Holsinger. Holsinger’s new novel The Displacements is an eerily realistic depiction of what happens to Miami when a hurricane called Luna, unlike anything the world has ever seen, directly hits the metro area. Holsinger did a lot of research on hurricanes before writing the novel. When he interviewed experts about what a direct hit on Miami might look like, he was shocked by how scary their predictions were. Holsinger says, “even my novelist’s imagination, it couldn’t stretch to that extent of disaster.”

How We Survive Season 2 Episode 3 Transcript

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Jason Box: When it’s not windy, which is rare, it can be extremely quiet. You can almost hear your own heartbeat.

Amy Scott: Have you ever been on top of a glacier?

Jason Box: Visually it can look like what you might imagine the moon is like.

Amy Scott: Well, this guy has. Jason Box is a glaciologist, which means he knows a lot about, you guessed it, glaciers, and how climate change is affecting them. Back in September, Jason and his seven-member crew were camping near the southern tip of the Greenland ice sheet.

Jason Box: It’s a rough, kind of blue, slippery surface. And so you had better wear some kind of traction on your feet.

Amy Scott: And let me tell you, setting up camp on a glacier sounds hard.

Jason Box: We had this challenge of how to anchor our tents. You can’t just bang in a stake because it’s solid ice. So we had to drill these little holes and thread a cord through and then you’ve established one of these anchors, and each tent needs like, you know, eight of these. And so we were doing that for a couple of hours. Just you know, as the sun is setting.

Amy Scott: Jason was there to check on the automated climate recorders he’d installed during previous trips. They’re essentially mini weather stations that track the temperature of the ice sheet. But that afternoon, Jason got word of some bad weather on the horizon.

Jason Box: You know, you can see it in the sky, these wavy dark clouds. They’re called Asperitas Clouds.

Amy Scott: They make the sky look like an ocean.

Jason Box: They’re associated with intense weather, strong winds and rainfall.

Amy Scott: It was the first indication that a storm was coming.

Jason Box: We just rushed out.

Amy Scott: The last place you want to be during a crazy storm is on top of a glacier. Jason and his crew needed to leave immediately. So they yanked up those stakes, packed up their tents and booked it out of there. Jason remembers feeling especially freaked out by how warm the wind felt on his face that afternoon.

Jason Box: What was happening at that time was a really late heatwave that affected the whole of Greenland.

Amy Scott: The same day Jason and his crew rushed off the glacier, more than 12 billion tons of ice melted into the ocean.

Jason Box: So at this time, Greenland was melting at some of the highest points across the ice sheet.

Amy Scott: A heatwave in Greenland in September causing billions of tons of ice to melt? That is not normal.

Jason Box: It’s a clear indicator of warming climate.

Amy Scott: The Greenland ice sheet is a major contributor to rising sea levels, and that melting ice, it’s coming for Miami. So yeah, sound the alarm.

I’m Amy Scott, welcome to How We Survive, a podcast for Marketplace where we’re following the money to the end of the world. From South Florida to Greenland. This is Episode Three: Science Meets Fiction.

We know what the predictions say, potentially five feet or more of sea level rise in South Florida by the end of the century. But it’s one thing to say that in theory, and another to understand what that will actually mean for us. So this episode, we are digging into the science of sea level rise. To find out why Miami is one of the most vulnerable coastal cities in the world. Then we’re gonna go beyond the science, and talk with a novelist to fill in the gaps that science can’t answer, like how humans will handle all of this.

Amy Scott: Well, I gotta tell you, I’ve been both looking forward to this conversation and dreading it because this is like, the shit gets scary.

Jason Box: Well, if you want to ruin your dinner party, you know, invite me to your dinner party and ask me about climate. You know, it’s going to kind of lower the mood.

Amy Scott: I called up Jason a few weeks after he had to run off of that glacier. I wanted to talk to him because he’s an expert on the Greenland ice sheet. He’s been studying the ice sheet for nearly 30 years and understands all of this in a very big picture kind of way. About a decade ago, Jason made a pretty important discovery. Back in the summer of 2012, Jason’s home state of Colorado got hit with some intense wildfires.

Archival: Tonight we have live team coverage of Colorado burning… the fire is now the most destructive in Colorado history, and it is only…

Amy Scott: Meanwhile 3000 miles away in Greenland, the ice sheet was melting, faster than usual. Jason wondered if there could be a connection between the two events. Turns out there was. The smoke and ash from the fires traveled hundreds of miles across the ocean and settled on top of the Greenland glacier.

Jason Box: The soot leads to more sunlight absorption, darkening of surface and that enhances metamorphism of these crystals which otherwise would have jagged edges that scattered light.

Amy Scott: That soot darkens the ice, causing it to absorb more sun, like the black interior of a car will do on a hot summer day. And that makes the ice melt faster, directly contributing to sea level rise. Jason’s research illustrated how weather events are interconnected, and how they can pile on top of one another. While that idea isn’t new, Jason was the first person to find evidence that the wildfires in Colorado contributed to the ice sheet in Greenland melting faster that year. What was so wild to me about this discovery was seeing how the fallout from a climate catastrophe in one part of the world can be felt by people in other parts of the world. And one of the first places to feel it will be Miami. We’ve said that Miami is one of the most vulnerable coastal cities in the world when it comes to sea level rise.

John Morales: There could be not just two or three feet by the end of the century, but six or more feet by the end of the century.

Amy Scott: This is John Morales. He’s the longest serving broadcast meteorologist in South Florida. Although he’s semi-retired now, he’s been reporting on the weather in Miami for three decades, both in English and in Spanish.

Archival: [Speaking in Spanish].

Amy Scott: Here’s John back in 1992 reporting on Hurricane Andrew, one of Florida’s deadliest hurricanes in recent history. And he’s been watching the ways our warming planet is affecting sea level rise around South Florida.

John Morales: That rate of sea level rise is much faster, much higher than the rest of the planet.

Amy Scott: That’s because sea level rise isn’t happening evenly around the world. It’s not like a bathtub filling up. And John says that’s for a couple big reasons. Reason one, water varies in size depending on its temperature. As it heats up, it expands, increasing in volume. And in Miami?

John Morales: We have very warm water close to us, of course, from the Gulf of Mexico and the Bahamas, and the warmer the water is, thermal expansion means it occupies more space and therefore you get sea level rise.

Amy Scott: So the warmer water in the Gulf literally takes up more space in this part of the ocean. Reason two, the Gulf Stream is slowing down. That’s the current that moves warm water from the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic Ocean. According to NOAA – that’s the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – the Gulf Stream moves more water than all of the world’s rivers combined. But over the past century, the larger system that the Gulf Stream is part of has been losing momentum.

John Morales: As the Gulf Stream slows down, you cannot evacuate water from the Florida coastline as quickly as it used to be removed from our coast. So as less water is being removed towards the North Atlantic, you get more sea level rise.

Amy Scott: So when John says evacuate and remove, he’s not referring to human interference. He’s talking about the naturally occurring activity of the Gulf Stream. When seas slow down, water just stays there. And plot twist – remember when I said all these climate events are interconnected? The system that the Gulf Stream is part of is slowing down because Greenland ice sheet is melting. It’s a saltwater system. And as ice sheets melt, both in Greenland and Antarctica, freshwater gets mixed in, which interferes with the speed of the currents.

Okay, so warming waters and slowing currents are two big factors contributing to higher-than-average sea level rise along the Florida coast. So what can Miami expect in the coming decades? And what will it be like to live in a city barreling towards Atlantis status? Well, sunny day flooding is about to get a lot worse.

John Morales: As the sea level rises, there is no way to stop the water from coming onto South Florida streets and neighborhoods.

Amy Scott: Sunny day flooding is this bizarre phenomenon. On sunny days in autumn, when the tide is at its highest in South Florida, entire communities can flood with ocean water, not from waves crashing over sea walls, but from water seeping up through the ground.

John Morales: You’ll see the saltwater bubbling up through the manholes, coming up through the drains on the sidewalks.

Amy Scott: It’s everywhere. And that’s because South Florida is built on unique land.

John Morales: It’s not bedrock. It’s not granite. It’s limestone.

Amy Scott: Limestone is a porous rock that water can easily seep through, and water does seep through. Residents of Miami have experienced sunny day flooding since at least the 1950s. But as the sea level rises, Sunny day floods are becoming more frequent and more widespread, meaning inland communities are feeling the effects too.

John Morales: Now the Sunny day floods encompass many neighborhoods across South Florida, from the Fort Lauderdale area down the coast, past Miami, past Coral Gables, to you know, folks down in southern Miami Dade County.

Amy Scott: NOAA predicts that by 2100, sunny day flooding will occur more than 180 days a year, the equivalent of about every other day. Also, just a side note here, the limestone base layer means that traditional approaches to defending against sea level rise like building sea walls are inadequate, since the water can seep up from underneath.

John Morales: We can’t put up a wall, we can’t build a berm or dike to keep it out. There’s no way to keep the water out.

Amy Scott: People in South Florida will also face more intense storm surge in the coming decades. When a storm hits, the powerful winds and low atmospheric pressure push water up and out of the ocean and further inland. It’s a big deal, because such powerful, fast-moving water can be extremely destructive and deadly. When Hurricane Ian tore through southwest Florida in September, some areas saw storm surge as high as 18 feet.

Archival: Again, 18 feet just north of Fort Myers in Charlotte Harbor… That takes cars, takes homes…Take a look at those waves coming in, and look at the volume of water…It is not just life threatening; it is not survivable.

Amy Scott: And according to the Florida Medical Examiner’s commission, that storm surge caused the majority of deaths during the hurricane. Storm surge varies with every storm, but sea levels around South Florida are about eight inches higher today than they were 70 years ago. That means with every storm, even small ones, the baseline height of the surge is going to be about eight inches higher than it previously would have been. And every three years, those waters rise an inch on average.

John Morales: That storm surge can penetrate further inland, can affect more communities. More homes are affected by the saltwater, more homes are ruined by saltwater.

Amy Scott: All this flooding from storm surge and high tides means more damage to everything. Saltwater is highly corrosive. It breaks down everything from sidewalks and sewer pipes to telephone poles and septic tanks. It’s hard on people’s cars and on the foundations of homes and apartment buildings. And if more intense flooding and storm surge weren’t enough, hurricanes are also projected to get stronger and wetter as the planet warms. In fact, they already have.

Archival: Breaking news overnight. One of the most powerful storms on record, Hurricane Patricia… Record water levels in Naples and Fort Myers, above any other storm surge ever recorded… Not only Florence but also Michael now. Two unprecedented hurricanes within the same season.

Amy Scott: And now a new record is broken. Ian was the deadliest storm to hit Florida this century. Before that, the deadliest was in 1935. Scientists are studying this, modeling what future hurricane seasons might look like. But for now, what we do know is that warmer oceans and higher seas make hurricanes more severe. The big unknown though, is how humans are gonna behave.

Bruce Holsinger: Affluent white people are not thinking about its potential near-term cataclysmic effects on them.

Amy Scott: That’s after the break.




Amy Scott: Okay, so the science is scary. Predictions and worst case scenarios can feel kind of unreal. And sometimes to make sense of reality, it can be helpful to use your imagination. So for a moment, imagine a hurricane. Let’s call her Luna. She’s a category six hurricane, unlike anything we’ve experienced. Luna’s eye is 35 miles in diameter, causing waves to crest at 130 feet. She is rumbling towards Miami, this time a direct hit. What would that even be like?

Bruce Holsinger: First the surge. Hours before landfall, Luna’s cyclonic winds begin to push water before her like a snow shovel, mounting with the force of a tsunami. The enormous waves break first on Hollywood beach, claiming a Haagen-Dazs and a souvenir stand along the boardwalk. Other structures follow, houses, stores, smaller hotels. Second, the wind. When she hits the vast metropolitan area, her eyewall clocks at 215 miles per hour. She strikes Miami as if beating on some mountain sized drum, an invisible membrane thrums along streets and alleys. Tall buildings twist and buckle. The guts of civilization swarm and fly. Third, the rain. In the first hour of Luna’s tear across the peninsula, she drops 22 inches. As her eye nears Fort Myers and the Gulf coasts, she wheels on herself and stalls until her immense bands straddle all of South Florida and release unending torrents. Fragments of 1000 boats float in the remnants of bays and inlets. Her first assault leaves a great city shorn of its glory. Its husks baking in the August gloom. Here Luna pauses for a spell, poised above the ruin, weakened, but biding her time.

Amy Scott: Whew. This is not bedtime reading, folks.

Bruce Holsinger: No, no, it’s not.

Amy Scott: You’ll have nightmares.

Amy Scott: Bruce Holsinger is an English professor at the University of Virginia and a novelist. His latest book is called The Displacements. It imagines a time in the very near future when a category six hurricane named Hurricane Luna hits Miami and displaces millions of people.

Amy Scott: First of all, you chose to create a category six hurricane which doesn’t actually exist yet on the scale. But there is talk about it. Why did you want to have a Cat six storm hit Miami and then Houston?

Bruce Holsinger: So it’s not that I wanted to have a Cat six hurricane in Houston. It’s just, it gave me a way to kind of stretch the imagination of what the storm is doing in the novel. So as you know, and as any listeners to this podcast will know, Category Five is already the highest designation for a hurricane. And it currently can include anything that my imagined Hurricane Luna does in the novel.

Amy Scott: It’s chilling, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian just weeks ago. The novel isn’t dystopian, or even science fiction. It just feels very, very real.

Amy Scott: It’s so powerful. And also I just imagine the research that went into envisioning what a storm like that could do. Talk a little bit about how you figured out how storms form and move and destroy?

Bruce Holsinger: Yeah, so I did a lot of reading in hurricane formation, you know, where they form out in the Atlantic, whether they’re going clockwise or counterclockwise, depending where they are in relationship to the equator. So all those sorts of little details. And then I talked to two hurricane experts at university at Miami. I think both of whom had been in the National Hurricane Center at one point. So I was able to, you know, think about those details and what a hurricane would do, what storm surge would do through the bay and the rivers. But also I, you know, the novel is about the displacements of people and that was going to be my main focus. But I also wanted the hurricane to be a kind of character in the novel at the beginning, and the storm has a name and the storm is not a conscious thing, but certainly has agency.

Amy Scott: What was particularly fascinating to me about all of this research is that when Bruce started interviewing hurricane experts, it became clear that he wasn’t thinking big or scary enough.

Bruce Holsinger: I was really asking them very detailed questions about exactly what the biggest hurricane they could imagine would do in the moment. I wanted them to talk to me about what, you know, what would happen if a hurricane did to South Florida what Hurricane Dorian did to the Bahamas in 2019, and just sat over Miami Beach for 24 to 48 hours.

Amy Scott: And they were like, that’s nice that you think a category six might look like Dorian. But that’s not actually realistic.

Bruce Holsinger: They said, Well, you don’t have to think about Dorian, think about something a fair amount worse, because that’s surely coming. Even my novelist’s imagination, it couldn’t stretch to that, to that extent of disaster. So I think that’s really why I went with a category six.

Amy Scott: The Displacements follows a woman named Daphne, her two young children and her college-age stepson in the aftermath of Hurricane Luna. They lose everything, their home, their car, even their dog. Plus, in the midst of all the chaos of trying to escape Miami before the hurricane hits, they lose access to all of their money.

Amy Scott: The family at the center of this story is the Larson Hall family. They’re an affluent white family and really lose it all, not just because of Luna, but because of…

Bruce Holsinger: Other circumstances.

Amy Scott: Other circumstances. But why did you want to center rich white people in this story about displacement?

Bruce Holsinger: Well, that was a deliberate choice on my part. You know, so much of the discourse around climate change is about its effects on the poor and the underprivileged. And in our country right now, I think one of the real causes of complacency is people – affluent, white people are not thinking about its potential near-term cataclysmic effects on them.

Amy Scott: Last episode, we talked about the idea of climate change as a threat multiplier, how it amplifies all the existing inequities in our society. And we know that black and brown communities and low income people tend to get hit hardest by climate disaster, while many wealthier white families don’t really have to confront the effects until a hurricane breaks through their front door. This privilege is something Bruce plays with a lot in the novel.

Amy Scott: You have this great quote: Call it the catastrophe of whiteness, you want the world to pay attention to your story, you make it all about white people in peril. Works every time. So you’re kind of winking at yourself there.

Bruce Holsinger: Yeah, yeah. And I wanted that to be, I wanted that to be really clear, I wanted the novel to be a little bit meta about that. I wanted to find a way of talking about that and of representing the effects of climate change on an affluent family. I wanted to think about themes of precarity and downward mobility. But I wanted to do it in a way that was self conscious, and that readers would understand that this was done intentionally.

Amy Scott: So much of this novel resonated with me as I spent the summer and fall in Florida, especially after Hurricane Ian. I visited an emergency shelter near Sarasota, set up to house the displaced. And I’ll never forget the look of stunned exhaustion on the faces of all these strangers thrust together by calamity. In Bruce’s novel, The government responds to Luna by setting up 18 federally funded mega shelters around the country, far away from Miami. Daphne and her kids get sent to Tooley Farms, a mega shelter in Oklahoma. And it’s at Tooley farms that we really see how society’s issues get compounded by a climate disaster. Racism, classism, addiction, toxic masculinity, all of these issues take center stage at Tooley farms.

Amy Scott: As we’ve been reporting this season, we came across the concept of climate change as a threat multiplier.

Bruce Holsinger: Yeah, you know, I didn’t have that phrase in my head when I was writing the book, but that’s exactly where I ended up. And drug addiction is a really good example. There’s a strand in one of the subplots and the novel, it’s about a new opioid that’s just come on the market called wildfire appropriately, and it’s being peddled by one of the characters in the novel out of the library. And the, you know, one of the things that I thought about a lot was about what happens in catastrophes aftermath to addiction. You know, there’s, there was a study that I read about hurricane Harvey, and the amount of the spike in opioid use and abuse in the months and years following that. And it can have a very, very long tail, you know, in those things, those effects can last for years.

Amy Scott: So drug addiction gets compounded. Problems like racism metastasize.

Bruce Holsinger: You have 10,000 people or so thrust together, in essentially a tent city, in the middle of Oklahoma, and this was just based on research on refugee camps. And, and what happens in displacement shelters, is, you know, people will often go to their own, you know, and so there’s a kind of self segregation of populations in the shelter, where you have a kind of unofficial Chinatown forming, Little Havana. But then there’s also cracker town. And that’s where a group of white people from Miami Dade live in there. You know, initially that’s kind of tongue in cheek, that designation. But then the kind of racial politics start multiplying and exacerbating existing tensions in the mega shelter.

Amy Scott: I’m not going to give away any big spoilers, but I think a reason why this novel feels so realistic, is because everything happens all at once. Yes, there’s one big Miami ending hurricane. But it’s not the only natural disaster that happens in the book. And it also happens while individuals are dealing with their own personal turmoil. It shows how crises don’t happen in neat or manageable ways. And how we deal with them is guaranteed to be at least a little messy.

Amy Scott: Big picture with what you know from your research and being steeped in this world, do you have any takeaways on what will happen to society in the aftermath of a world-altering hurricane, which seems all but certain to happen again?

Bruce Holsinger: Yeah, so there’s one scene from the middle of the novel where Daphne is thinking back on 911. And the, what happens to the coverage after 911. And there’s this one moment where she realizes it’s no longer on the front page of the paper, of the national paper, there’s nothing about it. And she’s imagining her own moment through that kind of lens, where she picks up a copy of USA Today. From you know, she’s been in this mega shelter for a couple of months, and she picks up a copy of USA Today that’s in one of the pavilions, and she realizes there is nothing, there’s no mention of hurricane Luna on the front page. And she realizes, Oh my god, so much of the country has moved on. And you can imagine that, you know, catastrophes like the Coronavirus was very universal, and everybody was affected in different ways. But often a hurricane, something like, as we learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it can be an enormous, all-consuming disaster for one part of the country, but other parts of the country are going on with their lives, living in a kind of oblivion. And I can’t imagine that not happening with climate change. But there is a tendency to move on, to look away, to imagine that the world has moved on. And that hadn’t, it doesn’t have a direct effect on my life, so why should I pay attention to it? And that’s a very, you know, it’s cynical, but I think it’s also realistic. And I worry greatly about what society will look like when we have the first truly cataclysmic climate disaster in the United States. You know, what that will mean for the rest of the country, as it manages the population of displaced people, And as its looks inward after its own interests. What I hope is that the country will respond, and our government, our state government, local government, that they’ll all respond in generous ways. But, you know, it’s something I worry about greatly, something I think about a lot.

Amy Scott: After writing this book, how are you feeling about the future?

Bruce Holsinger: Well, I think that’s a difficult question to answer. I think finishing the book gave me a sense of relief, in some ways. That I’d sort of gotten out what I wanted to say. You know, the novel gave me a way of thinking about generational difference in responses to climate change, and I think it helped me get inside the head of younger people and how they might be feeling. I’m the father of two sons whose futures will be shaped so profoundly by climate change. And I think writing fiction across generations, for me is a way of working through some of the, some of the fear and grief but also through, you know, finding sources of hope that I hope I can transmit to them.

Amy Scott: Hope can be hard to come by when it comes to climate change. And I’m definitely not one to sugarcoat things. But if we’re paralyzed by climate anxiety, it’s also hard to take any meaningful action. So I wanted to know how someone like Jason Box, who has literally watched Greenland’s ice sheet melt, keeps going.

Amy Scott: I’m curious, we get, we get questions from listeners who are like, how do you cope with the climate anxiety? You know, because people want to do something, but often feel paralyzed, depressed. And you know, for someone who’s immersed in this, I’m wondering how you deal with it?

Jason Box: I’ve started planting trees. And it’s cathartic. I can tell you, it feels great to do something.

Amy Scott: Jason is part of an organization. It’s called Greenland Trees. For more than a decade now, they’ve been planting trees across Greenland, often with their kids and other young people from the community.

Jason Box: The main benefit isn’t carbon dioxide removal. It’s inspiring young people to have an environmental connection. And so we’re, we’re planting with young people, and they get to label their own trees that they plant themselves.

Archival: Where are you gonna put them? Where are you gonna plant them?

Amy Scott: Jason has taken his daughter to Greenland a handful of times to help plant.

Jason Box: They will remember these, come back to them a few years later, see the growth and maybe climb that tree someday or have their kids climbing this tree someday. I’m interested in sustaining nature. And I think we all have a stake in that. And we can have the benefits when we have a healthier nature and you know, go out and experience it before it’s gone.

Amy Scott: It’s not going to fix everything. But if we’re in this for the long haul, which we all are, whether we want to be or not, we’re going to need all the inspiration we can get.

Next episode, inspiration comes in many forms.

Speaker 1: To me when I look at that house, it looks like a person with a huge nose.

Amy Scott: Now I’m like checking my nose.

Amy Scott: What we can do to make our homes, buildings, and communities more resilient, and attractive? That’s next time on How We Survive.

Thanks so much to everyone who’s been sending questions and comments. We love reading them. And our inbox is still open. If you have any questions about sea level rise or anything you’ve heard so far, hit us up at How We Survive is hosted by me, Amy Scott, Hayley Hershman and Grace Rubin produced this episode, with production help from Olivia Zhao. Caitlin Esch is our Senior Producer. Our editor is Jasmine Romero. Sound design by Chris Julen and audio engineering by Brian Allison. And special thanks this week to Elisabeth Gawthrop and Brian McNoldy. Our theme music is by Wonderly. Donna Tam is the Director of On Demand, Francesca Levy is the Executive Director. And Neil Scarborough is the General Manager of Marketplace.

The team

Amy Scott Host
Caitlin Esch Senior Producer
Hayley Hershman Producer
Grace Rubin Assistant Producer