Early Warnings from Smith and Tangier Islands
Historic communities seek engineering projects, funding to survive flooding and rising water
These houses on Virginia's Tangier Island sit just adjacent to acres of marsh grasses and, not far beyond, the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The region's low-lying communities are especially vulnerable to sea level rise. Photograph: David Harp
THE CHESAPEAKE BAY WAS ONCE HOME to more than a dozen offshore island communities—tight-knit villages with enough land for baseball diamonds and marshes thick with crabs and fish.
James, Barren, Punch, Holland. One by one, they faded away. Erosion battered their shorelines. Rising waters submerged their soils. Islanders with means packed up their bags and tore down their homes, barged them to the mainland, and reconstructed them on higher ground in Crisfield and around Cambridge. The structures too battered to make the trip stayed, along with the gravestones, and eventually slipped into the sea.
But 400 years after the first English settlers arrived, two offshore islands with villages remain. Smith Island, a marshy expanse of three towns 12 miles into the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, is home to about 250 residents. Tangier Island, just a few miles south in Virginia, has more people — about 450 — but less land, with all of its inhabitants concentrated in a central area.
Both islands have lost land and population. Residents of both have clamored for government projects — seawalls, jetties, revetments — to protect what remains. And both communities have battled the perception that their survival is not worth the effort, that the millions of dollars in taxpayer money needed to protect so few people could be better spent.
Yet, the islands lodge themselves into a special place in the hearts of visitors and natives. Their fragility makes the attachment all the stronger. It's perhaps not surprising that first-time visitors have purchased homes within hours of disembarking the ferry.
"They are pretty much, to me, the intersection of the Chesapeake Bay and people," said author Tom Horton. He lived on Smith Island from 1987 to 1989 and later published a book about his experiences, An Island Out of Time: A Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake. "I realize at some point there might be limits to what we can do to save them, but I'm hoping we can get a few more decades with them, or even more. . .. There's nothing else like them, not just in Maryland and Virginia, but in the entire United States."
As much as Smith and Tangier islands might seem like places apart, it was not always so. The islands formed thousands of years ago, when the Susquehanna River valley flooded and became the Chesapeake Bay. The islands were the tops of ridges. Before the Bay's water rose to its current level, the islands were all connected to the mainland. The Indians didn't canoe to these islands, according to Smith Island resident and artifact expert Tim Marshall. They walked.
Tangier: Tight-knit on Loose Land
No one's sure of the origin of the name Tangier, but historians know how it was settled. In 1707, a man named Post traded an Indian chief two overcoats for the island. Post brought over three families from England to farm. They stayed. Today, the Parks, Pruitt, and Crockett families make up about half of Tangier's population.
Once, Tangier had eight ridges, with distinct towns on each. More than 2,000 people lived and worked here, farming or fishing or working at the clothing factory. For entertainment, there was an opera house. For history buffs, there was the famous military fort where Joshua Thomas, the parson of the islands, warned British troops they were going to get walloped in Baltimore during the War of 1812. It seemed improbable, but history proved Thomas right, and the wounded British returned to Tangier to tell him so.
But with every heavy storm, the once-sturdy island lost more ground. By the 1930s, only three communities remained — all on ridges separated by bridges over marsh. Main Ridge is the central one, near the bustling harbor ringed with shanties. West Ridge stretches to the left and includes Tangier's small airstrip as well as its waste-disposal facility. Canton Ridge, the Crockett's original home, sits on the smallest piece of land, its shore jutting into Mailboat Harbor like an arrowhead. All over the island are signs of its precariousness — water in yards at high tide, jagged cuts where land used to be, crosses once erected on high ground that are now nearly submerged.
For decades, islanders pleaded for federal and state help to stabilize the shoreline. In the 1990s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a seawall on the west side. Without it, residents say, they would have lost the airstrip. The Corps also planned to construct a jetty and seawall that would protect the harbor's entrance channel and keep the waters navigable. In the process, it would also safeguard Tangier's east side. The Corps got the authorization in 1996.
But the Corps never got the money. Tangier residents lobbied every governor, senator, and representative they could. The $4.2-million project remained on the books, but that was the only place it lived.
The inaction angered Tangier Mayor James "Ooker" Eskridge, a deeply religious man who traces his Tangier heritage back 200 years. Several young island men had served their country in Afghanistan and Iraq, building millions of dollars worth of infrastructure there, only to find their own yards awash when they returned.
"We're only a few miles from Washington, D.C., and we would like some help," Eskridge said as he steered his boat, the Sree-Davi, through the sound's broken lands. "If we could just get some stone for Tangier, we would be here until the Lord decides to come back, until the last days."
Eskridge may have his prayers answered, finally. In the fall of 2012, just weeks after Superstorm Sandy destroyed many crab shanties on the island and flooded several homes, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it was going ahead with building the jetty and seawall. The federal government kicked in $3.2 million; Virginia is picking up the rest of the tab. Work should begin this fall.
But while the project will help stabilize the shoreline and gird the island against the punishing waves, it will likely not stop the island's persistent flooding from storms and high tides. And Corps officials said the project won't necessarily give the island more time, as islands are dynamic. Inlets open and close, shorelines erode and accrete. The Corps is also investigating a project that will build breakwaters on the western side and further protect the habitat of the Uppards, a marshy mudflat that was once home to the island's highest ground and its main town. Today, all that remains is a dilapidated hunting shack. That project would offer some more shoreline protection, but again it's not certain how much or for how long.
Earlier this year, Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot columnist Roger Chesley suggested the jetty project was a waste of taxpayers' money. He suggested the government divide the money by the number of residents and give each resident there about $8,400 to leave. Islanders were irate, especially since Chesley acknowledged he'd never been there.
But the beleaguered community does seem to have a friend in a high place that can help secure its future: Col. Paul Olsen, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers' Norfolk District. For Olsen, the loss of Holland and the islands before it remains a cautionary tale of a people who could not adapt. Tangier must adapt, he said, because the Chesapeake's future is one of more Tangiers: islands unto themselves. Tangier will go first in trying solutions, Olsen said, so it can show communities in the water-prone Hampton Roads area the way forward.
"The only way Tangier would be untenable is if we take our eyes off Tangier and we don't study it and don't pay attention to it," Olsen said. "Tangier is a cultural jewel. It's historic. It's a slice of Americana. And it needs to be watched very closely."
Smith: Uniting at Last
Smith Island seems less fragile than Tangier, less vulnerable to the effects of the rising sea. Nearly 7,000 acres of tidal marsh protect the people of Smith from storms and provide the Chesapeake Bay with one of its finest crab nurseries. The island has three towns. One, Tylerton, has a 20-year-old seawall. It is separated by a channel from another part of the island that includes the main town, Ewell, and a smaller village, Rhodes Point. Martin National Wildlife Refuge occupies the island's northern half.
Flood waters overtop a sea wall on Maryland's Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Sea level rise is helping to make high water events like this one worse and more frequent in the region. Photograph: David Harp
In 2003, Smith was barely touched by Tropical Storm Isabel, which devastated Tangier, tore apart Hooper's Island, and flooded Annapolis. In 2012 Superstorm Sandy again battered Tangier, but Smith Islanders had minimal damage. Old-timers say the last truly devastating storms were a half century ago: Hurricane Hazel, in 1954, and the unnamed storm of 1962.
On Smith, the greatest threat to survival came in the form of a buyout offer from the state of Maryland following Sandy. The government was offering a $2 million pot of money for residents who wanted to leave. The money came courtesy of the federal government, which has a policy not to fund rebuilding of houses in places that are likely to flood again. If Smith Islanders took the buyout, they would receive the highest appraised value for their land — but in exchange, the land would become "dead," never to be built on again.
On an island already struggling, even a few departures could lead to restaurants and shops closing their doors. Sandy had damaged just a few homes, but those residents felt they were entitled to rebuilding money. Which the government wasn't offering.
To most islanders, the buyout offer was infuriating, and perplexing: why them and not Crisfield, where many homes and businesses flooded?
"Nobody lost their home just due to Superstorm Sandy," said the island's pastor, Rick Edmund. "We couldn't figure out why they wanted to buy out our property."
Islanders saw that their only choice was to fight the buyout and push for rebuilding funds. State Senator Jim Mathias and Somerset County officials called a meeting in Crisfield in May 2013 to discuss the buyout with islanders. One of the most vocal opponents was a retired Navy submarine officer named John Del Duco. A New York native, Del Duco had bought his property eight years ago after doing a google search for "cheap waterfront real estate." Smith Island was the second listing. He'd never heard of it.
Financially, the buyout deal would have been great. But Del Duco and his wife, Pam, wanted no part of it. Though they had only lived on the island full-time about a year, they had become part of the community. Pam worked at one restaurant; John volunteered at the other, often running his skiff to the mainland for supplies. Together, they helped manage one of Ewell's two bed and breakfasts.
Del Duco stood up at the meeting and advocated for his new community.
"I said, 'why are we condemning the property?'" he said. "The culture of this very special place needs to be preserved. We have people here who can go into a cemetery next to their homes and see the gravestones of their father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great grandfather. Show me another place in the world where that is true...Smith Island is as much an important symbol of this country as the bald eagle."
As Del Duco was at the meeting, Eddie Somers was mulling his own course of action. Somers, who captains an icebreaker for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, is genteel and reserved. He and his wife live full-time in Crisfield, but they're both native Smith Islanders. About a decade ago, they bought property in Rhodes Point and built their dream house, a skinny, three-story structure that resembles a city rowhouse, only with no attached neighbors.
Somers, too, was angry.
"What if they came in where you live and said, 'we're not fixing anything anymore. We gave you permits, we told you to do this and that, and now, we're done with you?'" Somers said. "You expect people to turn their backs on you. But you never expect that from your own government."
Somers had met Senator Mathias a year before and had his personal cell phone number. He decided to call. The senator told Somers to call Del Duco. The county, Mathias said, needed to hear their views — officials had already heard plenty from two vocal island residents who wanted the buyout.
Somers and Del Duco met, talked, and recruited more neighbors. On an island of independent watermen, they didn't expect it would be easy. Smith Island, unlike Tangier, has no formal government; the Methodist church holds the community together and organizes charity functions, while Somerset County provides emergency services.
But the islanders quickly formed an association, Smith Island United. They drafted an alternative to the buyout — a prioritized list of projects to shore up key areas of the island against erosion. Islanders voted nearly unanimously to reject the buyout. Two months after they offered the buyout deal, Somerset County officials took it off the table. Mathias watched on C-SPAN as the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency committed to re-evaluate federal relief money for Somerset County.
In the end, Smith Island will receive $15 million in federal Sandy relief money, even though the storm barely touched them. About $9 million will finance a breakwater project on Martin National Wildlife Refuge. Close to $5 million will pay for a jetty to protect Rhodes Point, a project the Army Corps had hoped to complete years ago; ideally, the Corps will contribute an additional $2.8 million, but if it doesn't, the county will scale back the work and do it without a federal partner. Close to $1 million will be split between Ewell and Rhodes Point for fixing their county docks, which had fallen into disrepair over the years. And $90,000 will fund a "visioning" study to plan for the island's future. Like their Corps counterparts in Virginia, Maryland Corps officials can't say exactly how much time these projects will buy Smith. But islanders estimate another century, at least.
From his third-floor porch, Somers can look 10 miles northwest on a clear day and see one possible future for Smith Island: the remains of Holland Island and its surviving stand of hardwoods. But around him on Smith Island, he can see a different scene that represents an alternative future, if it can be preserved. He sees skimmers gliding through a serpentine belt of lush marsh. He sees tourists, clutching real-estate listings, mulling their own dreams. He sees a place with many more good years left.
"Why," he asked, "would anyone want to let it go?"