Watching The Waters On Smith Island
The Daily Times
TYLERTON, Md. (AP) — Smith Island is dying.
Since the arrival of English settlers in the mid-17th century, the sea has been the lifeblood for the clump of islands barely peeking above the greenish expanse of water 10 miles west of Crisfield.
Centuries before the invention of barbed wire, islanders used the waters of Chesapeake Bay as a natural barrier to keep their cattle from roaming. They later mined the bay itself for its treasure of blue crabs and oysters. In more recent years, they welcomed tourists from around the world interested in their Old Bay-seasoned seafood and Old World ways.
Little by little, however, the sea that gave life is taking it away.
Over the last 150 years, the bay has chewed away at the land like a cancer. About 3,200 acres have vanished, representing nearly one-third of the land, scientists estimate. Today, only about 900 of the islands’ remaining 8,000 acres are hospitable to development. The rest is saltwater marsh that is steadily eroding, sometimes before residents’ very eyes.
How long they can hang on is anyone’s guess.
Meet, then, the candidates to become the first climate refugees of the contiguous United States.
Larry Laird, 67, navigates his teal-painted boat along Smith Island’s shore, carrying a fresh load of visitors and residents. With each passing year, the name given to this particular slice of the bay — “The Big Thorofare” — becomes more appropriate.
“This is a lot wider than when I was a boy,” Laird says.
But he is quick to point out that he doesn’t buy outsiders’ argument that climate change is to blame. Like many of his neighbors on the island, he disputes scientists’ warnings that its days are numbered.
The vast majority of Smith Islanders don’t accept being labeled climate refugees any more than they accept their island’s watery doom. But that’s essentially what state officials did when they offered property owners buyouts instead of reconstruction money this past spring in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
The Maryland Department of Housing and Community set aside $2 million in federal grants to buy Smith Island homes from voluntary sellers. Under the plan, any buildings involved in the transactions would be torn down and development would be prohibited forever.
Residents’ reaction was immediate and nearly unanimous. Of 38 written comments the agency received about the plan, 34 were opposed to it.
“I don’t know what other conclusion you could come to other than that the state was trying to move us off,” said the Rev. Rick Edmund, who lives on the island and conducts Sunday services at its three Methodist churches. “We don’t feel like we’re in as much danger as a lot of places on the mainland.”
State officials yanked the idea within two months of floating it. Islanders are now eligible for rebuilding funds.
The buyout episode demonstrated more than Smith Islanders’ unwillingness to come to grips with climate change. It revealed something profound about their relationship with their dwindling land — a land that has been passed down from one generation to the next like a hope chest.
The island is a living thing whose death would be mourned like that of any loved one.
To spend a few days among Smith’s residents getting their thoughts on climate change and the islands’ future is an exercise better left to a grief counselor, I found during a recent stay long after the summer tourists had departed.
Psychologists speak of five stages of grief and loss –denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. All five presented themselves at one time or another, embedded in islanders’ words, hopes and actions.
The 240 or so full-time islanders face a math problem. In June, a panel of scientists led by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science predicted that seas around the Free State could rise as much as 2 feet by 2050.
Most of Smith Island lies less than 3 feet above sea level.
The situation wouldn’t be so dire if the island group were virtually anywhere else in the world.
Maryland’s sea level rise projection is about a foot higher than the global level for that period largely because much of the Mid-Atlantic region, including Smith Island, is sinking, said William Boicourt, an oceanographer with the Center for Environmental Science’s Horn Point lab outside Cambridge.
The Earth’s spongy crust is still settling from the bulge created by the Ice Age 25,000 years ago. The land is going down at about the same pace as the seas are going up, Boicourt said.
It would be easy to cast residents as willfully ignorant of these changes being wrought on their island. And false.
Eddie Evans, a 75-year-old retired waterman and unofficial community historian, says he has dredged up tree stumps a mile or so offshore. And he recalls from his boyhood the last of the island’s 10 to 15 cows being herded up and literally shipped off to greener pastures. There was hardly any grass left for them to eat.
The islands are smaller than they were when his forebears 11 generations back first arrived from Virginia in the 1660s, he acknowledges. But the cause isn’t climate change — it’s erosion, he says.
Erosion, erosion, erosion. That’s the culprit du jour in these parts. By the end of my nearly 48-hour visit, I came to wish I had developed a shorthand for the word to expedite my note-taking.
The first reference came before the supply boat carrying me from Crisfield docked at Ewell, the largest of Smith Island’s three communities. Laird, the boat’s captain, said: “We have erosion, but they have that anywhere.”
As he steered his vessel, the Jason II, through the Big Thorofare , Laird pointed to an outcropping of marsh. The dry, yellow stalks stood suspended several inches above the lapping shallows, the mud beneath their roots having washed away.
“That’s eating away, but it’s not sinking,” Laird said above the growl of his boat’s engine.
Islanders like Evans and Laird are right, Boicourt said. Waves churned up by storms and boat wakes are a problem and always have been. But global warming has caused seas to rise faster over the past couple decades, giving the waves more punch, he said.
Imagine a cliff rising from the sea, he said. If the surface of the water goes up, the waves still crash against the cliff face; erosion is minimal. But in low-lying areas like Smith Island, those waves can travel a greater distance across the land surface before they peter out against the gently rising slope.
Boicourt, for his part, doesn’t dismiss the sentiments and observations of the islands’ residents. Their lives are intertwined with the elements of Chesapeake Bay, and they’re often at the vanguard in observing new phenomena.
But in the eyes of some islanders, tenure trumps science.
“They think they can sit on the mainland and tell us we’re sinking when we live here,” Laird says. “Think about that.”
Later, and on land, Evans rises slowly from his sofa. His joints are as rusty as a shipwrecked freighter from years of hard work on the water. He leads me over a bed of loose oyster shells to his crab shanty, where a wooden sea wall he built to protect his property 50 years ago stands in silent testimony to his erosion argument.
“The white water line is in the same place it’s always been,” Evans says. “It seems to me if it’s rising, it would be steadily coming up that diking. But I don’t see that.”
Smith Island isn’t the only place threatened by climate change in the Chesapeake region. Places that climate scientists and policymakers like to cite include southern Dorchester County, Tangier Island, the Hampton Roads, Va., area and Crisfield.
Smith Islanders are renowned for their hospitality and gentility. They don’t get angry about many things. But many didn’t like being singled out for buyouts.
“It was stupid,” Laird said, using about the strongest language you will hear from someone whose tiny community is served by three churches, all of them Methodist. “I didn’t like it at all. We didn’t even have that much damage (from Hurricane Sandy), and Crisfield got tore up. And they wanted to get rid of us?”
Official storm tallies bear out Laird’s claim. Among Smith Island’s three villages — Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton — about one in seven homes were damaged in the October 2012 storm. In Crisfield, it was about two out of five.
Some have grown weary of the media’s coverage of the island. The most cursory of Internet searches turns up story after story about climate change, particularly in the wake of the now-rescinded buyout offer. Several national outlets are represented, including The Washington Post and CBS News.
“The media coverage is creating the misconception that all of the island is eroding away,” Edward Somers, a Smith Island native now living in Crisfield, wrote in a letter to The Daily Times recently. “This is false. Ewell is protected from erosion by a substantial jetty system on the west. Tylerton has bulkhead and riprap protection. Most of our high land, where our villages are located, is not eroding at all.”
It’s not hard to see how journalists get the idea, though.
For one, you can’t get there by car, which makes its stalwarts seem all the more vulnerable. The only ways off are by helicopter or one of three passenger-only ferries whose schedules vary by season and, it can seem, the captain’s whim.
Laird leaves the Crisfield dock at 12:30 p.m. and returns at 4 p.m. from Ewell. But from late autumn to early spring, he makes the return trip only if he has enough passengers. When will he know whether he has enough people? Not until you’re on the boat. Maybe later.
Another factor that fuels the conventional wisdom about Smith Island is the way it looks in aerial photographs. Take another peek at the one that accompanies this story. Doesn’t it just seem like all that water could just wash over those randomly placed buildings and splotches of marsh at any moment?
It doesn’t seem that way if you’ve watched it survive one storm after another and defy the most breathless of headlines for so many years.
Several residents were more than happy to share ideas with me about how state and federal officials could better spend taxpayer money around the bay. They point to a $670 million project that is pouring 68 million cubic yards of dredged material into a blob-shaped framework of dikes to restore Poplar Island in Talbot County to its former luster.
In addition to solving the Port of Baltimore’s sediment disposal problem, officials with the Army Corps say they expect the work to restore much-needed habitat for shorebirds and other wildlife.
“If we could get the money that Poplar Island gets, we’d be OK,” says Dana Insley, an emergency medical technician, as she finishes lunch at the only diner open during the offseason. But, she adds, “we’re more interested in birds than people.”
On Sundays, Edmund, the island’s parson, is a blur of spiritual and logistical activity. A 10-minute boat trip is necessary to reach Tylerton, which is separated by water from the other two communities. But he finds himself traveling by water to all three when flood tides render the two-lane blacktop between Ewell and Rhodes Point impassable.
A different government project stirs his imagination: a $9 million campaigned announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in October to stabilize the western shoreline of the Martin National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge consists of an uninhabited swatch of land that on maps resembles a painter’s hasty brushstroke. It lies on the north end of the Smith Island archipelago.
Edmund says he’s happy that the island group is getting some help. But those dollars are needed just as much at the rapidly eroding and still-inhabited Rhodes Point, he says.
At the southernmost point of Smith Island, which lies within a fishing net’s throw from the Virginia border, Rhodes Point occupies a narrow strip of what passes for high ground. The marsh leaves barely enough room for a ribbon of road and a house.
Laird’s boat also pulls duty as the county-sanctioned transportation for the children of Tylerton who attend the K-7 school in Ewell.
One by one, the five children tumble into a van for the slow, four-block trip to the dock to catch their ride home. They are let off behind the low-slung headquarters of the Smith Island Baking Co., home of the island’s most prized export: the multilayered Smith Island cake.
Laird is already waiting for them, engines idling. In a ritual required of few American schoolchildren, they wiggle into life preservers and wait for one of the two adults accompanying them to slide the mooring line off the piling.
Kristen Corbin, 32, and her three young — and charmingly rambunctious — girls make the round-trip every school day. A self-proclaimed “die-hard Smith Islander,” she can’t imagine raising them anywhere else.
Her parents and her husband’s parents also live on the island and can watch her youngest daughter while she works as a teaching assistant at the school. And the tap water, drawn from a deep community well, is the best she’s ever tasted anywhere.
Corbin wears a smile just about every moment I see her, which is quite a bit, it turns out. The photographer for this story, Laura Emmons, and I are staying on Tylerton, and we, therefore, share the boat ride to and from Ewell with Corbin. What’s more, she moonlights as the housekeeper for the people who own the house where we’re staying, so she knows where the extra blankets are hidden.
But if a shadow of melancholy ever slips into her brogue-tinged voice, it’s when she’s on the subject of whether her daughters will know her way of life.
Money is tight. She is the family’s only source of income while her husband, Bryan, studies most of the week to become a diesel engine mechanic. He was a waterman until last year, when he had finally had enough.
“It just got to be so hard trying to raise a family,” she said. “If you had a lot of crabs, you wouldn’t get that much for them. And if you didn’t have a lot of them, you get a lot of money for them, but there’s still a lot of expense.”
Many Smith Islanders have chosen to leave rather than eke out a living on the few types of jobs that the islands offer. The population has plummeted from a peak of 800 residents. Deteriorating health forces some older residents to move. But the biggest problem, locals say, is that young people leave and never return.
The island is old and getting older. Since 2000, the median age has crept up from 50.5 to 58 years old. The median age statewide is 36.
Corbin says she had no problem seeing the buyouts from “both perspectives.” The offer would have benefited people who wanted to leave. Homes tend to stay on the market for months, even years, on Smith Island.
But, she adds, “I see no reason leaving, and I hope I don’t have to.”
On the way over to Smith Island, one scruffy-looking man accounted for the lion’s share of luggage.
With Laird’s help, Dennis Clary heaved onto the bobbing vessel a refrigerator, a desktop computer, a box spring and mattress onto the boat. He is part of a new breed of Smith Islander: people outside the original group of families looking to experience life in a giant time capsule.
Out in the water, Clary stands on the open deck in spite of the biting, late-November wind.
“It’s a great Beltway to go home on,” says the 63-year-old transplant from Frederick County.
If anyone who truly loves Smith Island has made peace with its all-but-certain demise, it’s Tom Horton.
Horton, a former environmental reporter for The Baltimore Sun, lived on the island for a few years. He has gone on to write several books about Chesapeake Bay.
“The view from outside the island is totally different from the view on the island. I don’t think one’s right or one’s wrong. But at some point, one’s going to be right,” he says over coffee at a cafe near Salisbury University, where he teaches environmental science.
“If you sit in an office in Salisbury or teach a class on climate change, you can’t pick a better example than Smith or Tangier. There’s no doubt in my mind that in the next three-quarters of a century that they’ll be covered by water unless everything we know about climate change is wrong.”
The prevailing sense among islanders is “not so much denial,” he tells me, “as it is, `This is where we are. When summer comes, we’ll be here again and take it a year at a time.”‘
Back on the boat, Clary sounds more at ease with Smith Island’s fate than many of his new neighbors. He is a man without family and time mooring him to the island.
It’s “not going to happen overnight,” he says, but “climate change is inevitable. If it happens, you’re just going to have to deal with it.”
He’s already passed his first test as an islander. One of his neighbors on Tylerton joked that he would change his mind about moving in after he experienced his first flood tide.
One day, it happened: A foot of water stood in his yard. Neither then nor now does he regret his decision to stay.
“If I didn’t like water,” he says, “I wouldn’t have moved here.”
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)