NEW YORKER TANGIER ISLAND - John Wawrzonek

A combination of storm-driven erosion and sea-level rise, which are both increasing as climate change advances, may soon swallow the island entirely.Photograph by Gordon Campbell / At Altitude Gallery


One afternoon last summer, off a tiny island in Virginia called Tangier, James Eskridge set out to rescue two fledgling ospreys. Their parents had nested on a duck-hunting platform that barely topped the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, and a coming storm surge threatened to drown them. “I’ve seen a nest like this before,” Eskridge said. “We had a thunderstorm that night. When I went up there the next day, everything was gone.”

Eskridge, who is sixty, has been the mayor of Tangier for the past decade. Like most people on the island, he is an evangelical Christian; on his right forearm is a tattoo of a Jesus fish, on his left a Star of David. He has pale blue eyes, a Tom Selleck mustache, and deeply tanned, permanently windburned skin. No matter where you met him or what he was wearing, you would know that he had spent his life on the water. Like his grandfather, his father, and his eldest son, Eskridge has been a professional crabber since he graduated from high school. Nearly forty other men, in a community of four hundred and sixty, do the same. He likes to brag, and it’s not much of an exaggeration, that Tangier—located in the widest part of the Chesapeake, six miles south of the Virginia-Maryland border—“is the soft-shell capital of the world.” It’s the only place he has ever lived. These days, it appears that he may outlive it. Tangier has lost two-thirds of its land since 1850. This is, in part, because of a ten-thousand-year-old phenomenon known as glacial rebound, which has caused the island to sink a millimetre or two each year. But the more urgent problem is a combination of storm-driven erosion and sea-level rise, which are both increasing as climate change advances; scientists who study the region estimate that sea-level rise is tripling or even quadrupling the rate of land loss. Without climate change, the island would have remained above water for perhaps another century; now the cutoff date is only a few decades away, if not sooner. David Schulte, a marine biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the co-author of a study in Nature’s Scientific Reports on Tangier’s fate, told me, “They are literally one storm away from being wiped out.”

Eskridge knows his island is in trouble, but, like many residents, he is doubtful of climate change and believes that the island can be defended. If it succumbs to anything, he told me, it will be to the same forces that have been shifting the sands of the bay “since John Smith landed here.” That afternoon, his first mate on his rescue mission was a skinny seventeen-year-old named Cameron Evans, a lifelong Tangierine with spiky hay-colored hair and stubble on his chin. When they reached the ospreys’ nest, Eskridge eased up alongside, close enough so that Evans could grab the fledglings. “Be careful, Cameron,” Eskridge said. “Don’t get clawed.” Though the birds had hatched only a month earlier, they already had five-foot wingspans and two-inch talons.

Evans maneuvered the first osprey, then the second, into a pair of large wooden boxes in the boat’s prow and covered each one with a towel. Their mother whistled angrily in the air above, aggressively flapping her wings. Another bird, apparently the father, joined her. “They don’t think so right now, but it’s for their own good,” Eskridge said. He whistled back to them, mimicking their calls. Then he turned toward shore, heading for his crab shanty, one of dozens of small wooden shacks built on pilings in Tangier’s only harbor.

On the way, Evans pointed toward the northern end of the island, an abandoned patch of shifting mudflats known as Uppards. “There used to be entire communities up here,” he said—Ruben Town, Canaan. They’d been submerged in the nineteen-thirties. Evans still visited Uppards occasionally; he makes money collecting flotsam and selling it to tourists (driftwood, turtle shells, bags of sea glass, Native American arrowheads), and he’d found good stuff amid the cracked foundations and toppled headstones. But he’d made some unpleasant discoveries, too. On an expedition a few years ago, he told me, he realized at one point that he was standing on the remains of an old casket. “I looked down and I saw the body,” he said. “I could see the ring on her finger.” As we left Uppards, Eskridge said, “Some folks don’t really like to go up and look. It’s an eye-opener of what can happen to the main community here if we don’t get the protection we need.”

Seen from the sky, Tangier Island has the shape of a broken heart. The town, which is set on three ridges separated by marshland and brackish creeks, occupies roughly a square mile. A quick tour by golf cart or motorbike will take you past a school, a baseball field, a health center, a water tower, an airstrip, a post office, a grocery store, two churches, four restaurants (only one in winter), and eleven cemeteries. Residents famously speak with an accent heard nowhere else in the world, said to originate with their eighteenth-century English ancestors. A flat tire is a “punched tar”; an unattractive person “ain’t hard favored”; if you almost fell off a boat, you “came nigh as peas.” In 1998, the town council voted unanimously to keep “Message in a Bottle,” a film starring Kevin Costner and Paul Newman, from being shot on Tangier, out of concern that all those outsiders—“come-heres,” in local parlance—would have a corrupting influence.

James Eskridge blames conservation groups and environmental-impact studies for hindering the infrastructure projects that he says his island needs in order to endure.Photograph by Steve Helber / AP In the past year, the news of the land-loss crisis has brought waves of “come-heres” to Tangier, including reporters and tourists hoping to see the island before it’s gone. The flurry began in June, 2017, when a CNN reporter visited and talked to Eskridge, who appealed directly to President Trump. “They talk about a wall?” he said to the camera. “We’d like a wall all the way around Tangier.” A Trump staffer showed the CNN segment to the President, who decided to call him. “I was out crabbing,” Eskridge told me. “My son and some others came out and said, ‘You need to get home. The President is going to call you.’ I said, ‘President of what?’ They said, ‘Donald Trump is calling you.’ ”

“He was down to earth,” he recalled. “We talked about the working man, coal miners. He thanked us for our support. We got to talking about sea-level rise, and we were on the same page. He said if that was our only concern, we had nothing to worry about, because Tangier has been here for hundreds of years, and it will be here for hundreds more. But he also knows that we need help because of the erosion.” Trump’s chat with Eskridge became an international news story, even making an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” (“Trump is going to get them that wall—and then make the ocean pay for it!”)

The following month, CNN flew Eskridge and his wife to Manhattan for a televised town hall about climate change, hosted by Anderson Cooper and Al Gore. Eskridge found the encounter disappointing. “I asked a simple question,” he told me: If sea-level rise was occurring, why was he not seeing it firsthand? Gore, he said, replied that “the scientists are saying this and that. Well, scientists say we come from monkeys and I don’t buy that, either. They give man too much credit. Man can’t control the weather. I know he can’t control the climate.”

John Boon, a professor emeritus at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, told me that this attitude makes a certain amount of sense. “Observations by eye and memory have difficulty averaging out the many cycles that tides and weather impose,” he told me. And there is no doubt that erosion is a serious problem: land loss on Tangier currently averages around fifteen feet per year. But Tim Kaine, the Virginia senator and 2016 Democratic vice-presidential candidate, had another explanation. “The watermen’s way of life is a very Virginia thing,” he told me. “Acknowledging climate change is so sort of staggering, in terms of what it might mean to the place they love, that they resist the explanation.”

If the residents of Tangier one day have to abandon their town to avert disaster, they would not be the first people forced to abandon an island in recent years. In 2016, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe received forty-eight million dollars from the federal government to relocate its village on Isle de Jean Charles, on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, after nearly all the surrounding land sank into a bayou. Two months ago, the town of Newtok, Alaska, which is home to a few hundred mostly indigenous people, secured funding for its own relocation.

As Eskridge tied up at the shanty, seagulls circled loudly overhead, and four cats sidled up to greet him. “They been out here about twelve years now,” he said, stepping off the boat. “We were having a tropical storm, and there was a tree stump drifting through with four kittens hanging onto it. My wife said they couldn’t come home.” He peered into a pot of blue crabs and moved the molting ones into a new pot. A cat circled his sneakers. “These cats, they’re a conservative group,” he said. “There’s a gray one here, that’s Sam Alito. This is John Roberts. This is Condi Rice. And the skinny one there is Ann Coulter.” Eskridge recently changed his party affiliation to independent, fed up, he said, with the Republicans’ infighting and inability to pass legislation. But he stood by Trump, whom he voted for, in 2016, like eighty-seven per cent of his neighbors.

I wanted to see the high-water mark on the pilings under our feet, which Eskridge had claimed hadn’t changed since the shanty was built, in the early seventies. Eskridge hesitated. “Well, it’s underwater now,” he said. I raised an eyebrow. “Because of the higher tide.”

The storm, a tropical depression, arrived overnight. Hurricane Harvey had just devastated Houston; Hurricane Irma was on its way toward the Caribbean. When I woke up, the back yard behind my AirBnb, the only one on the island, was a swamp. So was the cemetery next door. The narrow main street was empty, except for the occasional figure in billowing head-to-toe oilskins or a feral cat slinking under a porch to avoid the unrelenting rain. At the Methodist Church, the sign out front read: “never underestimate the power of prayer.” The presiding minister was listed as the Reverend John Flood.

Indications like this—that residents’ faith in God outweighs anything that scientists report—are present all over the island. But the impacts of climate change are evident, too. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been monitoring sea levels in marshes in the Chesapeake for the past twenty-five years, using a simple system of stakes buried in the soil. Chris Guy, a marine biologist at the agency’s local office, told me that many stakes that were originally placed in the low marsh, at the water’s edge, are now fully submerged. The high marsh that remains, Guy said, “is dissolving from the inside out.” As saltwater intrudes on the land, the plants that fringe Tangier’s coastline and hold it together—smooth cordgrass, saltmeadow hay—are dying. The ponds turn brackish and the mudflats spread ever wider, like blood on cotton.

On the day of the storm, I ventured out to the Tangier Combined School, where teachers were spending the day sheltering inside, preparing for their students—all sixty of them—to return from summer break. There I met Trenna Moore, a proud fifth-generation Tangierine and the island’s sole high-school math teacher for the past nineteen years. (With her husband, she also owns the post office; recently, she started farming oysters offshore.)

“I’m an educated person,” Moore, a rosy-cheeked fifty-four-year-old, said. “I’ve read about climate change and I believe that it exists. But I don’t believe it is our problem.” The erosion had gotten so bad, she added, “that climate change is just about irrelevant.” She prayed for a seawall that would wrap around the entire island, like the mile-long breakwater that was built along Tangier’s western shore, in 1989. “My grandmother died at a hundred and one,” she said. “She’s the one who got the vision from the Lord that we were going to get our first seawall.” The beach had been receding by as much as twenty-five feet a year, but once the wall (really a line of huge boulders) was put in, Moore told me, the losses virtually stopped. “I want my grandchildren to be able to come here,” she said. “They’re not going to live here, but I want them to know this island, the history, to see the ospreys flying.”

I asked Moore whether her students thought much about climate change. She shifted in her small plastic desk chair. “They read about it,” she said. “They know. But what they’re living is erosion.” Still, she said, her students didn’t mind all the talk online and in the media about Tangier and climate change. “They’re like, ‘This is our way to get a seawall!’ ” she said. “They love the attention.”

Before I left the school, I asked Moore whether the storm worried her. She hadn’t given it a thought. The knee-deep water around the school—this was normal, she said. Moore didn’t know of anyone who had a contingency plan for the years ahead. “People don’t live here like that,” she said. “That’s not our island’s way.”

The next morning was puddly. Golf carts were out making their rounds, along with the island’s lone police officer, in his mini Chevy hatchback. (There isn’t much crime on Tangier, although the opioid epidemic has come to town, and, along with it, heroin.) Down near the dock, Eskridge was sitting on his maroon motorbike; his crabbing boat, named after his first daughter, Sridevi—whom he and his wife adopted from India, as they did their three other daughters—was tied up nearby. He was reading a letter he had received that morning from “some guy in California.” It began with a quote from the Old Testament: “The Lord has his way in the wind and storm.” Farther down, the writer added, “An apocalyptic line will soon be crossed.” Eskridge nodded. “A lot of what’s going on today is spiritual,” he said. “We’re talking about the latter days, the fulfillment of prophecies.”

A moment later, Evans arrived on his scooter. “You wanna go put them back in the nest?” Eskridge asked. He nodded toward the box containing the two young ospreys, which had sat on the dock all night. “The boat was doing a lot of rocking,” he said, so he took them out. “I thought they might get seasick,” he said.

The nest had survived the storm. So had the fledglings’ apoplectic mother. Evans took the first terrified juvenile from the box. “Good fella, don’t come at me,” he said, placing it back in the nest. He did the same with the second, and the mother flew away. “She’ll be back,” Eskridge said. On the return trip, we passed a white cross poking out above the water. Eskridge had planted it on a little island decades earlier, on the day that Sridevi had arrived. (She and her sisters have since relocated to the mainland.)

“You’ve had to move it twice, haven’t you?” Evans asked.

“Of course I’ve had to move it,” Eskridge said. “First I put it on the peninsula here. It eroded, leaving only a small island around the cross. Then that island went into the water. So I moved the cross back onto the next peninsula, which also became an island.”

Eskridge often blames conservation groups and environmental-impact studies for hindering the infrastructure projects that he says his island needs in order to endure. But whether Tangier can be, will be, or should be saved are difficult, deeply linked questions. In the Army Corps of Engineers’ estimation, the construction of a seawall all the way around the island—extending the one built in 1989—is not worth the cost. “There is not a lot of high-value property on Tangier,” Susan Conner, the director of the Army Corps’ Norfolk District, told me. Saving the community, however distinctive and historically significant, “is not economically justified.” To Virginia taxpayers and most legislators on Capitol Hill, Conner’s pragmatism makes sense. Engineering Tangier for long-term human habitation would cost tens of millions of dollars. The island can’t compete with the adaptation and mitigation projects needed for other East Coast infrastructure, which serve tens of millions of people and protects the country’s national security. A recent Army Corps report for Norfolk recommended two billion dollars’ worth of new flood-control measures—and that didn’t include funding for projects at Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world. Such cost-benefit analyses will only become more common as global temperatures rises and natural disasters increase. Everything can’t be saved.

Still, Eskridge’s efforts to raise awareness about Tangier’s plight have had some impact. In May, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works released a bipartisan draft water-resources bill that included a provision—added by Senator Kaine—that would authorize funds for the Army Corps to conduct a multiyear study on protecting Tangier. U.S.F.W.S. has also recently earmarked around fifty thousand dollars for a small-scale restoration project—such as building oyster castles to mitigate erosive impact of waves—somewhere on the island. The purpose, on paper, would be to help protect habitat for some colonies of nesting birds, such as black ducks and great blue herons. “Just by protecting wildlife, we should be protecting some of the island, too,” Guy said. “But, with the money we’re talking, it’s not going to go all the way. It’d have a minimal effect for the long term.”

Eskridge continues to meet come-heres from all over the world—twenty-one countries, at last count—to spread his message that Tangier needs help. (National Geographic included Tangier on its list of “Best Trips” for 2016, describing it as an “endangered” piece “of a bygone America.”) Eskridge told me that all these visitors had given him a new idea for how to get a seawall. “We can make an ordinance in the town,” he said. “Everybody is welcome to visit Tangier, but you must bring a rock.”

Before leaving the island, I stopped by the health clinic to speak with Angelica Perry, a young doctor who visits twice a week by prop plane. As we were talking, an older man named Bill Robertson arrived, shuffling into the waiting room. Perry asked him how he was doing.

“I’m pretty good today,” Robertson said. “Last week, I didn’t feel real good. Wednesday, man, that was a bad day.”

“Your wife said she thought you were doing well,” Perry said, sounding hopeful.

“I’ve been doing well since last Wednesday,” Robertson said. “You know, my wife is funny. I could be in the hospital—no emotion, no movement or nothing. And she’ll get on the phone and say, ‘Oh, he’s doing fine!’ ” He laughed.

Perry introduced me, explaining that I was writing a story about Tangier.

“Oh, yeah?” he said. “I published a love story one time. It was very emotional, beautiful.”

I asked him what it was about.

“It was about a man who fell in love with a woman,” he said. “But this woman had been hurt so much that she had built a wall around her heart. Some women—they actually do that. You can’t see it, but it protects them.” He looked at his feet.

“That is a sad story,” Perry said.

Robertson shrugged. “It had a little belief in it,” he said. “A little magic and a little reality.”

Carolyn Kormann is a staff writer at The New Yorker.Read more » More:VirginiaClimate ChangeDonald TrumpErosionNatureWeather

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