Facing its demise

by Jennifer Gray

Earth, how are you doing? (Issue I/2018)

With only 450 residents, Tangier Island is what many would call a hidden gem. I certainly thought so when I first arrived at the tiny island in the Chesapeake Bay, just 150 kilometers from Washington. Arriving in the harbor by ferry, I was greeted by crab houses resting on piers, crab traps stacked high, one on top of another, a dozen fishing boats moored in the harbor and a few people waving hello on the docks.

The island's quirky little town doesn't have any cars. Bikes and golf carts are the modes of transportation, and everybody knows everybody.

It's an island that prides itself on its rich history. It was discovered in 1608 and many residents are descendants of the very first settlers. I watched crabbers unload their traps, school children leaving for school and restaurants serve up delicious crab cakes as they always have. It was hard to believe that this lively island will be on the brink of non-existence within two decades.

Because of erosion and the gradually rising sea levels, Tangier looses around five meters off its coast every year. It is now only 1.3 square miles and is shrinking more and more every day. The residents here are extremely scared that if something isn't done soon, their homes and livelihoods will be washed away by the Chesapeake Bay.

"We've depended on the Chesapeake Bay for a couple hundred years or more, and now it's the Chesapeake Bay that's the greatest threat to our existence," said James "Ooker" Eskridge, mayor of Tangier.

He knows it's only a matter of time before it's too late. He firmly believes that Tangier can be saved, but help has to come very soon. "During the hurricane season we're just holding our breath and we're just praying that we don't get a storm," he said.

Eighty-seven percent of the island voted for President Trump. It doesn't bother them that he pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. The residents tend to view the decision as freeing up money to help them build the infrastructure they need to save their island. What does it matter to them whether it is humans or nature propelling climate change?

Before leaving the island, I took a boat ride up to a place about a mile and a half from Tangier called the Uppards. What used to be a thriving community is now nothing more than a strip of sand. Walking along the shores of Uppards with Tangier resident Carol Pruitt-Moore, as she does every day, the only signs of life were the tiny spice bottles washed ashore, broken pottery and even cracked headstones. The grave we saw was Polly Parks, whose descendants live in Tangier now, according to Carol.

Carol says she realizes there is a good chance that one day someone will be walking along the abandoned shores of Tangier, picking up the pieces of her life, as she does the Uppards. And the Mayor knows all too well that his may be the last generation to call this tiny gem home.

"The island disappearing. It's on everybody's mind when they wake up and when they go to bed. It's always in the back of your mind, always."

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