Bay Ecosystem: Tangier mayor hopes that Trump Call leads to a Seawall

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Tangier Island sits like a fishhook in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, a fishing village known for its distinct local accent and eroding shoreline. Every now and again, it makes the news for a quirky event, like when the mayor found some oysters attached to a crab, or a tragic one, as when a longtime resident drowned.

James “Ooker” Eskridge (left), mayor of Tangier, gives Col. Jason Kelly, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District, a tour of the island in late 2016. Kelly came to brief the town on the status of the Corps’ projects around their island.

That changed in June, when President Donald Trump called Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge. The president, who has suggested in the past that climate change is a hoax, told Eskridge not to worry about rising sea levels. “Your island has been there for hundreds of years,” he told Eskridge, “and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.”

Trump offered such reassurance after seeing a CNN report about the island, home to about 400 souls, many of whom trace their roots to three families that arrived from England in the 1600s. CNN’s Jennifer Gray reported that 87 percent of the island voted for Trump. Eskridge said he loved Trump “as much as any family member I got.” If Gray saw Trump, Eskridge pleaded, let the president know they needed help.

“You talk about a wall? We’ll take a wall. We’d like to have a wall all the way around Tangier,” Eskridge said in the CNN clip.

He didn’t mean a barrier against illegal immigration. The island had been waiting close to 25 years for a seawall. They probably don’t have 25 more. Every hurricane season, residents pray that the coming winds and tides will not destroy their home. In 1989, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a wall to protect the island’s west side and its airport, and that has held back the waters. But the east side, which includes the island’s busy harbor and most of its homes, is exposed. Neighboring Smith Island in Maryland, the Chesapeake’s other inhabited isle, has expansive marshlands as partial buffers and has received close to $20 million in state and federal aid for bulkheading and erosion control. Tangier has neither natural protections or government money.

Now they’ve got a new problem: political backlash.

After Trump’s call, people started phoning the mayor’s office, the town restaurant, even the ferry service. “I hope you sink!” one caller said. “You’re racist,” said another. “We’re going to boycott you!”

“I don’t understand it,” Eskridge told me when I interviewed him after the call from the White House. “They don’t like [Trump], and they don’t like you if you support him, and we got a taste of it . . . . Maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with Donald Trump, but it’s because we’re asking for help to save our island, which is only natural to me. I would expect anyone to try to save their home.”

Indeed, Tangier has helped others save theirs, collecting money for hurricane relief and even sending firefighters and boat captains to disaster areas. Never once, he said, did the islanders question whether those places were worth saving.

Eskridge, for the record, does think the climate is changing. He sees it every day. He is “not totally convinced” that it is caused by humans, and believes erosion, rather than rising sea levels, is to blame for his island’s receding shoreline. Eskridge said he likes Trump because he thinks the president is looking out for the little guy and is willing to cut red tape. For a man who has been waiting 25 years for the government to build a seawall, that seems like a good deal.

It’s not particularly enjoyable to have strangers call you at home and accuse you of racism. It was especially painful for Eskridge who, with his wife, adopted four girls from India. Watermen typically name their boats after their daughters. Eskridge’s skiff is called the Sreedevi.

“People make comments about us. They don’t know us. They don’t understand us,” he said. “If we disagree, or we have a different way of thinking, that’s no reason to hate somebody, or wish him dead.”

Three years ago, one of my daughters and I spent three days on Tangier, much of it in the company of Eskridge aboard the Sreedevi. He took us to his crab shanty, and to the “Uppards,” another town on the island that was abandoned in the 1920s. He could name every bird we saw, discuss their range and list their food sources. He even has a pet osprey that returns to his shanty every spring. As we strolled the Uppards, Eskridge marveled at how the U.S. government could spend billions on rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan, but had no money for a U.S. town.

There was a time, said Northampton County planner Curt Smith, when Tangier’s problem seemed scalable. But now, Miami, Norfolk and New York City are all contending with serious sea-level rise, and they are all competing for the same limited federal resources.

In 2015, I helped organize a tour of Tangier Island for journalists. Just before we left, Eskridge told them he did not believe sea-level rise was happening, and was not sure human beings caused climate change. I’d heard the same refrains in other vulnerable Eastern Shore communities, including Toddville, Saxis, Crocheron and Taylor’s Island. Their residents didn’t want to talk about ice melt or glaciers or coal-fired power plants or greenhouse gas emissions. They just wanted someone to help them get the water out of their yards.

Scientists overwhelmingly disagree with the islanders’ assessment of climate change and sea level rise. But as far as what these communities need is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether erosion or rising water is to blame. The solutions are the same: Build a wall now, or figure out how to make an orderly retreat and settle elsewhere. The most important question isn’t what the Tangier islanders believe; it’s at what point the costs rise too high to save them.

It might seem to be the easiest solution to give up now. Indeed, a columnist for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot suggested as much: Just give every resident $8,000 — the cost of the seawall divided by the 400 residents — and call it a day, he argued.

The scientists and planners I interviewed in my sea-level rise reporting don’t advocate for such a mass evacuation at so low a price. Zoe Johnson, a coastal planner for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that if a community is going to retreat, it should be orderly, planned and their idea. Though not as populous as they once were, Tangier and Smith islands are still vibrant communities. They’re not ready to give up. They’re trying to re-invent themselves as tourist destinations, particularly for nature-lovers. And, Johnson said, we should do what we can to help them stay as long as it’s feasible.

Tom Horton is a Bay Journal columnist who lived on Smith Island for three years and wrote a book about his experience, An Island Out of Time. Now environmental writing professor at Salisbury University, he brings his students to Tangier to meet with Eskridge. Horton has great affection for the islands. They need to be saved, he says: for the nature held within and the culture they sustain.

Give Ooker his rock, Horton said. How much could it cost? Twenty five million? Fifty? It’s worth it. But his students aren’t so sure. That’s because, according to the scientific predictions, Ooker’s rock won’t protect the island until the end of their days; it will, at best, buy them one more century. At what point, they ask, are too many Ookers asking for too much rock? At what point are they all going to run out of time?

Many would point out that, in supporting Trump, Eskridge’s island voted against its own interests. The Trump administration has proposed multiple cuts to government agencies that deal with climate change and help communities adapt to sea level rise. If what you do is more important than what you believe, Eskridge might have struck out on both counts: a president who neither believes in sea-level rise, nor is willing to push for the funding to shore up the island suffering from the one-two punch of rising waters and battering erosion.

But the fact is, when it comes to Trump, little is predictable. With rumors of a visit from Marine One swirling, there is hope that maybe Trump will make an exception for the island that embraced him. A man of faith, Eskridge chooses to believe.

After all, he told me: “I didn’t call him. He called me.”

by Rona Kobell

Bay Journal staff writer Rona Kobell is a former Baltimore Sun reporter.

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