Life on the Disappearing Edge by Tom Horton

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 “Hey there, thanks for making my property worth even less!” You get calls and emails like that when you make a movie that raises public awareness of climate change, rising sea levels and worsening erosion.
The collateral damage of such efforts is they don’t exactly boost housing values for those already living along the low-lying edges of the Chesapeake.
“High Tide in Dorchester,” the Bay Journal film I just finished with photographer Dave Harp and producer Sandy Cannon Brown, shows how Maryland’s fourth largest county by land area could shrink to 14th (of 23) by 2100 if we don’t get serious about mitigating climate change.

“Kathy Blake in Hoopersville, MD. (Photo by Dave Harp)

Kathy Blake of Hoopersville in lower Dorchester County, the latest “fan” who called, didn’t need our film to raise her awareness. She and her husband, John, have lost six cars to high tides in their yard in the last 15 years, not to mention several bicycles. “If it’s at ground level here, sooner or later it floats away,” she told me during an interview in her yard near the Honga River.

Kathy and John grew up in the Washington suburb of Bladensburg, which received ocean-going vessels coming up what is now the Anacostia River until around 1835. By 1898, a writer noted that only a canoe could still navigate to the “port” of Bladensburg, filled in by sediment from tree clearing and poor farming practices.
When I visited their current 1890s two-story home on Hoopersville Road, it was easy to see how they fell in love with the place in 1996. Across a breathtaking sweep of saltmarsh and Bay, I could see Solomons Island and Calvert Cliffs, highlighted by the morning sun on the Western Shore.
“It was so peaceful, so safe and quiet, a playground for our kids,” Kathy said. Only later would the Blakes learn that they had moved to a place where the tide carries greater implications than the mere ebb and flow of water in and out of the Bay every six and a quarter hours.
Her first memorable high-water experience seemed more of a nuisance than anything — a couple of inches of water across the road as she took the kids to the school bus. “This is nothing,” the bus driver told her, and all morning it kept coming, up the front steps, to the front door sill, into the living room. “Oh well, we bought the house,” she said.
Kathy has long been in the habit of moving their vehicles across the street to slightly higher ground when she knows high water is coming, but sometimes there’s no warning. Last February on a bitter cold morning, she came downstairs to find the house surrounded by glistening water. “There was six inches in the Toyota Highlander . . . a total loss.”
She hauled her five-year-old granddaughter to the bus in a canoe that day. The water didn’t make it into the house, “but it was so close I knew if a truck came by, the wave from it would swamp the living room.”
The “big tide” — the biggest in recorded history for many parts of the Chesapeake — came in 2003 with the remnants of Hurricane Isabel. The Blakes had five feet of water in their home and evacuated in a hurry. “I left without even a pair of clean underwear,” Kathy said.
Uninsured, they put more than $70,000 of their own money into restoring their home, this atop the nearly $30,000 they’d already put into the place.
“I stopped being emotionally attached here after Isabel, we lost so much,” Kathy said. Even now, treasured pictures are leaned up, not attached to the walls, “so I can throw ’em in a box quick if I have to get out.”
And Kathy does want out. She called me because our High Tide film mentioned the need for governments to consider buying out homes vulnerable to rising seas and erosion. Governments in other locations have been buying out properties for decades along floodplains of streams and rivers — it’s cheaper in the long run than setting people back up for future disasters after flooding.
They could move anywhere; Kathy’s a semi-retired grant writer and John’s a plumber working on the Western Shore, coming back on weekends. But they can’t afford to sell. A hunt club might pay a little for their six-and-a-half acres, much of it saltmarsh, “but nobody else in their right mind would buy here.”
Anna Sierra, director of emergency services for Dorchester County, said officials are looking into possible federal-state grants for a “demonstration buyout” that would include the Blakes’ home and another in the Neck District west of Cambridge. The latter home might be moved to a vacant lot in Cambridge and its land used for public water access. “But this is all very preliminary,” Sierra stressed.
The two properties are just the tip of the iceberg, not only for Dorchester County, but for all of the nation’s coastlines; seas are expected to rise up to six feet in the next century, simultaneously threatening and devaluing properties.
Another concern for Hoopersville: The long bridge and causeway connecting the tiny community to the mainland is showing serious damage from storms and needs around $16 million in repairs — several times what it cost to build it in 1980. Neither state nor county road budgets have money for that.
Kathy’s plan B? “Hit the Powerball [lottery],” she said. “Or . . . it’s horrible to think this, but we’re insured now for flooding. The rates just went from $1,600 to $2,000 annually. If another Isabel hit, I could just take the money and leave.”
She wouldn’t go far from tidewater, though. “I love the Bay,” she said. “I just don’t love sharing my house and cars with it.”
Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

 

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