Tangier Island, facing oblivion, waits to see: Will Congress help?

TANGIER, Va. — Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge ushered his visitors onto a boat for a tour of the disappearing shoreline of his island, turned to Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and said: “Thinking of passing a new ordinance that says any visitor has to bring a rock.”

He could be joking, but then again, maybe not. These days, the sinking island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay will take any help it can get, as rising sea level and accelerating erosion threaten to make the island uninhabitable in as little as one generation. Every day the relentless waves crash against the mostly unprotected shoreline. Standing water pools in some residents’ front yards, some resembling wetlands already, some lined with family gravestones, because the island does not have any more land to spare for burials.

“When I talk about saving the island, I’m not talking about just a small piece of land or a building. I’m talking about saving the whole island — the people, the culture, a whole way of life,” Eskridge told Kaine at the back of the boat, as it idled just offshore from the island’s least-protected areas.

The 400-plus residents in this devoutly religious, solidly conservative fishing town have been pleading for years for investments to save the island — while standing defiant against warnings that they may have to one day abandon it as “climate change refugees.” But this clear-skied Wednesday afternoon, Kaine and Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) journeyed across the Chesapeake by ferry to deliver — tentatively, at least — some good news: Help may finally be on the way.

Kaine and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) had secured $25 million in the Senate budget proposal to fund a pilot project that would repurpose dredging material hauled from navigation channels to be deposited on Tangier Island — serving as a natural buffer against erosion and sea-level rise. If the budget and project pass Congress, it would mark the largest investment in protecting the island in decades, said David Schulte, a marine biologist with the Army Corps of Engineers who has studied the island’s shrinking land mass.

The project, Schulte said, could also turn Tangier Island into a poster child for a pressing moral question as climate change threatens the fates of many small, coastal communities like Tangier: How far is the federal government willing to go to save them? Or would it rather evacuate and abandon them, letting the sea swallow the remains of their homes?

“That’s something that’s really going to need to be answered, I think, as a nation: What are we going to do with these small towns that cannot pay for these large projects to save themselves?” Schulte said. Often, he said, “the large cities with the big tax bases can get help, while everybody else is left to fend for themselves. That’s what gives me real hope about this Tangier project, because what you have here is a small town that [could] get significant help, and that is one of the first times I’ve seen that.”

Tangier, known for its unique dialect and a local economy that revolves around crabbing and tourists, has lost two-thirds of its land mass since 1850 at an average rate of eight acres a year, according to Schulte’s prior research. The town has been losing population too, with its young people heading off to college or jobs on the mainland. Eight students graduated from the town’s school this past spring — “that was a large class,” Eskridge said — while just one student will be enrolled in kindergarten next year, the student’s grandmother said.

But the community has been seeing some encouraging growth too: A long-shuttered grocery store is slated to reopen, and so is a bed-and-breakfast, signs of how the island could thrive for the younger generations — if they could get protection from the ocean.

“We’ve had a lot of folks who moved to the mainland who said they would move back, if the island were protected,” Eskridge told Kaine.

Tangier’s dire circumstances made headlines around the world during the Trump era after a CNN crew visited the island in June 2017 and reported many residents did not acknowledge some of the main threats to their home’s survival: the rising sea level and human-caused climate change. Most preferred to focus on stopping the erosion they could see happening with their own eyes.

The story caught the attention of President Donald Trump after Eskridge also told the reporter that he loved Trump “as much as any family member I got.” About 90 percent of voters on the island supported Trump in 2016 and 2020, and “Trump 2024” flags fly from fishing shanties and greet tour boats as they pull into the docks.

As Eskridge tells it, he was out crabbing when a fellow resident told him the president had called to talk to him. “President of what?” Eskridge said — only to soon hear Trump’s voice on the other end of the line at home. He said Trump told him that he also believed that rising sea level was not a threat to the island, and that the residents had nothing to worry about — Tangier would be around for hundreds of years to come.

The story exploded. Soon, Eskridge was on national television onstage at a CNN town hall telling Al Gore he had lived on the island his whole life and the sea level didn’t look any different to him: “If sea level rise is occurring, why am I not seeing signs of it?” The erosion he could see. Gore said a big challenge for scientists was being able to translate the threats of climate change in an understandable way so that people “can see the consequences in their own lives.”

But on Tangier, while there may be some disagreement about the underlying cause of the threat to their island, there’s little debate about the urgency to address it — and the spotlight, Eskridge said, seems to have made a difference. Trump may not have taken up Eskridge on an invitation to visit the island — but journalists from 42 countries did, Eskridge said. Two years ago, with a combination of state and federal funding, the Army Corps constructed a small jetty at the entrance of the main channel, a portion of a larger Corps project that had been delayed for roughly two decades due to funding issues.

And now this, the potential $25 million pilot project awaiting approval in Congress — the largest investment since the Corps built a rock sea wall on the western portion of the island in 1989.

Back on the boat with Kaine and Luria, Eskridge was already thinking about all the ways the island could use the dredging material to beef up the shoreline or the uplands. The only hitch: where to start?

Eskridge said some conversations he’d had with government scientists years ago have haunted him: He said he was once told he might not be able to save the entire island, requiring him to triage which areas to save first — something that struck him as an impossible choice.

“So you have to be deciding what you want to save and what you want to let go of,” Eskridge recalled being told. “We’re such a small island, we really can’t let any area go. I mean over here you have the businesses and the harbor, and here you have the homes.”

“So you gotta look at it as, what’s phase one? What’s phase two?” Kaine said.

Eskridge said recent research estimating how much money it would take to fully protect the island has had some residents feeling nervous and discouraged.

A research paper that Schulte co-authored with his son last year as an update to his 2015 paper found that the uplands — the three ridges where residents live, just four feet above sea level — were converting into wetlands due to rising sea level at a faster rate than previously thought, and if sea-level rise continued as expected, the island would be uninhabitable by 2053.

To fully protect and restore the island, Schulte estimated it could cost between $250 million to $350 million. The $25 million proposed project would “make a significant difference as far as extending the life of the island,” he said — but said more would need to be done.

Kaine had been fighting for the funding to protect Tangier for several years, even writing with Warner to Trump to propose they partner up to save the island (Trump didn’t respond, Kaine said). But he said it was so hard to get Congress to provide funds to help Tangier because federal funding formulas could require local governments to put up matching funds for projects — money that places like Tangier simply did not have. The $25 million project, however, was the result of Congress bringing back “earmarks,” which allows lawmakers to set aside funds for local projects, Kaine said. This project has no local-match requirement.

In recent years, residents had watched with frustration as the federal government funded projects to protect a National Wildlife Refuge and residents on nearby Smith Island and to restore a wildlife habitat on Poplar Island, where no people live — using the same method on Poplar of repurposing dredge material.

Norwood Evans, Tangier’s vice mayor who believes both sea-level rise and erosion are threatening the island, said it was painful to see ships carrying dredging material to Poplar pass right on by Tangier, where hundreds of people were worried about their future.

“It just kind of hurt,” he said, “when your island’s in need and it’s going by.”

Returning to the island from their tour, Kaine and Luria and a representative from the Army Corps led a town hall at the Four Brothers Crab Shack to take questions from Tangier residents, eliciting a combination of gratitude and dread.

The first woman to ask a question wanted to know, in as many words: Why had the government been willing to put up the money to save wildlife on Poplar, but not them?

The woman, Linda Clary — “I am lovingly called a Come Here; I came on a sailboat and never left” — noted that the island just celebrated the 98th birthday of the town’s oldest veteran, and shouldn’t its decades of military service to the country count for something?

“I think the patriots and the veterans of Tangier Island are more important than a flock of birds and a group of turtles,” Clary said. “And I resent it that we still — we gotta have another study, we gotta have this, we gotta have that, to get anything done. Because we are losing the battle. We are losing the battle.”

Kaine offered a note of optimism about the money for Tangier in the proposed budget: “$25 million can do a lot of good. I don’t think we’re going to be done. … Let’s get this started with a big number, not a small number.”

“We get the job started, and it’s more reason to keep going — protect that first investment,” agreed town councilman Tommy Eskridge, sitting in the front in a Trump hat and Trump T-shirt.

Kaine added that he believed the island’s designation on the National Register of Historic Places should be reason enough for Congress to protect the whole island.

“It’s more than just X hundred people and here’s the property value — it’s history, it’s culture, it’s something unique you can’t find anywhere else in the country,” he said.

“It’s worth saving,” Clary said.

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