National approach is more urgent than stopgap funding for Tangier Island

September 15, 2022 12:02 am

Tangier Island, Virginia crab shanties where fishermen make a living selling from the Chesapeake Bay. The crab shanties, where fishermen gather soft-shell crabs, are built on pilings in Tangier’s only harbor. The island, one of the most isolated communities in America, is disappearing as a result of climate change. Estimates are that the island will be uninhabitable 50 years from now. (Getty Images / EyeJoy)

A so-called “doomsday glacier” in Antarctica that could raise sea levels several feet is disintegrating faster than previously predicted, according to a new study.   

And an analysis by Climate Central, an independent science and communications group, found that because of sea level rise, local governments will face steep cuts in revenues as taxable land is subject to flooding, my colleague Sarah Vogelsong reported this week.  

Against this dire backdrop, Virginia’s two senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, recently secured $25 million in a budget proposal for imperiled Tangier Island, the place once explored by John Smith and colonized by the English centuries ago.  

The money would fund a pilot project to repurpose dredging material on Tangier, The Washington Post reported. The funding still has several legislative steps to clear before becoming law. Tangier residents can’t afford to pay for such projects themselves. 

The disconnect between dire climate reality and rose-colored optimism is stark.  

Nor does the dredging proposal take into account similarly jeopardized communities around the United States. They will beg for their own federal lifeline. Most are bigger and have thousands more people than the 1.2-square-mile island in the Chesapeake Bay with a population of about 450 people. 

The adage remains true: Size matters.  

Yet I wasn’t surprised by the sanguine statements Kaine and Warner, both Democrats, issued about bolstering Tangier. They’re representing their constituents, after all.  

The island “boasts a thriving tourism industry, a rich history, and a delicate natural ecosystem that boasts the Chesapeake Bay’s signature blue crabs,” Warner, through a spokesperson, said Tuesday. “Most importantly, Tangier is home to hundreds of Virginians – many of them watermen who have driven Virginia’s seafood industry for many generations. The truth is, we can’t afford to give up on such a quintessential part of Virginia.” 

Kaine noted through a spokesperson: “Tangier is a cultural and historic gem that is treasured by people from all over America, as well as a crucial piece of the Chesapeake Bay’s fishing and crabbing economy. I’m fighting for this funding because Virginians and all Americans stand to lose a great deal if this island becomes uninhabitable.”  

He and Rep. Elaine Luria, a fellow Democrat, recently toured the island with local officials.  

The initiative by the two senators is well-meaning, but dubious. Enormous sums of taxpayer dollars would be needed to fight against nature. It could be a fruitless task. 

The proposed funding is a fraction of an estimated $250 million to $350 million needed to fully restore and protect Tangier Island, David Schulte, a marine biologist with the Army Corps of Engineers in Norfolk, told me this week. He’s been visiting the island since 2002, and he co-wrote research with his son last year about the island’s current situation and long-term outlook.  

Schulte’s dim assessment, if there’s no large-scale intervention: The town could be abandoned by 2053.  

“I personally would like to save the island,” Schulte noted. “Their culture is very unique.” 

Federal funding to Tangier, however, would delay the tough – though necessary – discussion about whether to relocate the dwindling number of residents on the island 12 miles from the Eastern Shore. A comprehensive, national approach is needed for similarly jeopardized communities. 

The Tangier dredging initiative is a stop-gap effort, at best. Schulte noted officials would still need to raise homes on the island and do lots more work.  

The Climate Central analysis found that almost 650,000 individual parcels of property, across up to 4.4 million acres, are projected to fall below changing tidal boundaries by 2050. You can be sure states will be asking the feds to help.  

They’ll make their cases for populations much bigger than Tangier’s.  

The island has gained lots of media attention since then-President Donald Trump reached out to Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge in 2017, after the mayor told CNN he loved Trump “as much as any family member I got.” Trump assured Eskridge the island would be around for hundreds of years to come, and that he believed – like many islanders – rising seas aren’t a threat.  

So much for science. 

Islanders are right, though, to be upset that government promises of help often went on the back burner. For example, a jetty project finally was completed two years ago with state and federal money, but it had been delayed about two decades.  

Then there’s the aid nearby communities received. As The Post noted: “(Tangier) 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.” 

By the way, I take no joy in revisiting the issue of Tangier’s fate.  

I wrote a column in 2014 headlined, “Spending to keep Tangier above water makes no cents.” In it, I opined it’s smarter to use limited public funding to relocate folks than to pay more money to fight “a battle that Mother Nature seems destined – and determined – to win” by reclaiming the island. 

Judging by some responses, you would’ve thought I’d disparaged the way of life on Tangier, including its unique dialect and economy.  

“You would never suggest relocation for the people of, say, New Orleans!” one fumed. Well, more than 375,000 people live in the Big Easy – and that’s post-Katrina. Moving residents there would be a more herculean, expensive task.  

“There’s history on Tangier that goes back to the era of Jamestown!” OK. But given many of my detractors no longer lived on the island, they’d already voted with their feet. They were wistful for a place that was disappearing.  

Then, as now, I wanted to save the lives of Tangier’s residents and use federal dollars wisely. The per-person expenditure to save Tangier is enormous. Other places around the country would say, fairly, “Why not us too?” 

Relocation from Tangier isn’t cheap either, Schulte said. The cost, including decommissioning or abandonment, could be from $100 million to $200 million. That’s still less than the expense of “saving” Tangier. 

“What are we as a society going to do about people facing this situation?” Schulte asked.  

That’s a vital question. It’s one lawmakers must address nationwide – not just for Tangier.  

Only then can they make smart choices. 


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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]