City, Travel, Town, Explore

Tangier Island Residents Fight Nature and Bureaucracy to Save Their Sinking Home

Virginia's Shrinking IslandThe Chesapeake Breeze Tour boat enters the main channel of the island, and a voice comes over the loudspeaker. “Tangier Island is the soft crab capital of the world,” said Captain Thomas. He follows with a brief history of the island.

The Islanders are welcoming to every sea-faring stranger that arrives daily from ferries coming from the mainland.

Visitors can tour the 1.2-mile island by renting a bicycle or a golf cart from Four Brothers Crab house and Ice Cream Deck. The self-tour with a map in hand is the best way to get lost in history and have a first-hand view of the island.

Tangier Island has been recommended as a great place to visit by the National Geographic Travel Guide. 

The problem is that the entire island itself may soon be lost to history.

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Tangier Island land comparison from 1850 to 2013(Image from Google stock)

Located in Accomack County in the center of the Chesapeake Bay, Tangier Island is a stretch of land about 1.2-miles that is shrinking every year, slowly sinking into the Chesapeake Bay.

Tangier Island needs a seawall and jetties to combat the shore erosion that continually damages the main harbor and seafood processing area.

“The activities of man have led to the deterioration of the environment,” said Chris Davis of Ready Reef, Inc. “We have the knowledge of how to improve it we just have to have the will to do so.”

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that the US has experienced an increase of flooding from 300% to 900% within a period of fifty years according to an article by Rising Challenge.

The tall blue painted water tower with “TANGIER ISLAND” written on it still stands on what used to be land but is now another victim of the rising sea levels with water surrounding its base.

Crossing the bridge on Wallace Road, a couple of abandoned small fishing boats lay half in the rising waters and the other half on what’s left of the land. It is sad and poetic, a reminder of the past that was once a thriving existence to the Islanders.

Hoisting Bridge located on Factory Road is another body of water that was once land.  Boats are flipped over on their side or lying facedown in the marsh. As the Chesapeake Bay slowly swallows what was once a backyard for children to play in but the people adjust to the changes the Island brings.

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A small fishing boat rests on watery marshland in a resident’s backyard. (Photo by Toni Bryant)

The people of Tangier, led by Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge, have put their faith in the Trump Administration to cut through some of the federal government’s bureaucracy to start the building of the seawall before the island gives way to rising waters and erosion.

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Spanky’s Place ice cream parlor opened in 1994 and is a regular hangout for the younger children on the island. (Photo by Toni Bryant)

A man who goes only by “Spanky,” the friendly owner of Spanky’s Place ice cream shop, is happy to answer any questions concerning the future of the island. He attends every city council meeting to stay informed of any new developments on the impending seawall project.

“We need a complete wall and jetty with land build up just like the airport has,” said Sparky. “Every year we have lost more than one inch of land, and it is getting worse. With the hurricane season approaching, I do not know what is going to happen.

No one knows when construction for the seawall will begin.

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Opposite view of the Recycling Plant shows more land erosion and rising sea levels. (Photo by Toni Bryant)

According to the Project Study and proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District, if nothing is done to correct the erosion, Tangier will have to be evacuated, and the residents will have no choice but to move to the mainland.

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This area on the island was once land but is now sinking into the Chesapeake Bay. (Photo by Toni Bryant)

Erosion and rising waters are a major concern for the island, but with only 450 residents, the question is not only the allocation of money but also whether it will be cost-effective in the future. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that Tangier Island only has 25 to 50 years left before the water completely covers the island if nothing is done to prevent it.

Many years ago The Army Corps of Engineers used a process called “dredging muck,” or spoils. This process was used to build up an area of marshland to buy the Island sometime before the land mass was entirely under water.

In 2012, a proclamation signed by then-Governor Bob McDonnell and Colonel Paul Olson of the Army Corps of Engineering to share in the cost of a study, design element and building of the seawall that the Island desperately needs. The Corps completed the study in 2016, but progress on the wall was delayed because of a lack of funds.

“Tangier Island Jetty is an extremely important project,” said Patrick Bloodgood, spokesperson for the Public Affairs Office, Army Corps of Engineering. “We are working with the state to complete the necessary package for the next phase of the design and implementation of the jetty.

“We would just like to have our seawall,” expressed Laurie Thomas, the Town Manager.

“The Army Corps made a minor adjustment to the study, and it had to go back to the Governor for approval. After Mayor Eskridge spoke with Senator Tim Kaine and Representative Scott Taylor the proposal is waiting for the Governor’s signature.”

The people of Tangier felt let down to what seemed to a broken promise by the government.

Traveling to the Recycling Plant it is clear to see the destruction that the rising sea levels have caused. The rising waters and the decay is evidence of land erosion to the partial water decks that still stand in the Bay. The wall of rocks that is placed as a barrier to stop the rising sea is almost under water.

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Rising Sea Levels surrounding the Recycling Plant continue to destroy the land mass. (Photo by Toni Bryant)

Sea level rising is a threat to the Island and if nothing done to stop the erosion of the channel the future for the current generation will be forced to evacuate. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has stated that this issue is a current threat and extinction is an actual problem.

The other side of the debate is whether Tangier Island should be saved from extinction because of the enormous price tag that it would create building the seawall.

A study for beach erosion and the effects of rising sea levels was conducted but found inconclusive according to Marine Geology. The soil from the beach was found not to be a reliable surface to test for a significant outcome.

“Tangier is savable, it is a thriving fishing waterman community,” said Mayor Eskridge. “We would like the state and the federal government to step up and do what they say they will do.”

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Water levels rising in the Harbor by the airport. (Photo by Toni Bryant)

“Mayor Eskridge works tirelessly to keep the people of this island safe,” said Laurie Thomas. “When the mayor is not in the office, he is out working on the sea at the Crab House.”

The majority of Tangier’s residents were born and raised on the island. Generations have occupied the tiny island and shared in its way of life. The Island has always been self-sustaining and some still speak with a distinct dialect dating back to the 1700’s. It is a mixture of a southern twang and an early English patois according to an article written by The National Geographic Society.

For some, the only outside contact they have is with the tourists that visit from June through October.

“I was born and raised on this island, and it is all that I know,” said Paulette Parks.

Mrs. Parks is the Tangier History Museum Curator and a teacher at the island’s only school.

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Infographic by Toni Bryant Software by pikochart, https://create.pikochart.com

While the people of Tangier Island appreciate all of the news coverage, documentaries and numerous articles about their plight, they hope that the current president will help them soon.

With the numerous Trump signs and banners around the island, the people are genuine in their support of him and hope that he will make it happen.

“Our Mayor has received a call from President Trump and was invited to the White House to discuss the problems that the island is facing,” said Spanky. “Hopefully he can go soon.”

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