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A “way of life” at risk: The race to save Virginia's Tangier Island from erosion and sea level rise

A crab shanty on Tangier Island.
Photo by Katherine Hafner
A crab shanty on Tangier Island.

Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its land mass since 1850 and climate change is making the problem worse. Local leaders are pushing for massive federal and state investment to ensure its survival.

Standing on a boat bobbing off Tangier Island, James “Ooker” Eskridge points to a tall pole sticking out of the water. It’s several feet deep in the Chesapeake Bay, yards away from the shoreline.

But decades ago, it was a utility pole standing on a strip of beach, said Eskridge, who’s 65. He recalls berry bushes growing there.

“It’s hard to imagine that you could pick blackberries down here,” he said. “It’s all underwater now.”

Eskridge is the mayor of Tangier, one of the last inhabited islands in the Chesapeake Bay. He’s gotten used to explaining the massive changes happening here.

Tangier Mayor James "Ooker" Eskridge.
Photo by Katherine Hafner
Tangier Mayor James "Ooker" Eskridge.

That’s because Tangier faces an existential threat. Erosion and sea level rise compounded by sinking land have gobbled up over two-thirds of its land mass since 1850. The town’s now predicted to morph into uninhabitable wetlands within a few decades.

Leaders on the island and at the state and federal levels are now racing to save it.

That will require massive federal and state investment – and quickly. Residents have partnered with the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation and others to try and draw more attention to a problem they say can’t wait.

“We are seeing a rate of change right now that requires urgency,” said Hilary Falk, president and CEO of the Bay Foundation. “We're going to lose places and stories and histories and it’s time to really accelerate efforts.”

Researchers estimate it would take around $300 million to fully protect and restore the island by bolstering its beaches, retrofitting and raising town infrastructure to accommodate rising waters and building structures like seawalls.

But relocating the island’s roughly 400 residents would also be hugely expensive, costing the government around $200 million — or half a million dollars per resident – to physically move homes, belongings, infrastructure and decommission the island.

Residents and officials around the region argue the cost of preserving Tangier is worth it for both cultural and environmental reasons. The island is home to centuries of history, a thriving seafood industry and wetlands that benefit the bay ecosystem.

On a greater scale, leaders also say they want Tangier to become a model for how to adapt to climate change – and how to make the best use of federal dollars.

“If we make this investment in Tangier … we’ll learn what works and what doesn't,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, who has pushed for congressional funding for the island. “That may make it easier to make our dollars go farther as we're making investments in other communities. Because sea level rise is going to affect an awful lot of this country.

“It would send a real message of sort of failure, if we just gave up on Tangier.”

Locals agree. Tangier is more than just a piece of land, Eskridge said. Located about 22 miles west of the mainland Eastern Shore, Tangier’s isolation helped foster a unique culture of crabbing and a tight-knit community that stretches back to colonial America.

“I’m talking about a community, a way of life, a culture,” said Eskridge, who describes himself as a crabber first and a mayor second. “We’re trying to save that. And we’re very saveable right now.”

Preserving a way of life

Tangier has a small footprint, but every inch is steeped in history.

Native Americans first used the island as a hunting and fishing ground. In 1608, it was discovered by British colonists after a visit by Capt. John Smith, of Jamestown fame. A couple centuries later, it was used as a fort by the British during the War of 1812.

A historical marker on Tangier Island, with the town's water tower in the background.
Photo by Katherine Hafner
A historical marker on Tangier Island, with the town's water tower in the background.

Many current residents trace their roots to those early days. Mayor Eskridge, for one, says his family are relative newcomers: they arrived during the Civil War.

He dismisses the notion of abandoning the island in favor of a less vulnerable home.

“We don’t want to hear that,” he said. “We don’t even go there. We’ve been out here for hundreds of years, and we’d like to stay for hundreds more.”

While it would be nearly impossible for the town alone to raise the millions of dollars needed to save the island, Eskridge argues “it would be very doable” for the federal government.

The community is tied to the water that is now its biggest threat. Crabbing is its lifeblood – so much so that there’s a picture of a crab stamped across the town’s iconic water tower.

“There’s a crab on one side and a cross on the other,” Eskridge said. “That’s what we’re about.”

Arriving on the island, visitors see evidence of crabbing everywhere. Cage-like crab pots dot the water and crab shanties line the edge of town.

But fewer young people are staying to carry on the tradition.

“Not only are we losing land, but we’re also losing our population,” said Cameron Evans, Tangier’s 23-year-old vice mayor.

The town’s already-small population dropped by about 40% between 2012 and 2022.

Evans moved away from the island for college at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, but he always had the intention to return and make it better, he said. He feels tied to the land where he crabs, fishes and does professional photography.

“We all care about our island, and we would hope to live here and be able to have tourists and future families enjoy just as much as we have,” Evans said.

With help, he hopes Tangier’s image can start shifting from “a sad place due to climate change” to a “much healthier, happier place.”

“I’d like to continue to stay here,” Evans said. “I'd like to at least have that option.”

Vice Mayor Cameron Evans, left, points out spots vulnerable to erosion around Tangier Island.
Photo by Katherine Hafner
Vice Mayor Cameron Evans, left, points out spots vulnerable to erosion around Tangier Island.

Searching for solutions

On a sunny morning in late May, about two dozen representatives from federal and state agencies, nonprofits and academia traveled to Tangier with the Bay Foundation to discuss solutions.

On the boat out to the island, Eskridge and Evans pointed out areas where erosion has battered away the beachfront.

Over local crab cakes and flounder, they discussed ideas to help Tangier in the near and long term.

Officials agreed that the town needs to start with developing an official resilience plan, a roadmap for next steps that would open it to new sources of state funding. They’re also hopeful Virginia’s newly-designated statewide resilience officer can help.

The Bay Foundation says it envisions the town becoming a “living laboratory,” testing and demonstrating how to adapt to impacts from climate change in real time, using nature-based strategies like living shorelines.

“As we grapple with climate change, we’re looking for innovative solutions,” Falk said. “And what a fantastic place to bring innovative ideas and creativity to some really big challenges.”

Jay Ford, the foundation’s Virginia policy manager, said he thinks officials have reached a turning point, where they’re now looking at the island ecosystem as a whole and how it all interacts. That includes Port Isobel to the town’s east, home to educational and research facilities but no permanent residents, and the uninhabited Uppards to its north.

Over the years, countless officials have visited Tangier to learn about its issues, Ford said. Plenty of ideas to help have been tossed around, but many were smaller-scale, Ford said.

“Everyone in the room was really excited to take a step back and say, ‘how do we think comprehensively about these pieces that are all intimately linked together?’”

Leaders from various state and federal organizations gather to discuss solutions on Tangier Island.
Photo by Katherine Hafner
Leaders from various state and federal organizations gather to discuss solutions on Tangier Island.

Shifting sands

In the short term, local leaders say the most urgent need is bolstering the shoreline against erosion.

They want the Army Corps of Engineers to ramp up existing work using dredged material to stabilize beaches.

This is “the most viable option to preserve” the island, the Army Corps of Engineers wrote in materials distributed at the recent discussion.

But to expand that work, the Corps needs explicit approval from Congress – and funding to make it happen.

For over a century, the Army Corps has regularly dredged shipping channels near the island, removing material from the bay floor to maintain navigation, said Joe McMahon, project manager and civil engineer with the Norfolk District.

The Corps deposits some of that dredged material around Tangier to help bolster up the shoreline, but only in specific areas that have received state and federal permitting. Town leaders would like to see that effort expanded to other sites, as well as building new protective infrastructure.

McMahon said they’re hoping to do so, but any changes in operation have to be authorized and funded by Congress.

The Corps built a rocky seawall along the western side of the island in 1990, which has successfully prevented further erosion in the area. The east side of the island, meanwhile, is battered by wind-driven waves, especially as a gap widens between Port Isobel and the Uppards.

A seawall built by the Army Corps in 1990 lines the west side of the island and has successfully prevented erosion.
Photo by Katherine Hafner
A seawall built by the Army Corps in 1990 lines the west side of the island and has successfully prevented erosion.

But the Corps’ authorization for the dredging project doesn’t allow for pursuing that type of structural measure, which would have to be approved separately, McMahon said.

These regulatory hurdles will make saving Tangier even more difficult.

“It is a daunting task,” McMahon said. But “from our perspective, we’re definitely dedicated to doing our part to protect the island. … It’s about us kind of working our piece and just being dedicated to have success there.”

The Corps’ Norfolk District is pursuing federal approval for a broader storm risk study on the island, under the same program that led to Norfolk’s $2.6 billion floodwall project. It would consider additional work like restoring the aquatic ecosystem.

Tangier recently received $2.3 million from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality for protecting wastewater and petroleum storage facilities that are vulnerable to flooding.

Some federal funding is also in the works. Senator Kaine helped secure about $800,000 in recent years to allow the Corps to study how to expand the Tangier dredging project.

President Joe Biden included about $10 million for the effort in his proposed budget this year, but Congress would have to approve it.

Kaine said the president’s budget request is a sign that “the Tangier story has just kind of slowly been elevating in public attention.”

He’s been visiting the island since before he was governor, and said it’s too important to the history and fabric of Virginia to lose.

“I think giving up on Tangier as a place for humans would be a big mistake.”

A souvenir shop on Tangier Island.
Photo by Katherine Hafner
A souvenir shop on Tangier Island.

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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