Angel and the Sea Wall

By Lynn Fitzpatrick and Iliad A. Terra

It pains us to hear the news that paradise is vanishing.  Disappearing islands and atolls in the South Pacific or the Indian Ocean capture our imagination.  While we may empathize with the loss of these storied locales, their very remoteness affords us the luxury of romantic fiction and they remain somewhat removed from the immediacy of our daily lives.

How would we feel toward the loss of a seminal piece of our nation’s history, a community on the National Historic Register, our heritage or our faith in the future?  What if the disappearing island’s residents had the most direct heritage back to our colonial past with generations of family that still feel safe there, call it home, and can’t think of living anywhere else?

On February 25th 2017, we drove 150 south from Washington, D.C. to Virginia’s Northern Neck, “a place where heaven and earth never agreed better to frame man’s habitation,” according to Captain John Smith, the first English explorer to map the Chesapeake Bay.  From there, we took a short flight to Tangier Island, a 450-person community in crisis in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay between the quaint, stunning and history-filled coastal area of Virginia’s Northern Neck and Crisfield, the “crab capital of the world” on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  Provoked by last summer’s feature article in the New York Times, we set out to answer the burning question, should the United States Save Tangier Island?

Tangier’s modest houses and buildings are densely clustered on three ridges – Canton to the southeast; Main Ridge down the center, à la Main Street; and West Ridge, closest to the Tangier’s airstrip, which is protected by a breakwater along its western edge.  As our Cessna taxied to a stop, several of the island’s young boys took a timeout from the game they were playing that spilled onto the tarmac, one of the few open high grounds large enough to play football on.

We weren’t far into our island tour when we met twelve-year old Angel, a confident young lady whose sparkling eyes competed with the sun’s reflection off of her shiny helmet and the chrome on her new scooter.  Angel’s attachment to Tangier was so strong that her family relocated to the island, which has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850 and a similar percentage of its population since its peak.  Today, only 83 acres of its approximate 700 acres remain barely high enough about sea level to be habitable for those who affectionately call it home.

Summertime visits to Tangier were not enough for Angel, who spent her early years on the Eastern Shore.  “I wanted to go to school here.  The class sizes are better here.”  Proud of her decision, Angel has five classmates at Tangier’s combined K-12 school, which recently won a national literacy award.  She would have had twenty or more classmates at her old school on Eastern Shore.

During our visit Angel became our de facto tour guide; and she circled the island on her scooter keeping an eye on us throughout our brief sojourn.  Although Angel does not hail from the long line of Tangier Island families with Pruitt, Crockett, Parks or Dise surnames, she chose to call the island home.  Whether it was Tangier’s sense of place or simply feeling safe there, aspects of the island compelled her.  “I can go outside and not be worried about anything,” she shares.

Angel Sterling on her scooter

Angel doesn’t know all of the Tangiermen, as the islanders are called, but she does know most of the ninety or so students in her school.  She is attuned to the comings and goings on the island – helicopter, plane and ferry landings, restaurant hours, dog-fights, dog bites and playground spats.  Nothing goes unnoticed to her, with 450 residents living on the island’s remaining 80 or so acres of habitable land, especially the off-season visitors who swooped in on a stormy Saturday with lots of questions.

For centuries, watermen like Angel’s father have made a living by working the Chesapeake’s fisheries.  Just as it has become more difficult for watermen to eek out a living on the Chesapeake, so too have miners, factory and mill workers throughout the United States struggle to feed their families and keep their communities alive.  “Tangier is a wonderful place to live.  It’s not an easy place to live.  It’s all we know.  We’re used to dealing with adversity,” says Elizabeth Inez Parks Pruitt, Tangier’s physician assistant and the community’s medical officer. Dependent on crabbing, hauling oysters, fishing, working on tugboats and tourism, the island’s median income is approximately $32,000.  “When the watermen aren’t making money and there aren’t tourists, no one’s spending money,” explained one of Tangier’s restaurateurs who had closed early after having only sold four sandwiches that late winter Saturday.

“Prom is a big thing on the island.  It’s a rite of passage.  The whole island participates,” explained Davy Nichols, our pilot who serves the island by flying doctors between Northern Neck and the state of the art health clinic named after his father, who provided health care to the island’s residents for thirty-one years.  Likewise, Nichols explained, the island shuts down for a funeral even during the height of the tourism season.  “Everybody is related and everybody participates.”

For the past ten to fifteen years, seniors graduating from Tangier’s combined school have had limited choices.  Virginia Resources Management Commission’s efforts to manage and restore crab and oyster fisheries have restricted the acquisition process for licenses.  Understanding that acquiring a license is not going to be easy and that there are few to be passed from one generation to the next, Tangier’s graduates have three choices – work on tugboats, go to college, or go into the military.  Those who work on the tugboats have a two weeks on – two weeks off schedule.  Those who go to college or join the military are not likely to return to the island.  A diaspora of young adults with fresh memories of playing in mud flats and helping their families harvest soft shell crabs has been trading the Tangiermen’s life for life in the mainstream of late.   The generation that could replenish the island’s population, keep traditions alive and adapt to a changing world, is leaving.

Everyone we met talked about a seawall.  Even Angel proclaimed with authority, not long into our conversation, “We need a seawall!”  This sought-after seawall would prevent the rising waters and fierce winds from eroding the shoreline as they travel the length of America’s largest estuary and confront the exposed island.   According to the islanders we met, the Army Corps of Engineers, County, State and Federal Governments were not coming forth quickly enough to build the seawall.   Each year, more acreage, gravestones, burial vaults and skeletal remains of ancestors are lapped up by the advancing Chesapeake.

As we continued our tour, something more troubling than the rising sea became apparent.  Isolated and unique as Tangier is, it is a microcosm for ailing communities along the Chesapeake and throughout the United States, and threatened islands around the world.  Whether our communities across this nation have been in denial and unwilling to change, done too little too late, deflected the blame, not had effective leadership, or have given up the fight, they need to undergo a seismic shift to stay afloat.  Successfully stemming the tide of decline demands introspection and reevaluating relationships with stakeholders – individual community members and others who control funding sources and assistance expertise. Once a community understands and owns its problems, it has to ask whether it really wants to change.  More often than not, it needs outside guidance and assistance.  This is where State and national attention is necessary to safeguard these communities that serve as lifelines of our heritage.  By strengthening and building upon local history, traditions, and ways of life, we can begin to counter the forces that endanger these precious assets.

Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, in a 2016 Senate address on climate change gave a touching nod to Virginia’s coastal communities, which are facing double the relative sea level rise of the global average. He acknowledged the risk to our nation if our largest Naval base, in Norfolk, were inaccessible because of sea level rise and segued into the story of “an interesting community, one of the unique parts of Virginia, the small island of Tangier…one of the few places in the United States where you can hear English spoken as Shakespeare would have spoken it …” Kaine reported receiving “one of the most heartfelt pieces of communication” of his term as Senator from a Tangier middle school student who asked, “what can you help us do to deal with climate change so that Tangier as an island does not completely disappear?”  It is undeniably clear that without strong leadership and vision from Tangier’s residents, even a barrage of letters seeking empathy and a seawall, the scale will always be tipped in favor of the U.S. Navy.  It amounts to political and capital return on investment.

As with so many struggling communities throughout the United States, even this island in what has traditionally been a bay of plenty, there is a food desert.  Obesity and everything related to it are present on Tangier.  America’s love affair with electronic gadgets and prepared food has not escaped the isolated island community. While accepting a proclamation from the Virginia Tourism Authority as “the biggest ‘sports’ town in America” per capita, Mayor James Estridge stated, “…when the island elected to receive high-speed Internet, I was warned that our way of life would change, and it most certainly has…Tangier Island developed quite an appetite for streaming sports…”  Satellite dishes and stand-alone soda vending machines along the roadside are ever-present reminders that consumption patterns on Tangier have shifted.

Tangier’s only grocery store had three isles of shelving stacked high with canned goods loaded with preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup. Frozen seafood dinners from elsewhere packed its freezers.  Fresh fruit and vegetables arrive once a week and are sold out within two days, leaving many islanders to supplement their blanched vegetables from the deep freeze with purchases they make once a month when they visit the big box retailer off island.  This is one area that modern technology and innovation can directly benefit the island community by availing the island of smart agriculture and production capabilities that not only feed Tangier’s residents but create surplus and net positive yield of fresh and locally grown produce.

Tangier’s community sees managed retreat as a worst-case scenario.  While the island’s population chants “we need a breakwater” relentlessly, and struggles to be heard, it must look out over the ever-approaching Chesapeake and wonder why significant resources are being allocated to Maryland’s longest inhabited island, Smith Island, just six miles north as the crow flies.  Poplar Island, a migratory bird sanctuary, is slated to grow to more than 1,700 acres by the time it is completed in 2029.  The price tag for dredging the approach to Baltimore Harbor and building Poplar Island from the dredge is anticipated to swell to over $650 million.  Yet, the community on Tangier has been struggling to receive funds.

America’s legacy is rooted in its communities and the values they uphold

Whether it’s Angel; her schoolmates who write letters to their representatives; students making field trips to island outposts or nature centers; apprentices or kids that like to play in the area’s greatest outdoor classroom, the Chesapeake Bay, there is a next generation that deserves the opportunity to experience coastal living and shepherd the Bay.  Along with the desire to live on a vanishing island comes the responsibility to preserve and protect its physical and cultural assets.  Four hundred and fifty souls living on an isolated island in the middle of the Chesapeake, a hop, skip, and a jump from Washington, D.C. are not as exotic as their brethren on distant tropical islands, but their traditions and ways of life, their vital relationships to each other and the environment, and the next generation’s freedom to choose island living are worth preserving.

The blend of modern advanced technology and corporate and cultural shifts offer a fresh new opportunity to heal and empower American communities. Like many other struggling communities throughout the country, Tangier Island can take the lead and develop a sustainable action plan built on a foundation of trust, mutual interests, and understanding between all stakeholders.  In sharing their love for their home, Tangiermen will need to share the value of their unique history and culture with the rest of the nation, highlight their historic contribution to the stewardship of the Chesapeake’s seagrass habitat and its oyster and soft shell crab fisheries, and showcase Tangier Island’s tourism and educational offerings that are truly unique and part of America’s heritage and legacy.  Tangier’s other precious assets and endangered resources need to be woven into the metrics and language understood by county, state and federal representatives.  This outreach should certainly involve corporations, sponsors, non-profits and foundations with available grants, subsidies and expertise.

Tangier Island, so close to the power center of the world, can be the standard-bearer for islands, island territories, island nations, and low-lying coastal areas around the globe in developing and implementing a sustainability plan, which addresses climate change, rising seas, aging infrastructure, energy costs, waste, housing, education, aging population, food supply, water supply, tourism, business, communications, transportation, government debt and other issues.  “We need a breakwater” is not as sophisticated as a Super Bowl commercial, a K Street lobbyist’s message or a government appropriations request, but now that it has gotten our attention, we can help package and sell this vision and expound on its benefit.

In answer to the New York Times article, Tangier Island’s traditions, family values and its deep faith stand as a bastion of American heritage.  Tangier Island and its legacy should be cherished and saved.  However, this requires leadership and commitment emanating from Tangier residents and radiating outward to the entire Chesapeake Bay community and the rest of the nation.  As Americans and as global citizens, we need to be introspective and look into the fabric of our communities and our collective soul and take action.  Together, from Tangier, to the Chesapeake Bay, to Chicago, to Detroit, to South Los Angeles and to border towns, we rise higher than the sea.  Our seawall is our faith and commitment to that faith and a sustainable future.

On our return flight back to Northern Neck we skirted a powerful brooding storm that brought ferocious winds and hail on Tangier and the surrounding costal towns.  

— Iliad Alexander Terra & Lynn Fitzpatrick

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