On Tuesday, islanders with hoods pulled up to ward off the wind from the Chesapeake Bay cheered as Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and officials from the Army Corps of Engineers pledged to build a jetty that will protect their harbor.
Funding of the initial phase of the $4.2 million project is ensured, and project manager Tom Lochen of the Army Corps of Engineers said he is cautiously optimistic that construction will be finished in 2017.
It will help save a place unlike any other in the country, said Kathleen Kilpatrick, the director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, where isolation has helped preserve a waterman’s village virtually unchanged.
For islanders, it helps protect their livelihoods — ensuring that food and medicine get to the island, that their boats aren’t battered by ice off the bay with every winter storm, that people can build without worrying their investment will be washed away. And that means they can stay on the island.
“This will preserve our history and ensure our future,” said Duane Crockett, who teaches school on Tangier.
“We have been praying for this for years,” said Virginia Marshall, who had a wool scarf tied tightly around her head. “The Lord has been so good to us here.”
Tangier, 12 miles out in the bay, is a low, marshy island with golden grassy areas, a white church spire and water tower rising above tightly clustered homes, docks and boats along the channels to the harbor.
In the cemeteries, new gravestones are carved with the same surnames as those of the thin, leaning stones from hundreds of years ago, with many people tracing their families back to the original settlers of the island.
But just about any way she looks, 66-year-old Sandra Wheatley can see something that has changed on Tangier Island: A big house with a wraparound veranda is gone, a crab shack has washed away, the grassy land where they used to picnic is underwater. Now she can see the tracks where fiddlers have burrowed in her son’s yard, and even in small storms in recent years, the bay washes over her back yard.
“We need this sea wall desperately,” she said Tuesday. “We’re in danger. And our way of life is in danger.”
People ask why residents don’t just leave, she said. “But this is home.”
This is a place where everyone seems to have a nickname (most prominently the mayor, James “Ooker” Eskridge), where parents don’t worry about where their children are, where alcohol is not sold, where the golf carts crowd around the churches on Sundays, where the people know one another so well that they know whose bike they’re walking past on the narrow dirt roads.