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Last house on sinking Chesapeake Bay island collapses
All the while, the bay got closer.
During Hurricane Isabel, in 2003, waves rolled through the kitchen. He fixed the house. But last winter the combination of high winds and tides pushed the house off two of its supporting piers.
Other people snickered at White, the Sisyphus of Dorchester County. But he held out hope that a big donor or a government agency would swoop in and help him save the place. None did.
In June, White fell ill with hemolytic anemia, a near-deadly drop in his red blood cells. He finally sold the house, and his part of the island, to a foundation run by a Falls Church investor, Robert Fitzgerald.
"It's a struggle that the strongest wins. And I wasn't the strongest," said White, now 80. He is still undergoing chemotherapy, although his red-blood-cell count has returned to normal.
Fitzgerald was inspired to protect the remaining pieces of the island after reading about it in The Washington Post in 2000. But it was too late for the house, which sat on a particularly vulnerable part of Holland Island.
On Thursday, a group of Chesapeake Bay Foundation employees went to visit what remains of the island. From a distance, the house was still a strange - though shorter - sight, its boxy frame standing out against the flat water like the outline of a ruined farmhouse on the plains.
When they got closer, the damage was obvious. The house had broken open in front, and a bed jutted out from a second-story bedroom, its white sheets fluttering in the wind. The evidence of White's struggles - an excavating machine, rocks, a small bulldozer - sat half-submerged around it.
"It just kind of hit me. For the last 35 years, I've been using that house as a landmark," Don Baugh, a vice president at the bay foundation, said as the boat approached. "That's pretty damn sad. That's the end of an era."
It definitely won't, however, be the end of the Chesapeake's erosion problems. A few miles away, a watermen's community on Smith Island is just a few inches above the waves. And Maryland is contemplating how to, in one official's words, "facilitate abandonment and retreat" when faster-rising waters eventually threaten towns on the Eastern Shore's mainland.
White hasn't gone out to see the ruined house, but he has seen pictures. "It's the death of a loved one," he said.
Even now, he hasn't entirely given up hope. Asked Thursday whether the house could still be fixed, White considered it. "Nothing's impossible," he said.
Out on the water, Baugh looked at the unsteady remains of the house and considered the same question. In the distance, the sun was setting, and another rainstorm was rolling over the bay.
"A couple nights like this," he said, and "I don't think you'll see anything left."