The residents of Tangier Island have been pleading for help for years. Rising water levels and sinking land have taken their toll, and the island is losing as much as 16 feet a year on one side, three feet on another.
The loss has been particularly hard for residents of the island, where culture has endured for centuries amid little change. Residents still get up before dawn to pull crabs and oysters out of the cold water, still fill the churches of their tiny village on Sundays, still speak the same dialect reminiscent of Elizabethan English.
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.
“There’s no place like home for anyone, I guess,” said Tommy Eskridge, a town council member, “but there’s really no place like Tangier.”
Tangier has a sea wall on the western side of the southern, inhabited portion of the island, protecting the airport and sewage treatment plant. “We had to fight like the dickens for that,” Wheatley said. “That’s saved a lot. Then it started eating up this way,” the water eroding more and more land.
“The island is mostly made of silt,” unlike a rocky island in Maine or even a sandy island in North Carolina, said Jodi Jones Smith, a coastal scientist who is a consultant to the mayor. “Silt washes away easily.”
If nothing were done, in 70 to 100 years the island would be gone, she said. A few good storms could knock it out much sooner. The only hope, she said, would be to shore it up along its perimeters.
“They spend all their time on this basically one-square-mile area; all their friends, all their family are here. On summer evenings, they’re hanging out on the ridge or out riding their bikes — it’s a community in a sense that I have never experienced in my whole life, ever.”
On Tuesday, many of the 450 or so islanders welcomed elected officials with a huge feast of crab cakes, meatballs, green bean casserole, potato salad and sticky frosted cakes, and schoolchildren sang patriotic songs, some rewritten with Tangier lyrics that made everyone laugh.
“This is the beginning,” Wheatley said of saving the island.
Lochen said the jetty could protect the harbor for 50 years. As for the long term, “the island is very low,” he said, “so it’s very vulnerable to sea level change. You can’t fight nature — eventually the island will be submerged.”
Crockett said: “Where will Tangier be 100 years from now? Right here! I have every confidence in that.” Behind him in the harbor, a waterman pulled dangling blue crabs out of a pot as waves buffeted his low boat. Crockett quoted from the Bible: “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ ”