TANGIER, Va. —Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge swapped his usual “Trump: Make America Great Again” baseball cap for one stitched with a generic “Tangier Island” to welcome Sen. Tim Kaine to his vanishing island home.
He didn’t want to insult the Virginia Democrat, who took a three-hour round-trip ferry ride to a splotch of marsh in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay where residents did not support Kaine’s run for vice president last year, not to mention his successful campaigns for senator in 2012 or governor before that.
The patriotic, religious island community of watermen is full of President Trump voters delighted when the president called Eskridge at home this summer to reassure them Tangier would be around for centuries to come, never mind warnings about sea level rise.
With the 1.2-square-mile island off the Eastern Shore sinking into the bay at an average rate of eight acres a year — and the president so far ignoring an invitation to visit — Tangier’s 460 residents find themselves in the awkward position of relying on one of Trump’s biggest foes to fight for federal dollars to save their way of life.
The island’s star turn prompted a flood of nasty letters and voice mails from strangers telling them they deserve to sink and should just move to the mainland already.
“That’s just not productive,” Kaine said, standing on a wooden dock waiting for a ferry to Onancock. “That’s not the way we think. This is a community where — look, this is not the most Democratic place in Virginia, ya know?”
As governor, Kaine helped build a modern health clinic on the island a decade ago, and residents “are always perfectly respectful and kind and friendly to me every time I come even though they might support somebody else,” he said.
Kaine, who is running for reelection, said he will return to Washington this month with a difficult task: convince his fellow senators that a bunch of climate change skeptics deserve millions — maybe billions — in federal money to protect them from the effects of climate change.
On his side is research that shows Tangier, and remote islands like it, are harbingers of global warming that give scientists an opportunity to test solutions before New York, Miami and other major cities begin to deal with large-scale flooding and devastation.
“Their experience on weather-related challenges,” Kaine said, “it may be slightly on steroids, but it’s what so many communities across the country are facing.”
On a recent muggy day, Eskridge, wearing his navy Trump cap and a “Shut up and Crab” T-shirt, hopped off the motor scooter he uses to zip around Tangier and recalled how the island became a poster child for climate change.
He and some buddies were talking this summer in “the situation room,” a green tile-walled room in the back of the old health center where they try to solve the world’s problems, while CNN filmed a story on the island and sea level rise.
“I love Trump as much as any family member I got,” Eskridge told them.
The seemingly simple quip would turn into international news and draw reporters from Australia, Japan and all over Europe to Tangier. Less than a week later, Eskridge was out crabbing when someone told him the president had just called.
“President of what?” he said. “They convinced me to go home and wait by the phone. And sure enough he did call.”
It was surreal, he said, speaking to the leader of the free world.
“My family and I, we love you, we love your family and we love the citizens of Tangier,” Trump told Eskridge, according to the mayor.
The president invited him to the White House, and Eskridge returned the favor, wishing for Trump to be the first president to visit Tangier since Woodrow Wilson.
He told Trump his island has lost two-thirds of its land since the first accurate map was made in 1850. Tangier could be uninhabitable in 25 to 50 years, according to a 2016 article published in Scientific Reports. The same report noted a navigation channel cut between the main part of the island and a section known as Uppards may have hastened some erosion.
“If no action is taken, the citizens of Tangier may become among the first climate change refugees in the continental USA,” the report says.
In response, defiant residents printed T-shirts with a hashtag and “Tangier Island Lives Matter” on the front and, on the back, a life raft with the words, “I refuse to be a climate change refugee.” The T-shirts are on sale in the town office and the museum.
Eskridge and his neighbors blame the land loss on waves and storms pounding the shore since John Smith landed there in 1608 — not climate change brought on by man-made activities.
Eskridge, whose blue eyes are offset by a deep tan that comes from decades in the sun, said he doubts the sea level is rising because the water marks on the pilings that hold up his crab shack haven’t budged since he built it in the 1970s.
Unlike islanders who can trace their ancestry to the first settlers in the 1700s, Eskridge jokes he’s a “Come Here” with roots that date only to the Civil War.
When he wakes up at 2:30 a.m., the 59-year-old father of six goes to the little wooden house standing in the harbor.
Soft shell crabs need constant tending, and the shack — the waterman’s version of a man cave — contains a haphazard collection of Pringles cans, family photos and local newspaper clippings heralding Trump’s inauguration. Four cats — John Roberts, Sam Alito, Condi Rice and, the skinny one, Ann Coulter — lounge.
Like many evangelicals who see Jews’ return to Israel as a prerequisite for the Second Coming, Eskridge flies an Israeli flag alongside an American one.
Behind the console of his boat — decorated with a Trump-Pence sticker, a Jesus fish and a Jewish star that match his forearm tattoos — he sounded more like a philosopher than a small-town mayor and commercial crabber.
“There’s a spiritual aspect to it,” he said, as a familiar sea gull landed on the bow. He can tell them apart like people. “There’s Summertime,” he said, nodding toward the bird.
While Eskridge may see changes in the climate — powerful storms, eerie low tides — he doesn’t believe humans are responsible. He favors the biblical prediction that the world is approaching the end days before the rapture when Jesus will return to Earth.
Eskridge has felt his belief system is under assault and never more so than when CNN brought him and his wife to New York earlier this summer to debate climate change with Al Gore.
When Eskridge asked Gore why he wasn’t seeing physical signs of sea level rise, Gore cited scientific evidence and told a joke about a Tennessee man trapped in a flood who turned away a rescue vehicle, boat and helicopter, convinced God would provide. The man died and in heaven asked why God hadn’t save him, Gore said.
“And he said, what do you mean, I sent you an SUV, a boat and a helicopter,” Gore said.
The moment cut to the heart of Tangier’s support for Trump, a politician who doesn’t belittle their beliefs. He won 87 percent of the vote, and Trump 2020 signs are on display.
The steeple of Swain Memorial United Methodist Church can be seen from most points on the island. After a rainstorm, the waterlogged grass squishes underfoot around headstones dating from the 1800s.
Traditional values form the foundation of life on Tangier, said Swain pastor John Flood — a man whose surname didn’t inspire immediate confidence on an island four feet above sea level.
A historical marker outside the church recalls an episode during the War of 1812 when pastor Joshua Thomas told British troops occupying Tangier that God doomed their upcoming attack on Baltimore. The mission failed, and Thomas was immortalized as “the parson of the islands.”
In 1998, the town rejected an offer to film “Message in a Bottle” on the island because the “drinking and blasphemy” in the script were out of step with Tangier’s morals. New Harbor, Maine, got the movie and a $15 million economic boon.
Trust in a divine plan has not stopped Eskridge from lobbying lawmakers and engineers for a fix.
He believes a rock sea wall on the eastern side of the island would protect Tangier the same way a one-mile-long one on the western side stopped erosion when it was built for $10 million in 1989.
He’d also like to use soil from dredging projects to build up the island, but a massive undertaking like that would take years just to study, and Tangier is running out of time.
Kaine said he could see Tangier winning a spot in an infrastructure bill that the Trump administration is planning with input from both parties. He was also encouraged to hear officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had planned to visit.
“What’s going to be hard about this, it’s not what they think about climate change or sea level rise,” Kaine said, between bites of crab cake sandwich at Fisherman’s Corner, a 15-table restaurant owned by the mayor’s wife and supplied by his daily catch. Seashells decorate the tablecloths; starfish dangle on strings from the ceiling.
“It’s more the size of the community, traditional backyard parochial politics where a lot of members of Congress think, ‘Hey, Virginia and Maryland get enough stuff anyway, so why more?’ ”
Kaine, a Catholic, said belief in climate change doesn’t conflict with faith in God.
“No. Look, humans do things all the time that have negative effects,” he said. “That’s one of the beautiful and bad things about free will. . . . But we have an obligation to mitigate the bad and accelerate the good. And if we don’t, we only have ourselves to blame.”
It was Easter Sunday 1996 when the first of Eskridge’s four daughters adopted from India arrived on Tangier. To give thanks, he planted a white cross on the part of the island called Uppards. Over the years as the land broke off into the bay, he replanted the cross farther and farther back until last year, when he positioned it 100 yards from the shoreline.
Now all that remains is a soggy speck of land where the cross stands, surrounded by water.