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Trump calls mayor of shrinking Chesapeake island and tells him not to worry about it

Tangier Island Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge holds a crab he found with two oysters growing near its eyes. (Courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

James “Ooker” Eskridge was crabbing off the coast of Virginia’s Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay on Monday when he noticed a boat approaching him. Behind it was another.

Eskridge, mayor on the island, steeled himself for the worst. After all, as his wife said to him, “The only thing that could make you come inside from crabbing on a Monday morning is a call from President Trump.”

But as it turned out, that’s exactly what it was.

As one of the boats finally reached him, a fellow waterman told him to return to the island stat, because the president of the United States was calling soon.

“I thought he was joking,” Eskridge told The Washington Post in a phone interview.

Soon, he realized this was no joke.

It began a week earlier, when CNN aired a story about Tangier, Va., which sits on Tangier Island, about 12 miles from both the Virginia and Maryland coasts in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. The small island, now only 1.3 square miles, shrinks by 15 feet each year, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, which points to coastal erosion and rising sea levels as the cause.

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The island’s 450 residents, many of whom are descendants of its first settlers in the 17th century, are desperate. Scientists predict they will have to abandon the island in 50 years if nothing is done.

“Donald Trump, if you see this, whatever you can do, we welcome any help you can give us,” Eskridge said in the CNN piece, later adding, “I love Trump as much as any family member I got.”

Trump caught wind of the piece, Eskridge told The Post, and wanted to call. So his administration reached out to the Tangier Oyster Co., seeking the mayor’s phone number. Word spread to Eskridge in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. He rushed back and sat by the telephone, waiting.

Finally, it rang.

“I’m still coming to grips that I was talking to the president,” Eskridge said, before describing the call.

Trump thanked the mayor and the entire island of Tangier, where he received 87 percent of the votes, for their support. Then the conversation turned to the island’s plight.

“He said we shouldn’t worry about rising sea levels,” Eskridge said. “He said that ‘your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.’”

Eskridge wasn’t offended. In fact, he agreed that rising sea levels aren’t a problem for Tangier.

“Like the president, I’m not concerned about sea level rise,” he said. “I’m on the water daily, and I just don’t see it.”

Instead, Eskridge, along with many of Tangier’s residents, said he worries about the erosion caused by the Chesapeake’s water pounding on the island’s shores. He said he believes this is why his home is disappearing at an alarming rate.

Trump apparently agreed.

“He said that is a problem, and maybe when I’m up in Washington, I could come by and we can chat about it,” Eskridge said.

Currently, the Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to begin building a jetty on the west channel of the island some time this year to protect it from the harsh currents. But Eskridge said they need a jetty, or perhaps even a sea wall, around the entire island.

He believes Trump will cut through red tape and get them that wall.

“He’s for cutting regulations and the time it takes to study a project,” Eskridge said. “Of course you need the studies, but we’ve been studied to death.”

“We’re running out of land to give up,” he added.

That said, Trump’s administration hasn’t been friendly to the Chesapeake Bay itself. Trump’s proposed budget included ending federal funding of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a federal-state collaboration coordinated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Begun in 1983, the program aimed to help reduce pollution and restore the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem, the very one from which the watermen on Tangier Island make their livings.

As a compromise on the budget, Congress restored the $73 million Trump’s administration planned to cut, at least until September when the fiscal year expires.

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