Transcripts

Can Smith Island Survive Climate Change?

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
We'll venture off the mainland now and off to the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. That's where you'll find Smith Island, a place most famous for Maryland's official state dessert, the many-layered Smith Island cake. But if climate scientists and sea-level-rise experts are right, Smith Island might soon be famous for something else, disappearing. Environment reporter Jonathan Wilson brings us this story on the community's fight to defy the odds.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:00:27
Fifty-six-year-old Chris Parks sits across from me in a booth at Peaky’s Restaurant in Princess Anne, Md. The warmth he radiates comes with an unmistakable sadness. I ask him about the hint of despair in his voice, and he says it’s simple. He’s a Smith Islander, who isn’t -- for the moment -- living on Smith Island.

MR. CHRIS PARKS

00:00:48
Last October, when Hurricane Sandy hit -- this may sound crazy, but the only place I wanted to be was on the island, you know? I’ve been through hurricanes there, and, you know, I felt bad that I wasn’t there.

WILSON

00:01:03
Parks’ health forced him off the island, and it remains the only thing keeping him on the mainland. He’s a recent cancer survivor, and went through much of the ordeal on the island, working a job without health benefits -- something he doesn’t want to repeat.

PARKS

00:01:18
Having gone through cancer without health insurance, I needed to find a job with benefits, and fortunately I was able to do that/

WILSON

00:01:27
He now works for Somerset County’s planning department and lives in Crisfield, a 25-minute boat ride from his beloved island. The prognosis on his cancer is good, but his own prognosis, on the place he loves, is far from optimistic.

PARKS

00:01:42
The shoreline is eroding -- has been for a long time -- and it is starting to put houses, and some of the infrastructure like roads, in jeopardy.

WILSON

00:01:54
According to the Army Corps of Engineers, parts of the island’s shoreline are washing away 8 to12 feet each year. The island has lost more than 3,000 acres to the sea over the past 150 years, shrinking its land area by more than half. And Parks is just as worried about the erosion of the island's human population, which hovered between 700 and 800 during his childhood, but now sits at 276, according to the latest census numbers.

PARKS

00:02:23
This year's high school graduating class, out of, I think, before they graduated, three who left for college. One's going to try and stay there and become a waterman. Those are not good odds for the future.

WILSON

00:02:37
To see Smith Island for myself, I recently hitched a ride on the Island Belle II, and official U.S. Mail boat, owned and operated by Captain Otis Tyler. Tyler is reticent to be interviewed at first, but all I have to do is ask him about Smith Island's supposedly bleak future and the floodgates open.

CAPTAIN OTIS TYLER

00:02:56
People saying were sinking. We’re not sinking. The erosion’s getting us, but we’re not sinking. I mean, if we’re sinking, the whole East Coast is sinking.

WILSON

00:03:05
And as far as Tyler is concerned, Smith Island will stick around, despite a lack of attention from those in a position to help.

TYLER

00:03:13
You know, we got a governor that's never been here. This is eight years he's been our governor. He's never stepped a foot on Smith Island. He don't care for us and we don’t need to care for him.

WILSON

00:03:28
Once you're on the island, the first stop for many tourists is the Bay Side Inn, where you can grab a bite to eat, including a slice or two of Smith Island cake. Rebecca Kitching is a waitress at the Bay Side. She just turned 16 so she's one of those young people the community would desperately like to retain, but she wants to be a teacher. And she says that means her future looks brightest off the island.

MS. REBECCA KITCHING

00:03:52
There's not really much of a life to live here. I mean, you can't -- there aren't a very big variety of jobs. Here it's basically the men crab, the women pick or find other little small jobs. So there's not too much to do.

WILSON

00:04:04
To kill some time on my visit to the island, I rent a golf cart from the Bay Side and tool around Ewell, the island's main harbor. The skies are stunningly clear and the only thing to spoil the sunny quiet of the day is the occasional biting fly buzzing around my head. On days like today, it's easy to see why Smith Islanders would have such a hard time accepting that the same dark blue waters that have supported their way of life could also be the engine of the community's demise. It's simply beautiful out here.

WILSON

00:04:36
But University of Maryland Professor Ed Link, a world renowned expert on sea level rise and climate change, says though the science is still uncertain, the data point in one direction for Smith Island.

DR. ED LINK

00:04:49
Environments like the Chesapeake Bay that have a lot of land that is close to sea level, in an environment of rising sea levels and perhaps stormier conditions, they're in for some bad times. And we need to start planning what is pragmatic to do about that right now.

WILSON

00:05:09
Just how quickly Smith Island is washing away, may be up for debate, but for Chris Parks perhaps all the arguments over erosion rates, sea walls and state assistance for Smith Island are beside the point.

PARKS

00:05:22
On a regular basis I find myself driving down to the water and looking at it, over so I can see the island, just to know that it's still there and that, you know, if and when I can get back, it'll still be there. That brings me more peace and comfort than anything else in my life. It is the closest thing to heaven I'll ever get to on this earth.

WILSON

00:05:47
So while Parks may be a realist when it comes to the future, he's most certainly a romantic when it comes to the only place that's ever felt like home. I'm Jonathan Wilson.

SHEIR

00:06:07
In a few weeks, Jonathan will dig more into the science behind what's happening to Smith Island and how the State of Maryland is responding to climate change and sea level rise for its coastal communities. So stay tuned.

SHEIR

00:06:40
Up next, Alexander Graham Bell is best known for inventing the telephone. But what about the other parts of his story?

MR. RICK FOUCHEUX

00:06:47
We're so enamored of Bell as the telephone man, and he had a lot more going than that.

SHEIR

00:06:55
Plus, how a name-changing singer/songwriter defines fame and success in the music biz.

MR. ANDY ZIPF

00:07:01
You know, fame and fortune, that's just smoke and mirrors. I think of it more in a blue-collar way. I get up and I build songs.

SHEIR

00:07:09
It's just ahead on "Metro Connection," on WAMU 88.5
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