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Can Smith Island Survive Climate Change?

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Capt. Otis Tyler's family has run the mail boat for Smith Island for 100 years.
Jonathan Wilson
Capt. Otis Tyler's family has run the mail boat for Smith Island for 100 years.

Chris Parks, 56, sits 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.

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

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.

“Having gone through cancer without health insurance, I needed to find a job with benefits, and fortunately I was able to do that,” he says.

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.

“The shoreline is eroding — has been for a long time — and is starting to put houses, and some of the infrastructure like roads, in jeopardy,” Parks says.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, parts of the island’s shoreline are washing away 8 to12 feet a 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.

But many people still on the island are skeptical of the doom and gloom predictions. Captain Otis Tyler ferries the Island Belle II between the mainland and the island each day, delivering mail and passengers.

“People sayin’ were sinkin’ — we’re not sinkin’,” he says. “The erosion’s getting us, but we’re not sinking. If we’re sinkin’, the whole East Coast is sinkin’. I’m getting some age on me, but come back in 50 years; I won’t be here, but there’ll still be Smith Island. Smith Island’s gonna stay here.”

This is the first story in a two-part series on Smith Island and the sea level rise in the Bay.

[Music: "I Am a Rock" by Zoom Karaoke from Simon & Garfunkel]

Photos: Smith Island

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