Dire Warnings About The Future Of Maryland's Smith Island (Part Two)


So if you were listening a few weeks ago, we brought you a story about the Chesapeake Bay's Smith Island, which climate change experts say is in danger of disappearing due to sea level rise and erosion. Today, Jonathan Wilson goes in search of answers to two pressing questions, what's happening to the island and how fast is it taking place?


The last time we were on Smith Island, or to be more exact, the waters between the town of Crisfield, Md. and the island, we were talking with Captain Otis Tyler, a lifelong Smith Island resident.


People saying we're 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.


And most people on the island seem to share Tyler's point of view, or at least agree with him that scientists are exaggerating. Sixteen-year-old Rebekah Kitching says all you have to do is look at what experts were saying half a century ago.


When my Dad was younger, they said in 50 years this place will be gone. My dad's 52. It never happened. I mean, I don't think we'll ever wash away. I think, yes, we are washing away a little bit at a time. And I don't think it's really as bad as they make it seem. I really don't.


Like any close-knit community, Smith Island has a pride about it, and this extends to the island's ability to weather a storm. Residents say during Super Storm Sandy, for example, Smith Island actually fared better than the mainland town of Crisfield, in which more than 300 homes and businesses were damaged. Only two homes suffered significant damage on the island, and native Allen Marsh says ocean waters can simply roll over the island and drain away very quickly.


We make out better than a lot of places because there's nowhere to hold the surge. The surge just goes on by. It passes us. We make out as good as any community does.


But travel west and start talking with climate scientists and state officials about Smith Island, and you'll quickly get the sense that residents on the island are fighting against the current when it comes to the fate of their home, because while the island may not technically be sinking, there's an almost universal scientific consensus that the ocean's waters are rising. The latest report from the University of Maryland, prepared for Governor O'Malley, calls for policy makers to prepare for a rise of more than two feet by the year 2050, and a rise of nearly four feet by the end of the century.


The report notes that some estimates put sea level rise at six feet by that same date. Most of Smith Island is just 3 feet above sea level. And as for the relatively small impact of Super Storm Sandy, University of Maryland professor Ed Link, a world-renowned expert on sea level rise, says Smith Island was simply lucky this time around.


I don't see any major long-term advantage to being an island. So I think they were very fortunate in this event, that Sandy didn't take a different path.


Many residents on the island have long been clamoring for some sort of sea wall or break water to protect the island from damaging storm surges. And there are approved plans for the Army Corps of Engineers to build such a wall, but the plan would cost nearly $20 million and the local and state funding needed to trigger a federal match hasn't materialized. Professor Link acknowledges that in the world of hurricane flood protection, $20 million is not an exorbitant sum, but he says it's likely to only be the start of the spending if the government decides to head down that path.


Galveston, Texas built a 17-foot-high sea wall to deal with hurricanes, and as came right back a decade or so later and had to make it higher and had to make it longer. So I've never seen any of these things built that didn't have a brother or sister coming down the road.


Finding money for such projects is a constant challenge. And it's clear that Smith Islanders would need a coalition of local, state and federal leaders on their side to get anything done. But creating that coalition has its own challenges. As evidenced by the overwhelmingly hostile reaction from Smith Islanders to the idea of optional buy outs for property owners worried about the safety of their homes. Carol Gilbert, with the state's Department of Housing and Community Development, says the reaction was natural for a community of just 276 people. A community worried about population decline.


But I do think it was not as well understood that they were very limited and very voluntary and aimed at vulnerable households that may have a need to locate to retirement housing or a retirement home on the coast.


Zoe Johnson is the program manager for climate change policy at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. She stresses that the state has no plans to move Smith Island residents off their island, and says the state wants to help residents live safely on the island for as long as possible. But she also says the state has to learn from the past.


Understanding what has happened historically with some of our island communities sort of foreshadows some of the decisions that may be, you know, coming down the road in the years to come. And it may be 20 years, 50 years, we don't know. But, you know, a decision to move a community is something that needs to happen from within that community.


Johnson says in the past two centuries or so, the waters in and around the Chesapeake Bay have reclaimed 13 islands, several of which were populated. Professor Link says though it's hard for island communities to accept, their homelands might as well be temporary structures when it comes to Mother Nature's timeline.


In Mother Nature's eyes they are expendable, dynamic, natural resources. And they commonly come and go.


There's nothing common about the history and culture that would be lost if Smith Island goes, but if even the most conservative estimates about sea level rise come to pass, it may be too late to change where things are headed. I’m Jonathan Wilson.


If you missed Jonathan's first story on Smith Island's battle with sea level rise, you can find it on our website,
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