Saving a Virginia Treasure: Tangier Island

We went Tangier Island last year to document what many call the first casualty of climate change. If something isn't done to stop the erosion, the island's 450 residents will have to abandon Tangier in the next 50 years. The Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to start a $2 million jetty project late next year which would protect the island's navigation channel. But it's only a beginning. Credit: WAVY TV / Jeff Myers

TANGIER ISLAND, Va. (WAVY) — It’s a speck of land surrounded by the life-sustaining Chesapeake Bay, which now threatens its future. We introduced you to the residents of Tangier Island last year. They pride themselves on those early American traits of independence and self-reliance.

This remote fishing village and Virginia treasure continues to fight a war against erosion and sea level rise. This nugget measuring just over a square mile shows a way of life out of sync with our laser tech society.

This is the old world, where you’ll hear an English dialect that goes back more than 300 years, with values to match.

“Everybody looks out for each other’s kids. We know everybody. We know the family,” says Tommy Eskridge, who owns Four Brothers Crab House and Ice Cream Deck in the middle of town.

Two middle-aged women provide insight to this sea-faring community. “Everybody knows each other,” says Alice Pruitt. Her friend Dot Evans seems to finish Pruitt’s thought: “And when one hurts, we all hurt.”

One would not exaggerate to say Tangier Island is hurting — its land mass is a mere 30 percent of what it was in 1850. Erosion and sea level rise are swallowing about 12 feet every year, fragments of a culture washing away.

Special Report: A Way of Life Going Under

Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge has become known worldwide, a tour guide  for what many see as one of the first casualties of climate change.  We went along with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) for an afternoon boat excursion over what were once vibrant neighborhoods.

He points to a grey sky that blends into the waves of the Chesapeake Bay.

“There used to be a community out there, a suburb of Tangier, Oyster Creek, used to be families out there, lots of trees. There was actually another community about 100 yards just west of this shoreline here.”  Kaine said, hand on his hip, shares Eskridge’s line of vision and asks how long ago these neighborhoods dotted the island. “Back in the early 40’s. And then there was another community here just off shore.”

Kaine listened as Eskridge made his plea for a seawall.

“Look, he’s showed me what the problem is, and I had read about it, but there’s no substitute for seeing, Kaine said. “And it was good to dialogue with him and others today about it, and try to figure ways we can be helpful.”

Photos: Tangier Island Update

Dan Hughes, chief of planning resources for the Army Corps of Engineers, says a $2 million jetty is in the works to mitigate erosion on the island’s navigation channel, and work could start late next year.

The corps is also recommending $30 million for a seawall, but that’s still years away.

“And so I have to make sure that when I spend the public’s money for the right reasons, the right projects and the right designs. They do take time, and part of it is also subject to budgetary constraints across the nation”

President Donald Trump even phoned the mayor over the summer, assuring him that Tangier Island would be around for a long time. Trump got 80 percent of the vote here in the 2016 Presidential Election — but politics cannot overcome nature.

Eskridge grew up on this fishing oasis, long famous for its blue crab, a staple for Tangier Island’s economy. Senators Kaine and Mark Warner (D-Va.) have written a letter to Trump, asking that he follow up his summer phone call to Eskridge with the funds to build a seawall and take other measures to save the island.

Even with the recent attention surrounding the plight of this island community, Eskridge offers a melancholy assessment of the future.

“It’s ironic the Chesapeake Bay has provided a living for the watermen here for a couple hundred years, now it’s the Chesapeake bay that’s threatening us to take the island away.”

A faith as old as the island itself, but more than 400 people will need human help to save what’s left of Tangier Island.