A few miles across the Maryland border on Route 13 is a two-lane road. It meanders through deep forests and over isolated guts until it becomes a causeway over vast tufts of marsh.
At the end is Saxis, one of three inhabited islands in Accomack County, VA — the others being Tangier and Chincoteague. But unlike those towns, Saxis has no quaint shops, picturesque ponies, bike rentals, bed and breakfasts or charming Elizabethan accents. Instead, a serpentine road curves around neat white houses and blooming crepe myrtles until it reaches a quiet harbor dotted with crab pots and fishing gear.
In Saxis, population 242 and declining, watermen struggle to make a living in the face of tighter crab regulations and dwindling populations. Homeowners fight a losing battle against erosion, high tides and storms. The beachfront is a hodgepodge of concrete revetments and mismatched stone. Property owners are on their own to gird against the onslaught from the sea.
Four years ago, it seemed Saxis’ obituary had been written. Former mayor Charles Tull pushed for funds to install eight breakwaters. They would have cost $3.2 million; the town had to come up with more than half. Tull asked every state and federal official he could find for help. He died before the money came through.
The bench of successors for his unpaid, thankless job was not deep. Denise Drewer, a real-estate entrepreneur who grew up four miles away in the unincorporated town of Sanford, stepped up. Two years into her tenure, Superstorm Sandy flooded 100 homes.
In July of 2014, the last of those homes was being rebuilt and raised, sitting aloft about 10 feet above street level. Drewer smiled as she passed it.
“Sandy hit us hard, and it was very devastating,” she said. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but a lot of good has come out of it.”
Saxis now has the government’s attention. Drewer and the town council were finally able to secure funding from the Virginia Port Authority for a 322-foot jetty. It was built last year. The town would like to extend it to 360 feet for added protection, and they’re working on raising the money to pay for that.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also installing a rock jetty to protect its dredge site, which pulls sediment and sand from Saxis’ harbor so its fishing vessels can access the Bay and Pocomoke Sound. Saxis also received a permit to put 30 large concrete crosses near its pier — fishing reefs that will attract both oysters and fishermen but also slow wave action.
But Drewer worries it’s not enough without those breakwaters. Recently, she worked with Scott Hardaway at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to apply for a $4 million federal grant needed for the project. They didn’t get it; most of the Sandy money went to New Jersey.
Curt Smith, the district planner for Accomack and Northhampton counties, said he was disappointed but not surprised about losing the grant.
Smith, trained as a coastal geologist, keeps maps in his office that underscore the reality. Saxis may be able to gird against sea-level rise and flooding with jetties and raised homes, but there’s little the town can do about its road.
It is high on the list of Virginia roads in danger of inundation. It is in good company: Accomack County has the most roads vulnerable to water inundation in all of coastal Virginia, with 326 miles, according to VIMS’ Virginia Recurrent Flooding Study for Tidewater Virginia. It also has the most land vulnerable to sea-level rise, with 208 square miles.
If Saxis loses its road, it is unlikely to survive. Its plight underscores what many scientists and policy-
makers reluctantly acknowledge: We will not be able to save every place. Some places will go. They will join the many places that Maryland and Virginia have already lost: small towns, lovely islands, picturesque farming communities that have slipped into the sea.
“Having local governments provide services to a few scattered homes that are islands onto themselves is very problematic,” said Joe Fehrer of the Nature Conservancy.
Fehrer lives in Cape Charles, a community of about 900 full-time residents that, like Saxis, sits at the edge of the sea. It, too, is low-lying, with one main road in from Route 13. But Cape Charles bustles; It has a restored hotel, several bed and breakfasts, award-winning restaurants, popular wine and kayak tours, a golf course and a beautiful beach. Where Saxis has a working crab shanty, Cape Charles has a restaurant called The Shanty, where the catch of the day costs more than $20 and servers can tell you the provenance of the menu’s potatoes. Tanned, happy 20-somethings play cornhole as they wait for a table with a million-dollar view.
Cape Charles isn’t immune from storms, but several breakwaters in the Bay hold back the waves. High sand dunes protect both the beach and the town. Railroad and ferry interests founded Cape Charles based on its proximity to Norfolk, just across the Bay. The last passenger ferry stopped running 50 years ago, but the railway remains, as does a cement factory and a Coast Guard station.
When Drewer visits Cape Charles, she sees what could be. She’s secured state funding for a beachfront pavilion, like Cape Charles has. She’s working on getting public bathrooms at the marina, like Cape Charles has. And she’s excited about a new restaurant — the town’s first full-service one in decades — to open along the water.
It already has a name: Captain E’s Hurricane Grill.