Bay Journal

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.

Tangier mayor hopes that Trump call leads to a seawall

  • July 04, 2017
Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge (Dave Harp)Tangier Island, home to 400 people, is slowly disappearing into the Chesapeake. (Dave Harp)

Tangier Island sits like a fishhook in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, a fishing village known for its distinct local accent and eroding shoreline. Every now and again, it makes the news for a quirky event, like when the mayor found some oysters attached to a crab, or a tragic one, as when a longtime resident drowned.

That changed in June, when President Donald Trump called Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge. The president, who has suggested in the past that climate change is a hoax, told Eskridge not to worry about rising sea levels. “Your island has been there for hundreds of years,” he told Eskridge, “and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more."

Trump offered such reassurance after seeing a CNN report about the island, home to about 400 souls, many of whom trace their roots to three families that arrived from England in the 1600s. CNN’s Jennifer Gray reported that 87 percent of the island voted for Trump. Eskridge said he loved Trump “as much as any family member I got.” If Gray saw Trump, Eskridge pleaded, let the president know they needed help.

“You talk about a wall? We’ll take a wall. We’d like to have a wall all the way around Tangier,” Eskridge said in the CNN clip.

He didn’t mean a barrier against illegal immigration. The island had been waiting close to 25 years for a seawall. They probably don’t have 25 more. Every hurricane season, residents pray that the coming winds and tides will not destroy their home. In 1989, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a wall to protect the island’s west side and its airport, and that has held back the waters. But the east side, which includes the island’s busy harbor and most of its homes, is exposed. Neighboring Smith Island in Maryland, the Chesapeake’s other inhabited isle, has expansive marshlands as partial buffers and has received close to $20 million in state and federal aid for bulkheading and erosion control. Tangier has neither natural protections or government money.

Now they’ve got a new problem: a backlash.

After Trump’s call, people started phoning the mayor’s office, the town restaurant, even the ferry service. I hope you sink, they said. You’re racist. We’re going to boycott you.

“I don’t understand it,” Eskridge tells me. “They don’t like [Trump], and they don’t like you if you support him, and we got a taste of it. And some of them, maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with Donald Trump, but it’s because we’re asking for help to save our island, which is only natural to me. I would expect anyone to try to save their home.”

Indeed, Tangier has helped others save theirs, collecting money for hurricane relief and even sending firefighters and boat captains to disaster areas. Never once, he said, did the islanders question whether those places were worth saving.

Eskridge, for the record, does think the climate is changing. He sees it every day. He is “not totally convinced that man is doing it,” and he said that he believes erosion rather than rising sea levels are to blame for his island’s receding shoreline. Eskridge said he likes Trump because he thinks the president is looking out for the little guy and is willing to cut red tape. For a man who has been waiting 25 years for a wall, that seems like a good deal.

It’s not particularly enjoyable to have strangers call you at home and accuse you of racism. It was especially painful for Eskridge who, with his wife, adopted four girls from India. Watermen typically name their boats after their daughters. Eskridge’s skiff is called the Sreedevi.

“People make comments about us. They don’t know us. They don’t understand us,” he said. “If we disagree, or we have a different way of thinking, that’s no reason to hate somebody, or wish him dead.”

Three years ago, one of my daughters and I spent three days on Tangier, much of it in the company of Eskridge aboard the Sreedevi. He took us to his crab shanty, and to the Uppards, another town on the island that was abandoned in the 1920s. He could name every bird we saw, discuss their range and list their food sources. He even has a pet osprey that returns to his shanty every spring. As we strolled the Uppards, Eskridge marveled at how the U.S. government could spend billions on rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan, but had no money for a U.S. town.

There was a time, said Northampton County planner Curt Smith, when Tangier’s problem seemed scalable. But now, Miami, Norfolk and New York City are all contending with serious sea-level rise, and they are all competing for the same limited federal resources.

In 2015, I helped organize a tour of Tangier Island for journalists. Just before we left, Eskridge told them he did not believe sea-level rise was happening, and was not sure human beings caused climate change. I’d heard the same refrains in other vulnerable Eastern Shore communities, including Toddville, Saxis, Crocheron and Taylor’s Island. Their residents didn’t want to talk about ice melt or glaciers or coal-fired power plants or greenhouse gas emissions. They just wanted someone to help them get the water out of their yards.

Scientists overwhelmingly disagree with the islanders’ assessment of climate change and sea level rise. But as far as what these communities need is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether erosion or rising water is to blame. The solutions are the same: Build a wall now, or figure out how to make an orderly retreat and settle elsewhere. The most important question isn’t what the Tangier islanders believe; it’s at what point the costs rise too high to save them.

It might seem to be the easiest solution to give up now. Indeed, a columnist for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot suggested as much: Just give every resident $8,000 — the cost of the seawall divided by the 400 residents — and call it a day, he argued.

The scientists and planners I interviewed in my sea-level rise reporting don’t advocate for such a mass evacuation at so low a price.  Zoe Johnson, a coastal planner for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that if a community is going to retreat, it should be orderly, planned and their idea. Though not as populous as they once were, Tangier and Smith islands are still vibrant communities. They’re not ready to give up. They’re tryng to re-invent themselves as tourist destinations, particularly for nature-lovers. And, Johnson said, we should do what we can to help them stay as long as it’s feasible.

Tom Horton is a Bay Journal columnist who lived on Smith Island for three years and wrote a book about his experience, An Island Out of Time. An environmental writing professor at Salisbury University, he brings his students to Tangier to meet with Eskridge. Horton has great affection for the islands. They need to be saved, he says: for the nature held within and the culture they sustain.

Give Ooker his rock, Horton said. How much could it cost? Twenty five million? Fifty? It’s worth it. But his students aren’t so sure. That’s because, according to the scientific predictions, Ooker’s rock won’t protect the island until the end of their days; it will, at best, buy them one more century. At what point are too many Ookers asking for too much rock? At what point are they all going to run out of time?

It might seem that, in supporting Trump, Eskridge’s island voted against its own interests. The Trump administration has proposed multiple cuts to government agencies that deal with climate change and help communities adapt to sea level rise. If what you do is more important than what you believe, Eskridge might have struck out on both counts: a president who neither believes in sea-level rise, nor is willing to push for the funding to shore up the island suffering from the one-two punch of rising waters and battering erosion.

But the fact is, when it comes to Trump, little is predictable. With rumors of a visit from Marine One swirling, there is hope that maybe Trump will make an exception for the island that embraced him. A man of faith, Eskridge chooses to believe.

After all, he told me: “I didn’t call him. He called me.”

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.

Read more articles by Rona Kobell


By submitting a comment, you are consenting to these Rules of Conduct. Thank you for your civil participation. Please note: reader comments do not represent the position of Chesapeake Media Service.

Joseph Corcoran on July 05, 2017:

It was not that long ago that Hart Island and Miller Island up by Middle River were eroding but now thanks to millions of tons of dredge spoil there is big island for citizen recreation called Hart-Miller Island . Maybe the next major shipping channel dredging can be used to build up Tangier Island . But I am still annoyed by the insistence of the Tangier islanders to reject science and remain ignorant of the facts . Yes , god will provide . God will provide eyes to see the truth but god requires you to look .

Eddie Somers on July 06, 2017:

In response to Mr Joseph Corcoran’s annoyance with we Islanders. It is the typical arrogance of the intellectual crowd that uneducated people such as us could disagree with the “science”. I would also suggest that our “eyes” which sees the real world everyday and has for 10 to 15 generations knows that what the science says has happened for the past 100 years with rising seas is physically impossible. As for his statement "God will provide eyes to see the truth but god requires you to look". I would suggest that Mr Corcoran take a look at both sides of this “science” and take the politics out of it. There are very legitimate views from the “deniers” in science that support what our eyes tell us. We do not doubt that the “physics and computer models are correct” we just doubt the inputs that are used to get the answers they provide. He would see that we do look and much more carefully than most.

Jon Farrington on July 06, 2017:

The 2015 report by US Army Corps of Engineers, "Climate Change and the Evolution and Fate of the Tangier Islands of Chesapeake Bay, USA" can be read here:

Eddie Somers on August 10, 2017:

my last post- take a look at this "news story" here listen to the "expert" with the corps. at the point where they talk about the stones that were put there 35 or so years ago ( approx. he 3:40 mark in the "news story")listen to what has happened where the stones where placed. not one foot of land lost. now if the other parts of the island has sunk why did that one foot of sea level rise not take (or as the corp or noaa would say inundate) the land behind the stones???? perhaps that question is asked in the "Climate Change and the Evolution and Fate of Chesapeake Bay, USA". But then I doubt that any of those "FOLKS" would think or care to ask that question.

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