Broken Ground | Season 2 | Episode 4

Earl Swift: Watching Waters Rise

Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island. He talks about the slow disappearance of this unique Virginia island to climate change.

Episode Transcript

Earl Swift, author of Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Tangier Island, talks about the existential crisis faced by residents of a rapidly disappearing Chesapeake Bay island.




CAROL MOORE: I look for old bottles and old pieces of glass and, um, arrowheads if I’m lucky.


HOST: This is Carol Moore, her family has lived in an island community off the coast of Virginia and Maryland for at least eight generations. It’s on Tangier Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.


CAROL: I don’t know what it’s like to do drugs, but this is my drug. Um, I can have a stressful day and just come up here for 20 minutes and it’s just like a peace comes over me. Yeah. Very nice. I come up every day if I can.


HOST: Tangier Island is home to nearly 460 residents, many who rely on fishing and crabbing for their living and the island is disappearing.


EARL SWIFT: They’re 12 miles from the nearest port, separated from the rest of America by a moat of 18 trillion gallons of often tempestuous water.


HOST: Earl Swift is the author of Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Waterman of Vanishing Tangier Island.


EARL: The book opens with a, uh scene in which Carol goes to Uppards to the beach there. It’s an uninhabited section of the island, the site of a former settlement long abandoned.


CAROL: My grandmother’s house came from up here. It was brought down on a barge back in 1930 after that storm that forced everyone away. Right here, that last – that pole – that’s the last remaining pole of the dock that used to be here. There was a long dock, and that’s where we’d tie our boat. And now that’s gone. And then all through here was, um, uh, fig trees and, um, wild rose bushes and asparagus and wild anise and, um, just wild roses everywhere. It was beautiful, and it’s all gone now.


CLAUDINE EBEID MCELWAIN: What was the name of that settlement?


EARL: It was called Canaan and, uh, Carol discovers the bones of her forebears, uh, exposed by hurricane Sandy, which had passed through earlier that day and the preceding couple of days. It just kind of brings into stark relief just how vulnerable this place is and why it is that Tangier is projected to be among the first places to produce climate change refugees in the country..




HOST: This is Broken Ground, a podcast about environmental stories in the South, and the people at the heart of them. I’m Claudine Ebeid McElwain. In the last few episodes to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we passed the mic to some of the leading voices of the environmental movement in the South. Their stories revealed the specialness and the tragedies of this region. In this episode, we embark on a conversation about sea level rise and a unique island off the coast of Virginia.




HOST: Earl Swift’s book Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island won the Southern Environmental Law Center Reed Environmental Writing Award in 2019. Earl joined me for a conversation about Tangier Island and his book in the studios at Virginia Humanities.


CLAUDINE: Can you – you’ve described it a little bit – but can you tell me again where Tangier is? How big it is?


EARL: It’s an island. It’s one of two inhabited offshore islands in the Bay. And, uh, it’s just south of the Virginia/Maryland line. Uh, so it’s a, it’s a Virginia island. You know, even to call it an island kind of stretches the definition of that term somewhat because it’s a clump of marsh grass out in the middle of the Bay that happens to have a few places where you can build houses, islands within an island, really, in the marsh grass. And, uh, since 1850, it’s been slowly withering away due to the effects of wind driven waves, erosion. And as climate change has become more and more a factor in the lower Chesapeake, of course, that has accelerated the process of erosion pretty considerably.


CLAUDINE: And you describe that, you know, taking the mail boat in which you write about in your book, when you first take your trip in to come to stay on Tangier. And you lived there for was it 13 months?


EARL: 14.


CLAUDINE: 14. So a little bit over a year.


EARL: Yeah.


CLAUDINE: Tell me what it was like to get to know the island and for the people that live there.


EARL: All of them virtually are descended from the first Europeans who settled on the island in 1778. So they’re all cousins or closer. It’s a town of watermen, always has been, at least since the very early 19th century. There are people who, uh, who are uniquely situated way out there in the middle of, you know, of the fishery to harvest, uh, the Bay’s blue crabs and oysters.


CLAUDINE: You’re describing this island that’s quite remote and something, I think, interesting about its remoteness is that it’s created this very unique accent that no one else in the country has. Can you tell me a little bit about what you learned about how the people on Tangier speak.


EARL: Well, I, what I learned was that it took awhile to understand them. Uh, it, uh, it’s something that they will tone down when they’re talking to outsiders. It’s a strange mix of the, kind of the Tidewater ‘hoi toid” accent that you hear up and down the bay, with a propensity to elongate vowels and stretch single syllables and to you know stretch them crazily and then knot them into two or three syllables and old words and phrases that nobody’s used in a hundred years.


CLAUDINE: Are there some words or phrases you remember?


EARL Oh yeah, I mean there are – calking.


CLAUDINE: What is it?


EARL: It’s blowing a gale. The wind’s really fierce, especially if you’re out in a boat, so it’s calking.


CLAUDINE: It’s calking.


EARL: See the other complicator that makes it tough to understand Tangiermen is that they’ll often say exactly the opposite of what they mean.


CLAUDINE: Can you give me an example?


EARL: Well, if it’s calking out a Tangierman might say, “It ain’t blowing out here none.” You know.


CLAUDINE: But that means it’s like really bad.


EARL: It’s like hold on for your life. Yeah.


CLAUDINE: It sounds like there is something that drew you to this island. You’ve gone back there many times and then you decided to live there for 14 months. What is it that drew you to this place?


EARL: Well, I initially went there on assignments from the newspaper in Norfolk that had nothing to do with what eventually propelled me back. Uh, you know, if you grew up in eastern – especially southeastern Virginia – you hear about Tangier, about this odd little community out in the middle of nowhere, you know, the most isolated town in Virginia, certainly and among the most isolated in the lower 48. I was naturally curious as a newspaper reporter about the place and wanted to check it out and found once I was on the ground, that a great many of the people I talked with wanted to discuss with me not the subjects I was there to cover, but an existential crisis that was unfolding before their eyes. And that was that the Bay that had been the island’s sustenance since its settlement was now poised to erase it. I remember going down to, uh, the spit of sand at the south end of the island with a gentlemen who later became the mayor, James “Ooker” Eskridge. He took me down onto the spit and was showing me places he had played as a teenager and he was pointing 200 yards off shore into the water. And, you know, at the time Ooker and I were both only 41. So, you know, this had happened with alarming speed.


CLAUDINE: What year was that?


EARL: That was in 1999. And so I realized at that point, there’s a story. And it’s, it’s difficult to recall that 20 years ago, in 1999, people were not talking about climate change or sea level rise. That had not wormed its way front and center into the public consciousness. So what Ooker described as erosion, I took at face value. I figured this was the result of wind-driven waves and did not connect it to a bigger kind of almost tectonic sort of force that was, was playing out and beginning to really assert itself around the world. I went to church, wound up staying on Tangier on and off for six weeks doing a series of stories for the Virginian Pilot and made a habit of going to church while I was there and that really kind of got me into the rhythm of the place to a degree that no other activity did. I’m not a churchy guy. But I found myself sitting there thinking, so this is why people go to church. I mean, the, the sense of community and the relevance that was built into its structure to their day to day life and experience was something that I had not experienced before. And I found it really, uh, endearing and the place just got under my skin and, and for a number of reasons, it took 15 years before I finally decided that I had to go back and, and see how things were going. And in the meantime, I had owned a couple of houses on the water in Norfolk, and I had watched with each succeeding northeastern astronomical high tide, the water rising higher and higher up my yard and up the walls of my basement and it found myself thinking, you know, if it’s, if it’s getting this bad in the mainland, things have got to be pretty dire on little Tangier. And of course, over that 15-year period, people started talking about sea level rise, which put Tangier’s problem into a completely different context.


CLAUDINE: So some science about what is happening in Tangier. The Bay is steadily warming, right? The temperature has increased by a little bit more than 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1960.


EARL: Um-hmm.


CLAUDINE: And you’ve got an island that’s dependent on the health of the Bay for the livelihood of the people living there.


EARL: True.


CLAUDINE: It’s also an island where scientists say water isn’t only rising, but also the land is subsiding, it’s sinking.


EARL: The, the entire lower Chesapeake. That’s, that’s the case.


CLAUDINE: And, you know, having lived in Tangier for 14 months, what does that look like? Can you see that? And, or maybe even having been there in 1999 and then returning all those years later, could you visually see that difference?


EARL: Oh, I stepped ashore onto, uh, an island that had undergone profound change.It looked completely different. Not only could you see that the water had chipped around its edges, but you could see that unlike the way things were in 1999, water was now percolating right up through the ground at high tide and making a soup of the yards on one of the three ridges in which people have crowded their houses. Trees had all died due to saltwater incursion.There were very few left standing at that point. You could see that the island was dissolving before your eyes at even a regular high tide now brought water up often over the roads and that was something that had not occurred 15 years before. So yeah, it was, it was shocking.


CLAUDINE: So you come back to this island and go to this spit of land that’s no longer there from the time you were there 15 years prior.


EARL: Yeah.


CLAUDINE: And it was James Eskridge, the mayor who’s – he goes by Ooker, is that right?


EARL: He does.


CLAUDINE: Um, who took you there the first time. How’d the mayor welcome you back into the town and stay for more than a year to work on a book?


EARL: Well, he didn’t invite me, you know, I just showed up and rented a place three doors down from Ooker, actually on the west ridge. So we saw a lot of each other. And, you know, I think that like an awful lot of, of the Islanders, once Ooker understood that I wasn’t going anywhere, that I was going to be a, you know, a presence for months and months, he kind of embraced the idea with both hands. He, he became a great resource to me. Went out crabbing with them a lot of times. Went out oystering with him too in the dead of winter, which if you’re not out on a journalistic assignment, I’m not sure I’d recommend. But he turned out to be super smart, very funny, insightful source and the main character in the book arguably.


CLAUDINE: And Tangier Island gained some fame and Ooker did as well when CNN came out and did a story about Tangier Island.


EARL: Yeah. June of 2017.


CLAUDINE: And he was outspoken about his love for Donald Trump, his disbelief in a sea level rise problem, or in climate change. And I’m curious, does he still have the same beliefs? Do you know all these years later?


EARL: Well, I think Ooker, like all Tangiermen, recognize that something’s going on, that the island’s relationship to the water around it is shifting. But, you know, part of the issue is that Tangiermen have a different way of collecting data. You know, they’d go out in the water and they look at it and they, it’s a very anecdotal style of data collection and their trust of science has been compromised over the years by encountering experts who don’t spend a lot of time on the water, but who nonetheless hold great sway on how the resources in that water are harvested and used. And so I think that the more empirical style of data collection that science relies on runs counter to what most Islanders understand and trust. And then you’ve got layered on top of that their general distrust of science. You know, they don’t necessarily disagree that something’s afoot, but they don’t see that as the source of their problem. You know, what they see – they’ll tell you that, you know, I can, I can stand on the shore and see the water, the waves coming in and breaking off pieces of marsh, tump after tump. And, uh, clearly that’s not global warming that’s doing that. Of course, what they’re failing to, uh, to grasp and what science has done a poor job of explaining is that yes, erosion is taking place, but it is not separable from the wider, you know, the bigger issue of sea level rise.


CLAUDINE: Yeah, I think after CNN aired a segment about Tangier, later it had a sort of a town hall kind of climate change meeting, and they invited mayor Eskridge, they invited Ooker to come be on the stage with former Vice President Al Gore, to talk about what was happening on Tangier and climate change. And you wrote this Politico article that describes that scene and you described it – I thought it was so well – of the two of them just talking past each other.


EARL: Yeah, yeah. Well, it was, it was a very frustrating town, town hall to watch. Uh, Ooker stood up, during the town hall and said, look, you know, I’ve worked the water for 50 years


OOKER: .. plus years and I have a crab house business out on the water. And uh ….


EARL: And, you know, you tell me that the water’s rising. Well, I go out to my crab shanty every day and the water seems to be at the same place, you know, on its legs as it was when I was a boy, when I, when I built the place in the seventies.


OOKER: Uh, I’m not a scientist, but I’m a keen observer. And, um, if sea level rise is occurring, why am I not seeing signs of it?


EARL: How can there be sea level rise if I’m not seeing it? That was, that was the question that he posted. And I think that had Al Gore said, ‘Well, going out day by day and trying to gauge incremental change by eyeballing it is an unreliable way to gather data.’ Uh, had he come up with an example that demonstrates that besides the one that was on the table, I think that he could have, he could have won – maybe not a convert in Ooker, but he could have softened Ooker’s hard-line stance on the subject considerably.


AL GORE: Well, arguments about science aren’t necessarily going to be of any comfort to you. And I’m sorry for what you’re going through and your, your neighbors on Tangier Island. Um, I read about you in the paper. Uh, there was an article in the Washington Post, I believe, after President Trump called you up and, uh, won’t necessarily do you any good for me to tell you that the scientists do say that sea level is rising in the Chesapeake Bay and that you’ve lost about two thirds of your, uh, island, uh, already, uh, in, in over a longer period of time. Uh, and that the forecast for the future is, uh, another two feet of – what would another, if, if there was another two feet of sea level rise, what would that mean for Tangier Island?


OOKER: Tangier Island is – our elevation is only about four foot above sea level.


AL GORE: Yeah.


OOKER: And if, if I see sea level rise occurring, I’ll shout it from the house top.


AL GORE: Okay.


OOKER: I mean, we don’t have, you know, the land to give up. But I’m just not seeing it.


EARL: And most Tangiemen reacted to it by feeling that Ooker had won his quote debate end quote with the former vice president. And, and I had to agree because, you know, Mr. Gore had an opportunity there to explain what was going on in terms that Tangiermen would, would understand, that they’d be able to relate to. Uh, he needed to be far more explicit in the points that he was, he was trying to make. He had this, he needed to spell it out and he did not.


CLAUDINE: Did you have any of those kinds of conversations with Ooker or others on the island while you were living there?


EARL: Oh yeah. Lots of them.


CLAUDINE: Tell me how they went.


EARL: Well, you know, I wasn’t there to proselytize my beliefs.




EARL: You know? When the conversation came up, what I was – my M.O. was to understand their beliefs as well as I possibly could. And I’d ask challenging questions, but we wouldn’t get into a debate over, you know, both of us insisting the other was wrong. Uh, the brand of challenge that I threw their way most often was – referred to the fact or to my understanding that the erosion that they saw was part of something bigger. And also that, you know, islands had been disappearing in the Chesapeake for a couple of hundred years and have been well-documented, this disappearing. Some of these islands had towns on them with very vibrant communities. And what you’ll hear Tangiermen say is, “Well, you know, there was no climate change back in 1880 when Holland Island started to experience trouble.” And well, in fact, yeah, there probably was, it’s just that we weren’t labeling it as such.




EARL: This is something that has been documented pretty doggone well, as, as having its point of inflection about 1850 and which has accelerated over the years since. It’s been around for awhile and it’s been getting worse all the while.


CLAUDINE: You know, one of the things that struck me about the attention that Tangier Island got, uh, when CNN did their series of stories was that there was such vitriol that poured out from the general public in comments, you know …


EARL: Oh yeah.


CLAUDINE: … on the articles, towards the people living on this island. And, um, the thing that struck me was in reading your descriptions of how the people live there and even seeing the images of how people live there, um, their day-to-day lives probably leave such a minimal carbon footprint compared to the average American. Um, and those things just kind of struck me as not – there was something incongruent about that kind of anger towards these people. And I wondered if you could talk about what it was like living on the island and if you changed the way you were living when you were living there compared to when you were not.


EARL: Oh my goodness. Yes. You bet I did. Uh, well, you have to understand that the roads are about as wide as sidewalks, so nobody owns cars, very few people. Most everybody drives a golf cart, or gets around on a scooter. I went by bicycle everywhere while I was there. Yeah. I mean, you have, you have very few distractions when you’re on Tangier. The internet service is awful. TV reception – it’s all by satellite, of course – is, uh, is iffy. And this is a place that didn’t get telephones until 1966 and didn’t get reliable electricity until 1977, so people have grown up trained in how to create their own amusements. And any day when I went out crabbing with Ooker or some of the other Islanders, uh, I was pretty much done for the day when we came back. You know, and, and I imagine that for a Tangiermen, it’s, especially as you get older and you’ve been doing it for 30, 40 years, it’s the same way. You, you know, you put everything, all of your daylight energies into, into the work. And so you don’t do much beside from that. So you’re right. You know, it’s, it’s a very simple way of living. It’s very family oriented, which I guess you’d expect on an island where everybody’s related to everybody else.


CLAUDINE: You wrote about, uh, a time in the mid to late eighties, um, in this book when Tangier Island got some attention at the federal level. Congress was considering, I think, a seawall fix.


EARL: Yeah.


CLAUDINE: I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit about what happened during that time period, and if there’s any lessons that were learned?


EARL: Well, beginning in the, uh, in the 1970s, it became clear that if something wasn’t done to mitigate the erosion that was taking place on Tangier’s west side, there would soon be no housing on the west ridge, it would wash it all away. And it also became clear that, uh, the island would, would also lose a new state financed airstrip on its west side and a $3.5 million sewage treatment plant that had been built with state and federal help. And so after a lot of hemming and hawing, and I mean a lot of hemming and hawing – probably 15 years of discussion altogether – a financing package was devised to build a riprap seawall that stretched about a mile along the west side of the island. And they laid that down in 1989 and it did in fact, stop the erosion, which at that point was taking away – Tangier was losing 30 feet plus of its west side every year. You  know, there would be no island today if they hadn’t done it. So the, uh, you know, you talk to Tangiermen now and, of course, what they’d love to see happen is, is for the Army Corps of Engineers to come and continue that wall all the way around the island. Because what’s occurred is that with that western shore protected, other parts of the island that really never experienced hellacious erosion in the past are, are now getting torn away. And of course, part of that is because the Bay has come up since and the power of storms has intensified. And so all of the forces that were in play when the west side was experiencing its runaway erosion back in the seventies and eighties has now just shifted location and it’s attacking Tangier from all sides. Tangiemen would just love to see that, that seawall built. Well, you know, your problem on Tangier doesn’t stop with a seawall because the island is also sinking, because you can see it dissolving before your eyes, because you can see marsh reverting to open water and you see the uplands on these three ridges slowly turning to wetland, which will eventually also turn to, to open water. You also have to figure out a way once you build the sea wall around the island, to elevate the whole, the whole place.




EARL: You have to blow in soil and build it up 25, 30, 40 feet – a lot. And you have to presumably jack up the town to now sit on this new, higher elevation. So the cost involved is – has no resemblance to what it cost to build that 1989, very simple seawall. We’re talking $800 million dollars, $900 million for an island with 460 people. So we’re talking roughly $2 million a head, which will be a tough sell in Congress. A tough sell to the American people, especially when you can spend a dime on the dollar and buy everybody on the island a $200,000 house.


CLAUDINE: What are the people on the island thinking about for, you know – there are some predictions that, you know, it could be 50 years before the island is gone, but there are some that are more aggressive than that even. 25 years.


EARL: Oh that’s pie in the sky. 50 is fantasy. No, 15 to 20, uh, maybe 25, 25 at the most.


CLAUDINE: Do they believe that to be true? And I, you know, there are more than 400 people, so everyone can have different beliefs.


EARL: Well, I don’t want to get all Kubler-Ross on you, but you know, I think they’re still in that to some extent in the denial stage of dealing with this. But, you know, something else that’s at work too, is that this is an island that has faced its own extinction at various points in its past. It’s had hurricanes over the past 240 years trundle up the Bay and swipe at it, only to steer away at the last minute or to lose their steam. And, uh, it’s had diseases lay the population low, one epidemic after another, but not quite finish it off. Its fisheries have collapsed any number of times, and it seemed to spell the economic end of the place only they’ve, you know, they’ve rebounded. And in each of these cases, the difference Tangiermen will tell you, is that they have prayed. The collective power of their prayer, um, I think most Islanders believe has anointed them. They are an anointed people, anointed by God, through the power of their prayer and protected. And so they, they see their survival from what in some cases were really nasty blows from nature and whatnot, um, as evidence of divine intervention. And I think that there is a belief that if their collective prayer is, is fierce enough, they will be spared once again. Now the divine intervention in this case may take the form of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but it will, it will be divine intervention nonetheless. So I, you know, are they worried? Sure. This is a source of great angst on the island, but I don’t think that, uh, that they’re in despair by any means.


HOST: Earl Swift is a Virginia-based journalist and the author of Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, which won the Southern Environmental Law Center Reed Environmental Writing Award in 2019. Tangier Island may be an extreme example of sea level rise meeting intense storms, but it is also a harbinger of what cities must contend with all along the southeastern seaboard, as storms intensify and rising waters lead to flooded streets on sunny days.




MARGARET MULHOLLAND: Instead of snow days, we have flood days in Norfolk.


HOST: There’s no question the water is rising all along our coasts. As we navigate sea level rise in the South, we’re forced to ask: how much time do we have?


LILLIAN SPEIGHTS: It is scary when you see it coming in, there’s nothing you can do.


KAREN SPEIGHTS: I have a life jacket, seriously.


HOST: Where do we start?


MARK WILBERT: We’re going to have to make some hard decisions.


DOUG BEAVER: The challenge is funding it all.


HOST: And what will protect us?


ALBERT GEORGE: What we do or don’t do over the next 12 years is going to set us up either for success or failure.


HOST: Join us as we dig up stories about the land we love and the folks fighting to protect it –  this time from sea level rise. Our latest season of Broken Ground by the Southern Environmental Law Center is available wherever you get your podcasts.


CREDITS: Broken Ground is a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center. It’s produced by Emily Richardson-Lorente, Jennie Daley, Paige Polk and Kelley Libby, and hosted by Claudine Ebeid McElwain. The theme music is by Eric Knutson.