After Hurricane Sandy, residents fought to stay in their homes on Smith Island. Now, the government is spending what could be tens of million of dollars to preserve their history for at least another generation. (Kim Hairston/Batimore Sun video)
RHODES POINT, SMITH ISLAND — John Tyler's family name can be traced through this Chesapeake Bay community back at least 300 years, and as many as a dozen generations. But a few years ago, he feared his generation might be the island's last.
Taking stock after Hurricane Sandy washed over the island, the state proposed using storm relief money to buy out 10 homeowners in 2013 — a step most of the island's 240 residents viewed as a first toward abandonment.
They did more than reject the plan. They organized Smith Island United, a de facto island government to stand up for their interests, and looked toward shoring up their home both economically and physically.
"This was our way of life and our heritage," says Tyler, who left school after eighth grade to launch his own crabbing workboat some 45 years ago. "We weren't going to take that sitting down."
Their pleas are being heard, despite concerns of sinking lands and rising seas. Instead of using $1 million in Sandy relief money to chase residents away, the federal, state and county governments will spend what could end up being tens of millions of dollars to preserve the island's history for at least another generation.
Construction could start as early as this fall on a pair of jetties to prevent erosion from reaching Rhodes Point, the most vulnerable of Smith Island's three villages and the community where Tyler has lived since birth. The $9 million project, funded largely by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will also open up a valuable channel to the Chesapeake. A new sewage treatment plant and economic stimulus projects are planned next.
Tyler acknowledges that, to outsiders, it might seem like foolish investment. He, like many of his neighbors, doesn't believe bay waters are rising, but says nonetheless he has never seen land wash away like it did this past winter.
The island has shed hundreds of residents and thousands of acres over the years.
The more the land erodes, the more Rhodes Point in particular is exposed to the open waters of the Chesapeake. Without intervention, the winds and the waves could eventually make the area uninhabitable.
His culture, Tyler says in the distinctive island drawl that seems to mix a Scottish accent with Bawlmerese dialect, is worth preserving. He learned from his father to "scrape" grassy shallows for crabs and raised his own three children on the island. They have all grown and moved to the mainland, finding jobs that aren't on the water, but now their children are frequent visitors to their grandparents' island, enjoying freedom that wouldn't be safe elsewhere.
"There's too much wasted money in this country to let Smith Island wash away — to let somebody lose their home," he says.
Smith is Maryland's only inhabited island without a bridge to the mainland. Like its Virginia neighbor, Tangier Island, whose mayor recently fielded a sympathetic call from President Donald Trump about sea walls, it faces an uncertain future as its footprint shrinks and it struggles to maintain a critical mass of residents and economic activity.
Smith Island is perhaps most famous for its signature layered cake, named the official state dessert in 2008. But otherwise it exists in something of a world apart from the rest of Maryland and the Eastern Shore, with only one or two ferry runs to and from Crisfield each day.
First charted by Captain John Smith in the 1600s but named for early landowner Henry Smith, the island's population peaked at around 800 in the early 1900s but is now less than a third of that.
Residents, 98 percent of whom are in their 40s or older, are spread around three towns: Ewell, the largest and home to the island's school and most of its businesses; Rhodes Point, two miles down the road to the southwest; and Tylerton.
As the fortunes of watermen around the Chesapeake have diminished with the estuary's worsening health, the challenges magnify on Smith Island. Crabbing and oystering are still the island's main business, though the share of residents who work on the water has waned.
Per-capita income is about $25,000, making it better off than the rest of Somerset County, the state's poorest jurisdiction, but not wealthy.
Meanwhile, the island is shrinking. University of Maryland scientists estimate sea levels will rise in the Chesapeake by about 3 feet this century, eating up as many as 15 to 20 feet of the island's shoreline each year.
"Our problem is we're being washed away," says Roland Bradshaw, 65, another lifelong Rhodes Point resident, who like Tyler blames simple erosion.
In 2013, it seemed some outsiders decided it was time for them to retreat to the mainland. The bulk of an initial round of $8.6 million in federal relief money went to rebuilding Crisfield, which was inundated by flooding when Hurricane Sandy's winds funneled waters onshore in October 2012.
Smith Island, on the other hand, was offered buyouts. Residents feared it was the beginning of the end, said Eddie Somers, an island native who moved to Crisfield but still owns a house on Rhodes Point.
"It was basically saying, 'We're not investing in Smith Island anymore,'" he says.
Determined to maintain a traditional fishing community that's nearly 400 years old, Smith Islanders come together behind a "vision plan" that spells out ideas for fending off rising Chesapeake Bay waters and the erosion of their population and way of life.
The blowback was so strong, the proposal was quickly stopped. But residents' momentum was not.
There has been talk since the 1990s of dredging the narrow channel that separates Rhodes Point from a barrier island known as Hog Neck and leads directly to the open waters of the Chesapeake. But the work was repeatedly blocked when cost estimates exceeded $10 million, above the Army Corps' spending limit for that type of project.
Despite being at least 5 miles from mainland Somerset County as the crow flies, Smith Island has no local government. County vehicles come over on barges or send workers and equipment via ferry. The island's three towns get along, but don't often come together.
That changed when residents feared losing their homes. They founded Smith Island United with three members from each community, plus a handful of part-time islanders. They wrote bylaws and a "vision plan" and mission statement "to ensure that this island, its people, and its culture are around 400 years from now."
Rhodes Point was their first focus. The town is home to a few dozen residences that line the channel, known as Sheep Pen Gut. The homes are no more than a third of a mile from the rougher waters of the Chesapeake. Across the street from many homes are crab shanties where watermen store their catch in wooden basins called floats. After the crustaceans molt, they're shipped off to become softshell crab sandwiches in Baltimore or New York.
The group had seen the success of a "living shoreline" project constructed in recent years in the Martin National Wildlife Refuge, which covers the northern half of Smith Island. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service built mounds of rock and sand along the refuge's beaches to stop erosion and save animal habitat.
"It gave us ammunition to go to people, our elected officials, and say, 'Look how nice it's turning out,'" says Tyler, who is known around the island as Johnny Crants, a play on his middle name, Cranston.
Officials received the message loud and clear. Somerset County put forward $4.5 million last year for similar living shoreline work to preserve the Hog Neck barrier. And they, along with state and federal lawmakers, pushed for the dredging and jetty project.
"The buyouts spurred them to organize, which was probably the best thing that happened to these three communities," says Ralph Doug Taylor, the Somerset County administrator.
The Army Corps is putting the finishing touches on its plans for the jetty and dredging project, and it expects to award a construction contract by fall. Its blueprints call for jetties to block sediment from washing down Sheep Pen Gut. Earth that is dredged from the channel will be used to shore up the jetties and the land around them.
Most of the $9 million for the project is coming from the federal budget, with about a tenth from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Somerset County. U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, who pushed for the project as a member of the Senate's environment and public works committee, called it a source of "needed stability" for Smith Island. U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, who often questions federal spending, also supports the project as help for the island's communities that will also restore wetlands.
Residents hope it's just the beginning of an island renewal.
While the project in part will help stop erosion, it also opens up a path to the Chesapeake. Rhodes Point is along Sheep Pen Gut, but the channel is impassable. To reach crab pots and scraping grounds, the town's watermen head in the opposite direction, circling the island counterclockwise to venture out via Ewell's harbor on the north side of the island.
It's a 10-mile round trip that adds an hour to each workday and requires some $50 worth of fuel each week.
Some of the Chesapeake Bay's most densely populated oyster sanctuaries could be opened to periodic harvesting under a plan state officials floated this week, renewing a conflict between environmentalists and watermen.
Watermen say the solution isn't just for them, though. They hope more bay boaters will come to visit Rhodes Point if it's easier to get there, especially since it's home to the island's only boatyard.
"It's gonna be a good thing for Rhodes Point," says Chris Marshall, an island native who runs the boatyard.
Smith Island United is also working on other island needs. The group is pushing to create an apprenticeship program for young watermen and is training more residents to captain boats, so they can offer tours and boost tourism.
A new sewage treatment plant to serve the three towns is the next big-ticket goal. State and federal grants and loans have been approved for the plant, projected to cost another $9 million.
In the eyes of the same state officials who sought to buy residents out, Smith Island is now a "sustainable community," the name of the state economic development program it joined last year. That makes the island eligible for more grants to preserve culture and grow.
Groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Chesapeake Climate Action Network support preservation of the Smith Island way of life — even if many would regard the investment as a risk.
Kim Coble, a foundation vice president, says the island's history and culture are worth preserving in the face of "the ever-increasing threat of sea-level rise and erosion related to climate change."
But Mike Tidwell, the climate group's executive director, says it would make more sense if the Trump administration were pursuing policies to combat climate change.
"No matter how much money the Army Corps spends on Smith Island, unchecked climate change will bring 3 feet or more of sea-level rise this century," he says. "It will overwhelm any barriers or other flood control measures the Corps can construct."
John Tyler acknowledges that constant erosion, whatever its cause, makes Smith Island a questionable place to make a home.
But mostly, he says, it's "a wonderful place to live" — one where you don't have to lock your doors at night, where you are surrounded by beauty he often fails to appreciate until he sees it in photographs.
With a few vacant homes dotting the island's towns, he dreams of young families coming to fill them.
He says he understands that some people might regard the government's investment in Smith Island as wasteful. He disagrees.
"If they were born and raised here," he says, "they would understand why we fight so hard to keep it."