SMITH ISLAND — For the people of Smith Island, weather guides a way of life as much as the tranquil atmosphere for which it has become known.
Hurricanes with names like Hazel, Agnes, Isabel and Irene become part of the zeitgeist, never fading from memory as recollections of their destructive and unrelenting power are passed from one generation to the next. It is told in the context of high tides in the great watermen tradition, an industry that has become an unspoiled culture on the island like its own Elizabethan dialect.
Yet a decade after Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, the self-reliance and faith that have become hallmarks of the 9-mile archipelago in the wake of its damage is more evident than ever. Sandy’s destruction sparked the creation of Smith Island United, a community organization in direct contrast to the federal government, which sought to permanently remove residents from the island.
What was at stake was the preservation of a community steeped in the traditions of the Chesapeake Bay.
Lifelong residents still laud their decision to rebuild and stay on the island that has become nothing short of hallowed ground. Its residents’ tenacious legacy has even earned it the unremitting and unapologetic nickname, “The Rock.”
Old wisdom dictates the sea can both give and take away. That would not be any truer as when a superstorm named Sandy rolled in on its tides.
“Just like all other hurricanes, you prepare for it because we’d been through it before,” said John Tyler, a lifelong resident of Smith Island. “The forecast didn’t do it justice. Sandy was much worse than anyone thought it was going to be — and before it hit, it wasn’t even called a hurricane.
“The tide was rising very fast with the high winds, and it looked like drawing bath water when I looked on the side of my mom’s house, which is lower than mine.”
The 66-year-old noted the tide has been in his mother’s home a number of times even in lesser storms.
From Hurricane Sandy, Smith Island took away lessons that defined the next decade of construction. Whether it was breakers to absorb waves, methods of reducing beach erosion or upgrading basic utilities like building a new sewage plant — it was all to protect its residents long term.
A similar approach could prove to be vital to other Eastern Shore communities on the Chesapeake Bay that are also vulnerable to severe storms.
Surviving the storm
Weather reports take on a new meaning when your home sits almost exactly at sea level. So does the term “tidal flooding” when much of the island is already saturated marshland.
The fluctuating relationship islanders have with the weather and the sea shapes how residents prepare for storms. Tyler is no exception.
“I had my elderly mother here and you’re not scared, you make your [preparations] as you do if you’re in low-lying areas. I’ve been evacuated for some storms, and I’ve sent my family to the mainland while staying for other,” Tyler said.
The superstorm’s flooding was only the beginning as the battering winds were soon to follow.
“Once the tide gets high enough, it will go over Smith Island and covers it. I could actually watch my walls move in and out and the wind was coming in from the west and the rain was coming in sideways and coming in under the seals of the windows,” Tyler said.
“It felt like it stalled and stayed for hours,” he said.
As the superstorm moved slowly north, its tumultuous weather lingered due to its massive size. The lower Eastern Shore of Maryland experienced similar flooding. A total of 24 states, mostly those on the East Coast, were impacted as far north as New Jersey and New York.
Towels became makeshift barriers placed in the crevices of the Tyler home. The hurricane would cause $65 billion in damage across the United States and take 233 lives. Smith Island residents would be without electricity for the next two to three days, greatly slowing initial recovery.
A place ‘worth saving’
Eddie Somers was born and raised on Smith Island; he still has residences on both the island and nearby Crisfield on the mainland. Through his efforts and those of his fellow neighbors, Smith Island United was formed in 2012.
“Getting news of Sandy before it hit was like any other hurricane when you live near the water. It means watermen taking their gear and pulling their boats up,” Somers said. “When you grow up in a place like Smith Island, you hear stories of past storms and you know where the water came and how high it was. I heard all those stories growing up, but we’re due for a big storm with 130 mph winds.”
Somers, who is president of the organization, knows all too well that community starts with taking care of your neighbor. It is the basis for the mission and the deeper meaning behind being “united” on the island.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency offered financial help for those whose homes were deemed damaged beyond any chance of recovery by Sandy. But on Smith Island, the buyouts offered to residents came with the condition that their time on the island was over.
Relocation, likely to the mainland, was sold as a chance to be in a safer location in the face of tropical storms and hurricanes, which are coming in increasing frequency due to climate variations. While such an offer could be seen as pragmatic, many islanders regarded it as an affront to a way of life. Family legacies for many Smith Islanders trace their lineage back to the early settlers in the region in the 17th century.
The watermen who stayed on the island and fished and crabbed its surrounding waters saw their work as their children’s birthright. It was a cultural inheritance one crab pot at a time.
While only a few homes were considered total losses from Hurricane Sandy, the writing was already on the wall.
“FEMA was on the ground trying to get people back on their feet, but we were told they weren’t going to help us and just buy us out. If you took it, you had to get off the island,” Tyler said. “To me, that was a slap in the face and them telling me I’m not worth it.
“I’m a Smith Islander that was born and raised here. If I wanted to live elsewhere, I had the means to do that. But I live here by choice. They were telling me this place wasn’t worth saving.”
Faith and community
The island, with nearly 200 residents, has no formal system of government. Its unofficial mayor, Pastor Everett Landon, is its religious leader and far removed from the pomp and circumstance of political office. He too worked as a waterman and makes the trek from Crisfield to Smith Island, waving to the other crabbing or charter boat captains that pass by.
“We would not have existed as long as we have as a people without our faith. That faith helps us work through our problems. So if someone’s in trouble, we’re there to help,” Landon said.
While some residents’ homes had mild roof damage to minimal flooding, others had to calculate the personal and financial cost of rebuilding. Getting back to normal meant leaning on those same neighbors too proud to abandon the island.
“Most of the damage was piers, work sheds and a little water in homes. It was an expensive storm, but not anything that was life-altering, and no one lost their homes. It was all stuff that could be replaced,” Tyler said.
For Somers, the longevity of resilient small communities like those on Smith Island is threatened by buyouts.
“A few people got offered buyouts and you could never do anything with that land. We’re not idiots, and it’s the death of a community when you start doing that. We did a survey and people were 99.9% against buyouts. When we figured out that everyone wanted to stay, that’s when we got involved and the organization was started,” Somers said.
The journey from a band of selfless neighbors to a well-organized juggernaut began with reaching out to local and state politicians to address infrastructure.
A ‘united’ front
The Morning Sun
Prolific does not begin to describe the number of projects the island has either completed or is slated to complete.
Somerset County commissioners, various Maryland state agencies, the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore, Beach to Bay Heritage Area, Chesapeake Bay Trust, Coastal Association of Realtors, and the many federal agencies, especially those at Martin National Wildlife Refuge and Army Corps of Engineers, are among their partners.
The improvements — already totaling more than $23 million — make the island more resilient in inclement weather.
Among them are Rhodes Point shoreline stabilization and county dock repairs in Rhodes Point and Ewell; improvements to Rhodes Point Jetty and a Martin Wildlife shoreline; a new sewer plant and thoroughfare dredging; and a Tylerton boat ramp improvement. An island drainage study was completed. And a Smith Island Vision Plan, along with funding and various grants, keeps an eye toward the future.
Through money in the Smith Island Vision Plan, restoration of 111 feet of Rukes dock and the Ewell NW Basin slips will be completed. The island also received a USDA Rural Housing Preservation Grant for $50,000.
A drainage study with suggested improvement implementations joins Smith Island Park improvements. It now includes an overview deck and two captains’ license courses.
Much like the seas that surround it, the island is in a state of ebb and flow. It wrestles with the perils of modernity as fewer people choose to continue the rich watermen legacy. Yet it embraces the future of charter boats offering tours where they speak of the old traditions.