SMITH ISLAND, Md. — Three trucks set sail on a two-hour voyage through the Chesapeake Bay Friday morning.
Smith Island, the tiny and isolated Maryland community with a population of about 200, had been hit by a tornadic waterspout, and recovery efforts began within minutes. Like everything else that makes its way to the island, the recovery would arrive by boat.
Shortly after the cyclone injured one woman, severely damaged a few buildings and knocked out power to many residents around 7:30 p.m. Thursday, a boat was on its way. Denny Crockett of A&N Electric Cooperative sped over from Tangier Island, 10 miles to the south in Virginia, to begin efforts to restore power. He and others worked until about 1:30 a.m. Friday, then “babysat” the generators overnight while trying to sneak in a couple hours of sleep.
Later Friday morning, a crew on the mainland in Crisfield, Maryland, squeezed the three power trucks onto a barge, along with four electric poles and plenty of wiring. The barge embarked by 11 a.m. and slowly made its way to the island, arriving after 1 p.m. and not fully reaching the affected area until 4 p.m.
Rebuilding on an island inaccessible by vehicle or plane provides a unique challenge: Every step of the recovery process requires a boat.
“We’re used to it,” said volunteer fire chief Eddie Evans Jr. “Most of us have lived here all our lives.”
A charming community with ancient roots
Tourists know Somerset County’s Smith Island as a charming community with ancient roots. It’s a vestige of colonial America, and its residents still speak in a rhythmic dialect that mixes Elizabeth English with a twang.
Carole Ann Landon, who was born on the island, can trace her ancestry on the island back to the early 1600s.
Her husband, Everett Landon, is the island’s pastor, and he emphasized the importance of heritage to Smith Island, which prides itself on living a slow, still life, rather than a “rat race.”
“It’s living history, is what it is,” he said.
But Thursday brought something new as a cyclone tore through the island for the first time in recent memory.
Betty Tyler and her family were on their pontoon boat when they spotted the waterspout — a rotating column of water — near the island. She, her husband and others had spent 15 years building a manicured three-story house, completed in 2019. The building had originally been planned as their home, but they’d opted a couple of years ago to turn it into a rental property that sleeps 14.
So Tyler and her family retreated to their home Thursday, out of the tornado’s path. After it passed, she called her son to check in on his safety.
“He said, ‘Ma, your whole third floor is gone,’” Tyler recalled him saying of the building that they’d nearly made their house.
The top floor of the rental, dubbed “Island Time,” extended into neighboring yards, with insulation as far as a mile away. A misshapen bed frame, a warped bicycle, and a mattress with a metal rod thrust through it sat 100 feet from the structure.
Though she’d spent years constructing the house, Tyler kept in good spirits Friday, despite the damage. “It’s better to laugh than to cry,” she repeated.
Plus, she called the damage to her home “immaterial” compared with what happened to her neighbor, who spent Thursday night in a mainland hospital.
“My third floor has no meaning at all to what the lady next door (experienced),” she said.
‘No place like it’
This week marked one of the most important on the Smith Island calendar. A history of Christian faith is paramount to many residents, and it was time for the 136th camp meetings. It’s a period when people from across the island — and a few from outside — gather for a sort of religious revival.
Lindsey Bradshaw, one of the many residents born on the island, was at the tabernacle as part of the camp meetings when his pager went off Thursday evening. A volunteer firefighter, he checked it to discover he was being summoned to the address of his 88-year old mother, Doris.
“They said, ‘Building collapse,’” he said. “So I knew it wasn’t going to be very good.”
When he arrived on the scene, though, a chorus of others assured him — “She’s OK!” — and they all worked to remove debris from her. Doris Bradshaw’s trailer had been essentially flattened, with her belongings and furniture and appliances dumped on the ground in the pattern of a whirlwind. But her bed, and she in it, were relatively untouched.
As she was assisted, one resident wiped insulation out of her hair, and Bradshaw replied: “I just had my hair fixed — don’t mess my hair up.”
One of the island’s two ambulances drove her to the dock, where Terry Laird — a boat captain and another lifelong Smith Island resident of 72 years — ferried her in his 1977 watercraft to the mainland, where she was taken to the hospital.
Bradshaw was still receiving treatment Friday as her son worked to clean up the wreckage of her trailer. Like many other islanders, Lindsey Bradshaw thanked God for his mother’s miraculous survival, given the destruction of her home.
When asked what Smith Island means to him, Bradshaw paused and teared up. He’s lived on the island for each of his 60 years, and he said he wouldn’t trade that for anything.
“There’s no place like it,” he said.
Rebuilding to be done
The majority of Smith Island is in good shape. Though no tourists were on the island Friday, due to ferry cancellations, they are likely to be permitted back soon. Smith Island cakes, the state dessert of Maryland, were on sale. The camp meeting services continued, as did life on the island — their patented, slow version of it.
The Morning Sun
Still, there is rebuilding to be done. Across the island, 17 homes suffered damage, and some will need extensive work.
Tyler isn’t sure if she’ll restore the third floor of the vacation rental she spent more than a decade building. Each step of the process adds a unique challenge not faced on elsewhere on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
“Just ordering 500 pieces of lumber, and then you pick it up, and you have to put it on the boat,” Tyler said. “And you have to pick it (up) off the boat and put it in your truck, and then you gotta get it out of the truck and put it in the yard, and then you gotta take it in the house.”
On Friday afternoon, locals — each with a matching Old English twang and friendly demeanor — swapped stories of where they were at the time of the tornado’s touchdown or what they saw. One resident heard what he described as bricks on his roof, while another wrapped himself in a blanket to protect himself from shattering glass of the boat he was in. Some described the noise “like a freight train coming” or the tornado’s hue at one point as “black as your britches.”
Even as they processed the events, recovery efforts had begun. A restaurant owner in Crisfield placed Gatorades, water and snacks in a boat headed to Smith Island, while some on the island were fielding phone calls from people willing to donate thousands of dollars to the cause.
As the three trucks worked to restore power after their voyage on the Chesapeake, Tyler began to take measures to protect her now-vulnerable vacation rental from further wind and rain. A crew of volunteers placed dozens of two-by-fours on top the exposed building, laying the foundation for a tarp to protect it from the elements.
The wooden planks had arrived that day, like everything else, by boat.