Smith Island denial

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Even the most jaded observer must acknowledge there's something admirable about the desire of so many living on Smith Island to see their community survive and prosper. Residents of this marshy (and shrinking in both population and real estate) archipelago on the lower Eastern Shore have had to overcome much in recent years, particularly as their chief means of livelihood, harvesting the seafood bounty of the Chesapeake Bay, has declined.

But it's one thing to admire the hard work, independence and faith of Smith Island's residents — who number a mere 276, according to the 2010 Census — and it's another to deny the reality of their circumstances. Smith Island's days as a viable community are numbered, and that has nothing to do with the size of the crab harvest or even whether residents want to stay.


That's why the decision of the Somerset County Board of Commissioners this week not to allow any of the $8.6 million in superstorm Sandy federal disaster aid to be used to acquire vulnerable Smith Island properties, while understandable, is unfortunate. State officials had originally proposed using $2 million from that fund to buy out island residents who want to relocate so their properties might be bulldozed and the land set aside as open space.

But that proposal spurred a great deal of resentment in some quarters, as residents feared that encouraging more people to leave would itself cause further damage to their community. At some point, would there be enough left behind to keep Smith Island viable?


"I think in the long run this is going to be very positive for us," one island resident told Sun reporter Timothy Wheeler. He suggested that the choice — sought by a group calling itself "Smith Island United" — would spur the community into "dealing with our erosion problems," just as other communities have done.

Well, perhaps it will. But that's a bit like suggesting all that's needed to sustain the place is a bit more rip-rap or some bulkheads around the edges. For hundreds of years, Smith Island has been eroding, but it's about to get a whole lot worse.

That's because climate change is on the verge of changing humanity's basic relationship with its environment. The seas are rising, and they're going to be rising a whole lot more. To suggest that Smith Island can make itself immune from this inevitability is folly along the lines of the last days of Pompeii, Krakatau or Mount St. Helens.

Estimates vary, but scientists believe global warming will cause sea levels to rise anywhere from 7 to 23 inches above 1990 levels by the end of the century. That's a threat to all coastal communities, but few are more vulnerable than Smith Island, where the difference between living on dry land and in the middle of a salt marsh can be just a few inches.

The latest word on climate change is that it's happening faster than previously believed. Levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide were recently measured at their highest point in 3 million years. Smith Islanders — and the Somerset County commissioners — should expect worse storm surges and more Sandy-like events in the years to come.

Would a $2 million buyout make that much difference? Perhaps not. But what's most troubling is that refusing it amounts to a denial of reality. If Maryland's most vulnerable community can't see the writing on the wall, what hope is there that the impact of climate change can be managed by other communities along the state's 4,000 miles of shorefront?

And this isn't unique to Maryland. How many Atlantic coastal towns along Sandy's path are using disaster aid to rebuild homes that will continue to be in danger from violent weather? It's madness to ignore the reality of global warming.

That makes Smith Island a case study in how ill-prepared this country is for the changes wrought by a warming planet and expanding oceans. Bad enough that we can't reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to at least forestall the crisis, but we can't even encourage people to voluntarily back away from the water? One can only wonder if Pompeians of 79 A.D., upon hearing the rumblings of Mount Vesuvius, refused relocation aid from Rome because, after all, the volcano hadn't erupted in the five centuries of human settlements there. That Smith Islanders want to band together is admirable; that they refuse to make a rational choice is not.