Virginia’s Tangier Island is drowning. It’s accessible only by boat, besieged by both sinking land and rising sea, and has shrunk to one-third the size it was in 1850. On Wednesday, President Trump called its mayor, James Eskridge, to say not to worry about sea level rise.
Shockingly, he agreed.
Mayor Eskridge relayed their conversation to Washington Post:
Trump thanked the mayor and the entire island of Tangier, where he received 87 percent of the votes, for their support. Then the conversation turned to the island’s plight.
“He said we shouldn’t worry about rising sea levels,” Eskridge said. “He said that ‘your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.’”
Eskridge wasn’t offended. In fact, he agreed that rising sea levels aren’t a problem for Tangier.
“Like the president, I’m not concerned about sea level rise,” he said. “I’m on the water daily, and I just don’t see it.”
Tangier, a tiny island of mostly fishermen in the center of Cheseapeake Bay, voted 87 percent for Trump, and overwhelmingly want to remain on the island, even as constant flooding disrupts transportation and makes it hard to get to work and school. But relocating introduces a new set of complex problems. Tangier has roughly 500 residents. Do you move them all at once? Do you move individual families or entire neighborhoods? Where do you move them to? Most of Tangier’ residents are fishermen. What will they do when they relocate?
“Tangier is gonna find itself showing the rest of us how it can be done,” Erika Spanger-Siegfried, a senior analyst in the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists told Gizmodo.
As sea level rise threatens more coastal communities, Spanger-Siegfried notes, they will be placed in a similar dilemma of balancing the needs of the community with the immensely costly logistical feats of either moving the community or radically transforming the surrounding infrastructure to stave off sea level.
“Nobody should be deciding for a community what happens,” Spanger-Siegfried says. “You want the community to be calling those shots. [But] at the same time, [relocation] takes considerable resources and state and federal decision making comes into play.”
That’s why Trump’s call to Eskridge is somewhat unnerving.
Whether residents decide to stay or go, they’ll need significant help. Eskridge hopes that Trump will encourage the Army Corps of Engineers to accelerate their plans to build a protective jetty or even a sea wall around the island, citing the president’s reputation as a decision maker and de-regulator. The jetty will cost nearly $3 million and isn’t expected to be completed until 2019.
“That’s obviously a significant engineering feat and something that would be extremely costly,” Spanger-Siegfried explains.
“The corps has criteria it uses to make decisions...and it’s unclear whether [a sea wall] is an investment the federal government is willing to make. Or frankly, that it should make it a given that Tangier is at the frontline of what is a long and growing list of communities that are gonna need substantial investment if they’re to stay in place.”
While the sea level rise in Tangier is extreme, coastal communities across the US are making decisions about how to deal with the rising tides.
In Florida, city planners and environmental scientists have considered converting miles of public land into retention basins to hold back floods. In Louisiana, the total costs of building new levees, gates, dams and manmade barrier islands is projected at over $50 billion. Rather than responding to floods as they occur, more communities are being proactive. That means having difficult conversations on relocation and resources years in advance—and yes, fighting climate change. As Spanger-Siegfried says, rising sea levels are not partisan—they impact people regardless of politics.
“It only does what the laws of physics tell it to do,” Spanger-Siegfried says. “And that’s rise and rise faster.”