Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Tangier Island, climbing havens, & coral reefs

Tangier Island, Virginia sits four feet above sea level. The island, which is 12 miles from the coast, used to cover about 2,000 acres. Since the 1950s, about 66 percent of it has been swallowed by the sea. Scientists report that due to sea level rise, within 50 years, the rest of the land will probably be gone; people could be forced out even sooner if a severe hurricane event hits the island. About 450 people live on the 1.3 square mile island, and the population is dwindling. Most people make their living on the water as crabbers and oyster fishermen.

CNN recently did a segment on Virginia’s sinking coastline, focusing on Tangier Island. After it aired, Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge said he received a call from Donald Trump, who watched the story. The mayor was elated that the president took time out of his schedule “to call a crabber out here.” Trump received 87 percent of the vote in Tangier, which sits less than 100 miles from the White House. In the CNN story, Eskridge and several fishermen called on Trump to help them with erosion so they don’t have to move from their homes.

According to the Salisbury Daily Times, Trump gave the mayor a call this week.“He said not to worry about sea-level rise,’ Eskridge said. “He said, ‘Your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.'”

The mayor didn’t seem to be offended by the comment. He said he isn’t concerned with rising seas either, because he doesn’t see it happening. What he does see is erosion of the beaches, and hopes that the president can help get a jetty or sea wall built to protect it. The Army Corps of Engineers is supposed to build a jetty on one side of the island, but stabilizing the rest would require a significant amount of work and money. Trump said Eskridge could come to D.C. one day and they could “discuss it.” According to reports, the two didn’t talk substantial plans, or about the fact that this year, Trump proposed to cut the $73 million Chesapeake Bay Program that helps restore the region’s ecosystem.

Because it’s Trump’s voter base and the contradictions are so glaring, Tangier is getting attention. But there are many areas along the U.S. coast — particularly ones inhabited by tribal nations — that are in the same dire situation and have also asked for help. Most notably is Isle de Jean Charles, inhabited by the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, which has lost most of its land to the Gulf of Mexico. In Alaska, the Newtok village is being swallowed by the Ninglick River, and sea level rise is threatening tribal communities in the Pacific Northwest. Miami neighborhoods have so much flooding from high tides, people will soon be forced to move. The mid-Atlantic coast is sinking fast.

However jarring the comments from the president are, the disconnect between Tangier residents and climate change is not necessarily surprising. Much like coal miners in Appalachia or farmers in the Mississippi Delta that also voted for Trump, Tangier fishermen are isolated and ill-informed. That doesn’t excuse denying facts, but it does play a key role in understanding why there is such apathy. Each morning, they go out into the same waters, hunt the same crabs, and make the same amount of money. They care about their coastal lifestyle, but they’ve been asking for a sea wall for years. No one especially not the government has delivered. Trump told them he would. He said that infrastructure is important and he’ll fix it.

Climate science, politics, Scott Pruitt’s EPA regulations, and Trump’s proposed budget tell us that’s not going to be the case: Tangier Island Isle de Jean Charles and Miami will eventually slip into the sea, which is tragic. What may be more tragic, though, is that 400 people on a sinking island are convinced there’s still plenty of time.

(PS: For a great read on the appeal of Trump in the rural, conservative South and why people have such apathy about climate change, check out Strangers In Their Own Land.)

Stories worth your time 

Oxford American has a gorgeous essay by a woman reflecting on her evacuation during Hurricane Katrina, her time in New York, and eventually, her return home: “The fact is, most disasters look at first like nothing—a flicker at the corner of the mouth, a flick of the wrist, an intake of breath. A rumble: just subway work, a couple of blocks down. A puddle of water appears at the base of the levee: maybe we slept through the rain.”

Climbing Magazine profiles Miguel, the owner of the famous Miguel’s Pizza in Red River Gorge, and looks at how the growth of the pizzeria made climbing culture in Kentucky what it is today.

ThinkProgress takes a deep dive into Georgia’s 6th Congressional District race, where climate change is a hot topic for the Republican and Democratic candidates. Voters head to the polls for the special election on June 20.

The Arkansas Times has dispatches from parts of the state hit hardest by the recent flooding. Many people didn’t have flood insurance because they said it has never been a problem until recently, so communities banded together to fix homes and start talks about levees and infrastructure.

News flying under the radar

I wrote a story about a utility industry group challenging coal ash regulations, and the impacts it could have on long-term monitoring of coal ash sites.

Tennessee passed a yearlong moratorium on new wind turbines, stalling a $100 million project.

Scientists in South Florida are scrambling to rescue and restore coral reefs from the effects of climate change. “We’ve done it in the lab,” said coral expert Andrew Baker. “Now we need to see if we can do it in the real world and scale it up.”

There will be no Southerly next week. I’ll be down in the Louisiana bayou reporting, so I’ll see y’all in two weeks! As always, thanks for reading and sharing.