Smith Islanders debate buyout offered by state

Superstorm Sandy barely laid a glove on Smith Island last fall, to hear residents tell it. Though storm-driven flooding damaged hundreds of homes in Crisfield and the rest of Somerset County, only a couple islanders got any water in their homes from the surging Chesapeake Bay.

Yet with the island slowly shrinking and sinking into the bay, the state is considering using $2 million of the federal storm recovery aid it's received so far to buy out islanders who want to sell their homes and move to the mainland — "out of harm's way," as one official put it.

The hardy, proud islanders, some of whose roots here go back more than 400 years, aren't exactly rushing to take the offer. Instead, some have banded together to denounce the buyout, saying that despite the challenges and risks of living 13 miles out in the bay, they're not about to give up on the low-lying archipelago of sand and marsh. To them, the state's offer to move them from the only home they've ever known is like a slap in the face.

"It could help my pocketbook, but it's not going to help my peace of mind," said John Tyler, a waterman who's lived here all his 57 years. "I love Smith Island. You can't put a dollar value on what it means to me."

Tyler and others say they're concerned about losing so many people that it no longer becomes tenable to live there. Some organized a campaign involving a website, social media and letter-writing.

"The buyout is what's going to kill us,'' said John Del Duco, 53, a transplanted New Yorker who has lived full time on the island for more than two years. He and his wife manage Ruke's, an eatery near the center of Ewell, one of the island's three villages.

State and county officials say they didn't mean to send a message that that they want to depopulate the island, only to offer a hand to some who may want to move closer to doctors, drugstores and other services the island has lacked for years.

"No one at the state level is saying we're abandoning Smith Islanders or Smith Island," said John R. Griffin, state natural resources secretary. He blamed the islanders' unhappiness on a miscommunication.

The state has received $8.6 million in federal funds to help repair the 927 homes in Somerset that were damaged by Sandy, said Cindy Stone, with the state Department of Housing and Community Development. Federal guidelines specified that the money shouldn't be spent fixing up places likely to flood again, Stone said.

Only nine homes on Smith Island suffered direct damage, Stone said. But with studies showing that Smith and other bay islands are losing ground to erosion, storms and sea level rise, she said, state officials thought buying homes made more sense than just fixing them up.

"A lot of people out there, their families have left," she said, and some are elderly. "Even if four families moved off, it got four future families out of future harm's way."

First settled in 1657, the island's three towns — Ewell, Tylerton and Rhodes Point — lacked electricity until after World War II. The dominant institution has been the Methodist church, with a single pastor, Rick Edmund, shuttling among the communities.

"It takes commitment for somebody to want to live over here," Edmund said. The isolation can be daunting, especially when a storm threatens.

Sea level is rising in that part of the bay by about an inch per decade, according to government measurements. The ground also is slowly sinking, and the two forces combined to raise the water a little more than a foot in the past century.

Scientists say that global climate change will accelerate the process, with projections of sea level increase ranging from two to four feet or even more by the end of the century. All but a few spots on the island could be under water if sea level rises four feet or more.

"By 2100 they've got to have some alternative," said Court Stevenson, a University of Maryland ecologist who's studied coastal erosion and the bay's vanished and vanishing islands.

Jerry Smith's two-story frame home in Rhodes Point was perhaps the worst hit by Sandy. The bay surged over the low spit of land, reaching knee-deep on the road in front of the house where he grew up, the 47-year-old crabber said. Water was a couple inches deep on the first floor, he said, and 86-mile-per-hour winds tore two big holes in the roof.

Smith, his wife and 4-year-old son are living elsewhere on the island and he's repairing his crab shed.

Smith said their damaged home was assessed at about $47,000, so he doubts the state could offer enough money to allow him to live on the mainland.

"I've done this since I was 17 years old," he said. "I don't know anything else."