It’s just after sunrise, and James “Ooker” Eskridge, a Chesapeake Bay waterman and Mayor of Tangier Island, is in a skiff motoring across the harbor in his morning commute to his office. The soft morning light illuminates rickety crab shacks on pillars above the water and workboats heading out into the bay.
Above it all rises a water tower, painted with a blue crab on one side and a huge cross on the other, representing the two things that keep this island town of 470 people afloat: the seafood industry and prayer.
When the mayor pulls up to his work shed on a platform over the water, he introduces his political staff: Four stray cats that work with him out here with his tanks full of soft crabs. ”That’s Condi Rice,” Eskridge says of the first cat. “That’s Sam Alito, John Roberts and Ann Coulter.”
The cats’ names hint at his conservative politics. And yet, when he’s not tending his soft crab business, he spends much of his time on an issue that not many Republican office holders want to tackle: The impact of climate change, which is driving up sea levels and rapidly eroding Tangier and scores of other low-lying islands in the bay and around the world.
“Our main concern is the erosion problem out here,” Eskridge says. “We are losing a lot of ground to erosion. It looks totally different from the way it did. Even before I came along, there were other communities around Tangier that have completely disappeared and that are now under water. That’s what we don’t want to happen to Tangier.”
Mayor Eskridge frequently makes trips to Richmond and Washington in a lobbying battle to try to secure millions of dollars in government funding to get the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a series of bulkheads and jetties to wall off and protect his island. A small part of his vision has been funded, to build one jetty to protect the west entrance to his harbor. But he’s frustrated that his fellow elected officials are not more supportive of his efforts to save his people from becoming refugees of the rising seas.
“It’s not like the money’s not there. The money is there, and the government is wasting so much money,” Eskridge said. “And I’m not saying you don’t help foreign countries. But we spend billions like in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the bulk of the people hate our guts there. I told the (Army Corps of Engineers), you know, if you would divert some of that money here, and get us some protection, we would appreciate it much more than those guys in the Middle East, and we promise we won’t shoot at you while you are working for us.”
The irony, however, is this: Even though Mayor Eskridge is up to his knees in sea level rise every time storms drive a foot of water down main street, he does not actually believe in sea level rise or climate change. He sees himself as fighting a sinking land crisis caused by the naturally settling geology of the Chesapeake region. Scientists have concluded this is partly true. But it ignores two thirds of the problem, which is that warming temperatures are in fact expanding the volume of the seas.
“There is no evidence of sea level rise here,” Eskridge said. “You know, maybe in some places it’s occurring. But out here, you know, whenever we have a persistent East wind, we have above normal tides; and if we have a west wind, we have below normal tides. So nothing has changed, there.”
Nothing has changed, except that Tangier Island has already lost about two thirds of its landmass and loses another nine acres every year, largely because of sea-level rise. Within a few decades, it will likely disappear beneath the waves.
Mayor Eskridge is up against a potential catastrophe most of us could never imagine – and he is standing strong in the storm, doing everything in his power to protect his close-knit, more than 300-year-old community. But like a lot of us, he draws strength by translating reality into terms he can deal with and fight back against. Eskridge can’t stop the oceans. But he can pile rocks along the shore.