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Anthropology and Eastern Shore flooding

A group of anthropology majors from Washington College in Chestertown has spent the summer not at the beach, but as research assistants roaming the Eastern Shore, talking to residents about the risks of flooding and projected sea level rise. They’ve traveled through Talbot, Dorchester and Somerset counties talking to local residents about their communities, changes and their experiences with flooding.

And on a recent trip, Kirsten Webb and Hayley Hartman were visiting Roland and Sheilah Bradshaw at their home on Smith Island. Kirsten was hardly into her opening spiel about community response to flooding when Roland jumped in.

"Well, we had some flooding," he said. "But, you know, a lot of people say its sea level rise. I don’t believe in that."

Instead, he said, the island is washing away. There’s no flooding "until the wind comes to the east or we have a hurricane," he said. And everybody has flooding when there’s a hurricane.

Kirsten asks if he pays attention to the wind patterns and prepares if he knows the wind’s going to be blowing easterly. He says no, they’re used to it. They’re survivors who can make out with what a lot of people couldn’t make out with.

And they’re used to dealing with rising tides, adds Sheila. They’re different from on the mainland.

"When the tide comes up over here, we try to hurry up and go or come back and do what we got to do because then in a couple hours it’s gone," she said. "But in the city, see, it just builds up and builds up."

The Washington College project mirrors one conducted by students at Western Illinois University in 2008, when massive floods inundated communities along the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers. David Casagrande, who was on the faculty at the time and ran that project, said then-Governor Rod Blagojevich needed help responding to the situation by figuring out what made the folks along those rivers tick.

Casagrande, now an associate professor of anthropology at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, said his students, who talked to “thousands and thousands of people,” were basically interested in perceptions and attitudes on flood insurance, how they perceived their risk and whether they would be willing to relocate.

Naturally, most folks don’t want to leave their homes, but Casagrande’s students found one whole town--Valmeyer, Illinois--where residents packed up and moved to higher ground. It wasn’t easy; it took a while, he said. But eventually, they did it.

"Not everybody leaves," Casagrande cautioned. "There are a few die-hards who are still living down in the flood plain, but they built a beautiful new town up on a bluff."

Aaron Lampman, a friend of Casagrande’s and an associate anthropology professor running the Washington College project, says they chose the Eastern Shore for this study because it’s one of the “hot spots” for flooding in the U.S.. And Maryland suffers some of the most repetitive flood loss in the country.

Lampman says they found "a really interesting dynamic" on the lower shore. Although they have maps put out by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) that predict serious flooding and even inundation over the next 50 to 100 years, no one is talking about relocating.

His students tell him they’re finding people with a sense of place, a deep attachment to the Chesapeake Bay and the lower Eastern Shore. Moving just doesn’t seem like an option to them.

"Many of them have lived here for six generations or more," Lampman said. "And they seem to have a sense of moral obligation of maintaining community in these places."

You can hear that as the Bradshaws talk about the different world they live in on Maryland’s last inhabited offshore island.

It may be inconvenient, says Sheila, “but I can’t imagine living somewhere else."

Not the way things are going on the mainland, adds Roland, what with drive-by shootings and other violence. On Smith Island, "you walk out any time you want of night or day and you don’t worry about nobody bothering you." 

Lampman says the students are finding that people are aware of more flooding, stronger and more frequent storms and erosion, but they don’t seem to think that’s translating into the loss of their land or their community. Instead, they talk about trying to find federal funding for structural solutions, sea walls, groins, break waters, elevating houses.

"You name it. If it’s a structural solution then people are pretty interested in it," he said, rather than thinking about relocation.

On Smith Island, the Corps of Engineers recently started a project to slow the erosion at Bradshaw’s community of Rhodes Point. The islanders have been trying to get that project for 50 years, Bradshaw says, and finally it’s here to keep the island from washing away.

"It’s been washing ever since I was a kid," he said. "Every time you have a lot of wind--like this past winter we had a lot of wind, coming from the west and nor’west—it washes away."

The students, who have been surviving on grants, have pretty much finished their interviews. They’ll be back in school in September to start looking for themes and patterns in the interviews. Meanwhile, Smith Islanders will continue to look for ways to hold off the water and preserve their homes.

Chesapeake: A Journalism Collaborative is funded with grant support from the Clayton Baker Trust, The Bancroft Foundation, Michael and Ann Hankin, The Jim and Patty Rouse Foundation, The Rob and Elizabeth Tyler Foundation, and the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.

Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.
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