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.The people who live close to the water like the Smith Islanders are accustomed to the problems of living close to the possible. Their lives center around it. The island depends on the Bay for it's economy, and for years they have accommodated to the very slowly rising waters.
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."
As I've noted before, salt-marsh islands like Smith can grow upwards with sea level rise, as the marsh adds to the surface. The process doesn't work where humans cover the marsh with hard surface, or if they remove the vegetation by cutting or burning it. Even beaches can rise as sand is washed, and then blown up into dunes. Erosion from the edges is much harder to deal with, requiring extensive hardening of the shore, which causes it's own problems. But if the people who live on Smith Island really want to live there, they can solve those problems. The people of Manhattan Island did: