Smith Island comprises the wildlife refuge and a stretch of islands directly south, where roughly 280 residents live in three small villages about five feet above sea level. But erosion nips away at Smith Island’s banks at a rate of roughly two feet each year, and a 2008 report predicted that by 2100 Smith Island will be “almost completely under water as the Bay’s average level goes up nearly one foot.”
Which is why, even though Smith Island emerged relatively unscathed after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development offered Smith Island residents a buyout to move. Most rejected the offer. Some, like Marshall, don’t believe there’s any risk to living on the island. “The whole sea-level rise—it’s BS,” he says, talking loudly over the boat’s motor. “I’ve lived here my whole life and haven’t seen a difference,” he continues, then shakes his head at excavators on barges piling gray stone in front of the refuge’s outer bank. Other Smith Islanders wondered why the state didn’t offer to pay for new protective seawalls and jetties and dredging projects to pile up sediment on the land they believe can be saved.
Most Smith Islanders believe the island can be saved—if there’s the money to do it. There are already some man-made defenses built around the island’s shorelines: A jetty protects the western side of Ewell; a bulkhead and riprap—piled stone that acts as a barrier between a coastline and waves—shield Tylerton. But over on Rhodes Point, on Smith Island’s west side, a narrow island that acts as a barricade between the village and the Chesapeake is eroding away. While a jetty project designed by the Army Corps of Engineers is ready to go, federal and state funding to construct it has yet to be appropriated.