Trump told the mayor of a disappearing island not to worry about sea-level rise. Here's what it's like to live there.

Christian Storm/Business Insider

People have lived on Tangier Island, a tiny patch of land peeking above the Chesapeake Bay, for more than 240 years.

But that island – “a speck of mud and marsh that nowhere reaches more than five feet above the tide,” as the journalist Earl Swift puts it in his new book, “Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island” – is on its way to being wiped out as rising waters continue to advance over the land.

A scientific study published in 2015 found that the residents of Tangier “may become among the first climate change refugees in the continental USA.”

Other places have been abandoned because of storms and rising seas. In Ocean Breeze, Staten Island, most residents opted not to return after Hurricane Sandy’s 16-foot-storm surge ripped through homes. The Native American community on Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana has received funding to move all residents to a new location in the face of rising seas and sinking land.

But without dramatic and expensive intervention, Tangier Island will likely need to be abandoned within 25 years, researchers say. Once that happens, it won’t be long until there’s no longer land to walk on.

Here’s how Swift describes life on Tangier Island, along with illustrative photos from Reuters and Christian Storm, a photographer who visited the island for Business Insider in 2014.


Swift first visited the island in 1999, returning that December for New Year’s Eve. He also spent six weeks there the next year.

Christian Storm/Business Insider

Fifteen years later, he returned to write his book.

Swift spent more than a year living on the island starting in 2015, trying to get know the place and its people. He wrote:

“It is a community unlike any in America. Here live people so isolated for so long that they have their own style of speech, a singsong brogue of old words and phrases, twisted vowels, odd rhythms. Its virtually amphibious men follow a calendar set by the Chesapeake Bay blue crab, and they catch more of the prized delicacy than anyone else. It is a near-theocracy of old-school Christians who brook no trade in alcohol, and kept a major movie from filming in their midst over scenes of sex and beer. And not least, this is one big extended family: All but a few islanders can trace their lineage to a single man.”


The islanders can be wary of visitors, who mostly show up to see a glimpse of life from bygone times.

“By the time I got halfway down the Main Ridge, everyone knew where I was going and why,” Swift wrote of his visit in 2000. “A visitor to Tangier had best assume he’s the object of almost anthropological study and conduct himself accordingly. The islanders might complain that tourists eye them a bit too closely, but it cuts both ways.”


There are about 450 residents of the 1.2-square-mile island, which is 16 miles via water from the next town.

During the day, most of the men from the island – known as watermen – are out in boats, collecting crabs and oysters. Others work on tugboats or captain vessels carrying passengers.


The blue crab, a delicacy from the Chesapeake Bay, has supported life on the island for centuries.

There’s plenty that the island doesn’t have, including many cars or modern amenities.

“All of which explains why first impressions of Tangier, and much that’s been written about it, tend to fasten on what the place lacks, rather than its one great asset – the geographic advantage defining its very existence,” Swift wrote. “For all of its deprivations, Tangier could not be better situated to harvest Callinectes sapidus.


Mornings on the island begin hours before dawn, so watermen can get out on the water.

“By four on a springtime morning, the waters off Tangier are dotted with moving light – the sallow glow of boat cabins, the powerful beams that captains use to find their buoys, and blue-white LEDs illuminating open decks,” Swift wrote.

They need to be out before the day gets too hot, as the crabs won’t last if they’re crammed into baskets in the heat.


The men are out on the water, and gender roles are strong on Tangier, but Swift doesn’t describe it as a society dominated by men.

“Tangier women shepherd the island’s thinking,” Swift wrote. “In just about every aspect of island life but two, working the water and running the churches, women are in charge. And the churches are only ostensibly ruled by men. Influence within the congregations is largely wielded by women.”


“Prayer matters here,” Swift wrote of the deeply religious islanders.

Christian Storm/Business Insider

Many islanders consider themselves traditional Methodists, uncomfortable with discussions in the church about same-sex marriage or gay ministers. Others belong to an even more conservative splinter church.


“Blue laws” on the books mean alcohol isn’t sold — though that doesn’t mean no one drinks or uses drugs — and there is even an ordinance saying that on Sundays during church hours, people should be in church or in their homes.

Swift recounts a story of an island constable in 1920 who shot someone who insisted on running an errand during church hours. (The constable was sentenced to a year in prison but quickly received a pardon.) Such rules aren’t enforced with quite that same vigour anymore.


Islanders were thrown into the national spotlight in 2017, when Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge declared on CNN, “I love Trump, as much as any family member I got.”

Adrees Latif

Eskridge asked Trump to help get a seawall built to hold back the seas that continue to wash away Tangier.

Trump called up the mayor, thankful for the support. “Your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more,” he said.

“Many islanders were reassured by this,” Swift wrote. “The world at large found it preposterous.”


Since 1850, Tangier has lost two-thirds of its land — about 8 acres a year — but that rate of loss is accelerating.

Christian Storm/Business Insider

The highest points of the island are about 4 feet above sea level, but much of the land is only a foot or two above the water. Researchers say that seas in the bay surrounding the island are rising about 5 millimetres per year. That’s faster than the global average of 3 mm, and it could break up the inhabited parts of Tangier within 25 years.


Islanders blame erosion for the land loss, rather than sea-level rise or climate change.

“This is an article of faith on Tangier,” Swift wrote. “Islanders tend to consider erosion as separate and distinct from sea-level rise, while scientists point out they’re interlinked – the higher the water, the more destructive the incoming waves.”


But demographic change could mean the population disappears even before seas make the island impossible to live on.

Christian Storm/Business Insider

Swift wrote that when he left, the school on the island – the only comprehensive K-12 school remaining in Virginia – had 60 students. Many young people leave the island for easier lives, with few deciding they want the risky career of the watermen.

“Even if Tangier somehow avoided drowning for, say, twenty years, there might not be anyone left to celebrate,” he wrote.

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