Almost an Island, the Eastern Shore Town of Saxis is Fighting Rising Seas

Nov 7, 2019

You’ve probably heard of Tangier— the island of 450 residents in danger of being swallowed by the Chesapeake Bay.

But just a few miles away, the tiny Town of Saxis, whose population is about half of Tangier's, is quietly facing many of the same problems.

It's late morning on a Friday at the Saxis Island Museum and five men are gathered in a half circle, sitting in plastic chairs and drinking coffee from travel mugs.  "I pump my septic tank every four years and I do it during every presidential election," Bob Fears jokes. "It reminds me it's four years."

Besides the usual state of affairs, many in the community are more than willing to discuss how climate change is drowning and eroding their little piece of paradise. Saxis sits just off the Chesapeake Bay on Pocomoke Sound. Across the sound is Crisfield, Maryland, where you can just make out the town's new wind turbine.

It's a sign of changing times for M.K. Miles. A descendant of Saxis watermen, he returned home after an engineering career.  "When I worked for the Corps of Engineers in Norfolk in the 70's, we did a tidal study around the area and realized at the time sea-level was rising a foot a century in the lower Chesapeake Bay," Miles remembers. "Now, they say it's rising a foot-and-a-half a century, it's speeding up. So, it depends on where you are, you just do the math."

Yvonne Hickman points out erosion along the shoreline.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

Strictly speaking Saxis is not an island, according to the book “Almost an Island,” by Kirk Mariner. But come high winds and tides, the community is shut off from the rest of Accomack County.

Retired schoolteacher Yvonne Hickman, stops by and joins the conversation. She blames some of the town's problems on fewer wetlands absorbing flood impacts and calls out people who have recently moved to Saxis and cut wetland plants for better views and access to the water.  "We wish that most people if they want to go to the beach do like we did in my day, you cut a path and you have a path to go to the beach. But you know, to just cut everything down, I think it's destroying our town," Hickman warns.

Hurricane Sandy was a game-changer for the island. Trees are permanently bent, shorelines eroded. Hickman takes me to the tiny cemetery where her parents are buried to show me damage first caused by Sandy and now more frequent flooding. A grave near her parents has caved in. "My parents have been gone like some 40 years," she says. "When we had Sandy that's the first time they went underwater. All that's because land had been cleared so that water had no where to go."

Saxis is mostly marshes and homes. It's highest point is eight feet above sea level, three feet higher than Tangier Island. On a golf cart tour of the town, Miles points out street drains that overflow during higher

M. K. Miles uses the plaster statue as an indicator of when the road to the mainland will be flooded.

tides and storms because the ditches they go to are blocked by marsh growth. The only road to Saxis from the mainland crosses a marsh that goes under water at least once a month.  "If you don't mind driving through three or four inches of water you can always get to the island. But once you get into town here, it can be a foot deep on the road," Miles notes.

Visitors call ahead to residents about the tides. Residents time grocery shopping, and going to church accordingly. Sometimes, the school bus can't make the crossing. Miles shows me his unofficial tide indicator - a plaster boy with a fishing pole placed at the edge of a tiny pier. The statue's feet dangle a foot or so above the water.  "The little boy on the dock, his feet get wet every high tide, just a little bit. But when it gets above his feet, maybe up to his knees, it's when the high tide's high enough to come across the causeway."

As we continue the tour Miles points out homes that have been raised or, as he calls it, jacked up. After Hurricane Floyd, FEMA paid 75 percent toward raising houses about seven feet. Homeowners only paid 5

One of the raised homes in Saxis.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

percent and the state picked up the rest. But after Sandy, which blew into Pocomoke Sound, things changed.  "After Sandy no such deals have ever been offered, yet. They're still trying to offer such a deal."

On the southern end of Saxis is a conundrum. Every seven years or so, the Army Corps of Engineers dredges the harbor channel. Keeping the town harbor open contributes to erosion and flooding on the north end by disrupting the natural flow of sand that used to build up the town's northern shoreline. But without the dredging, Saxis watermen would lose access to their livelihood.

In the next report, we'll look at how Saxis is trying to build resilience to climate change.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.