Saxis Looks for Solutions to Rising Seas

Nov 8, 2019

The tiny Town of Saxis on Virginia's Eastern Shore is learning to live with water.

Like other communities around the Chesapeake Bay, residents are looking at solutions to the erosion and frequent flooding that comes with climate change.

"The highest land on Saxis is eight feet, highest land on Tangier is five-and-a-half and the highest land on Smith is four and a half," M.  K. Miles explains. "Sea level is rising a foot-and-a-half every hundred years. Do the math."

Miles is a retired civil engineer who grew up on Saxis. He remembers the damage from past storms but Hurricane Sandy was a game-changer. Small towns like Saxis and Tangier don't have the millions of dollars needed to match state and federal aid to build sea walls and other structures needed to be more resilient. With rising seas and more frequent storms, Saxis residents have become proactive.

Structures made of concrete and oyster shells, like the one in the foreground, are placed in the harbor to create an artificial reef. A homeowner has created their own breakwater in the background, using bricks and concrete debris.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

At the entrance to the town pier are two starkly different ways being taken to stem erosion. One, an experimental artificial reef of concrete and oyster shells. More than a dozen of them stand guard out in the harbor parallel to the shore. On the shoreline next to the pier is a homegrown version – a massive jumbled pile of concrete and brick stairs and foundations a homeowner has used in an effort to protect his shoreline. "The guy here that owns all this land he says, anything you've got that's concrete or stone just go dump it in my yard. Well he's right on the front line," Miles admits. "During Sandy he's taking it hard."

After Sandy, homes were flooded, a boat blocked the road to the mainland and the harbor needed dredging for watermen to access the bay. Mayor Denise Drewer is still thankful for the federal funds they were given.  "If it hadn't been for Sandy we might not have had the harbor re-dredged and the disposal area rebuilt," Miles says. "That's exactly right, we wouldn't have," Drewer responds. "Because there wouldn't have been any money for it. We lucked out there. We lucked out in a lot of different ways due to Sandy."

Still, Saxis is on a lot of wait lists to fix the main road, remedy drainage problems and protect their shoreline. And while they did receive Sandy money, ten homes on Saxis and in neighboring towns remain on a FEMA wait list to have their houses raised.  "In my personal opinion they're really not going to fund any of that until we have another disaster and there's new money about and then those ten houses would probably be the first ones raised and then perhaps they'd let us add ten more," Mayor Drewer says.

Donna Croushore explains the RAFT program
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

Donna Croushore, a Pennsylvanian, spends much of her time at her vacation home on Saxis and has become the mayor's point person for resilience projects. Eighteen months ago she signed the town up for RAFT, a collaboration of experts from University of Virginia, William & Mary and Old Dominion University that provides towns with a scorecard to assess their resilience. Out of 100 points, Saxis scored a 54.  "The whole point of the score was to help point out the areas where improvement would help us help ourselves," Croushore says.

Click here for more about the Resilience Adaptation Feasibility Tool

They also met with the state Department of Forestry to plant trees that will absorb stormwater that puddles after heavy rains. More importantly, Croushore says, the town is on VDOT's list to fix the main road to Saxis by putting in larger culverts to deal with more frequent storms and heavy rains.  "Any information that people come to us with we're open-armed. There are funding opportunities out there that we consistently review and try to see if there might be options for us. We're all really rolling up our sleeves over the last eighteen months chasing a lot of this."

As much as Hurricane Sandy was a wakeup call, it also showed Saxis that it isn't practical waiting for another disaster to get the money needed to raise homes, dredge the harbor and pay for the expensive solutions that allow them to become more resilient. And, like their neighbors on Tangier Island, they know there's not much public support to spend millions to save small islands and towns from rising seas.

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