MD island bears Isabel's marks

Smith Island is situated in the Chesapeake Bay, due west of Crisfield, Md.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | SMITH ISLAND, Md. | September 30, 2003



"There are some pretty strong believers here."

—Rev. Richard Edmund


Smith Island is situated in the Chesapeake Bay, due west of Crisfield, Md. No bridges connect to the island, and, unless you own a boat, your only access to the island, short of swimming, is by ferry.

The hardy people who live on Smith Island have remained relatively isolated from mainland society for centuries, like their even more isolated cousins on Tangier Island, Va., about ten miles to the south. Their speech has some similarities to the drawl of the people on the mainland, but a non-native may need to do a quick cerebral rewind in order to understand all the strangely pronounced words heard in conversation.

When Hurricane Isabel came roaring up the Chesapeake Bay, the situation wasn't looking too good for either island. State and federal authorities declared mandatory evacuations. But for many islanders, who aren't in a habit of taking orders from anybody, the word "mandatory" meant "optional."

On Smith Island, many of the watermen left mainly to save their boats and equipment, according to the Rev. Richard Edmund, a United Methodist who is the only pastor for Smith Island's three communities. Pretty much everyone else stayed behind.

Except for Edmund, whom authorities persuaded to leave on the last boat before Isabel hit. Their unstated intention, he said, was for the pastor to set an example for his parishioners.

"They didn't say that, but that was the message I got," Edmund said.

Apparently nobody paid any attention. The pastor and his dog left, and they stayed behind.

But the worst predictions were not borne out. Damage on Smith Island was minimal in comparison to what could have happened. For the average elevation of the island is four feet above sea level, and if Smith Island had seen the kind of storm surge that hit Baltimore or Annapolis, all three communities - Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton - would have been swallowed whole by the Chesapeake Bay.

That didn't happen.

The damage here also wasn't as dramatic as that caused by the powerful winds which flattened tiny homes all over Tangier Island.

"We feel so blessed in comparison to some of the other places," Edmund said. For example, towns to the north, such as Rock Hall or Hooper Island.

Power wasn't cut off to the island, and some of the homes had phones that continued to work through the worst of the storm.

"Here we were just blessed again because there's just one (power) line going all the way over to Tangier Island," he said.

Part of the reason for Smith Island's nearly miraculous survival is the extensive salt marshes that surround the inhabited areas. The marshes, Edmund said, act as a massive sponge capable of absorbing massive surges.

"We've got this buffer around us. We've got the marsh to protect us. And we're not directly facing the bay," he said. "It's actually a good place to be in a storm."

Then there is also the power of God, to which Edmund and many islanders attribute their survival.

"There are some pretty strong believers here," he said.

While Isabel didn't cause the catastrophic damage to the island, the storm did leave some residents facing a long recovery.

In fact, Edmund said, the island saw the worst flooding that anyone, even those who remember the hurricane of 1933, can remember.

"This is the highest water that even the old folks have ever seen," he said.

Ruthman Dize, is one of the old-timers, and he owns the only store in Ewell (which also doubles as a restaurant).

"This is the first time in the history of this store that (the water) has ever been in here," Dize said. "I mean it's never even come close, even in Floyd."

The electricity to his store was knocked out, and, as a result, all the refrigerated food he had went bad. On top of that, the floor was warped and buckled, something that no storm ever managed to accomplish.

Just down the street from the store, one of Edmund's three churches also got hit. The carpeting was ruined and had to be torn out.

The damage to Dize's store and the church was indicative of what happened in Ewell, Edmund said. And the situation was pretty much the same in Tylerton, on the other side of the island.

But Rhodes Point is where the real damage occurred, and Edmund is certain that these people are the ones who will almost certainly need help beyond what they will get out of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In Rhodes Point, as everywhere else on the island, almost no one has flood insurance.

Rhodes Point hit hardest

Mildred "Mid" Tyler had 18 inches of water in her house. Tyler managed to save her furniture by propping it all up on milk crates, but everything else was ruined. The floor will have to be torn out and replaced.

But what saddened Tyler the most was the loss of precious family mementos piles of photographs now set by the windowsill to dry. But it's no good. They're ruined.

"I can replace the carpet, but I can't replace them," she said, wiping tears from her cheeks. "I was trying to save them. But they're no good."

Ed and Maxine Landon also lost plenty of mementos when the floor of their seaside home was ruptured by floodwater.

"I had a lot of sentimental things destroyed in the shanty," Maxine said. She had saved a sign and other memorabilia from her father's old ship. Now it's all gone.

The shanty also held half a dozen freezers where Ed Landon, a waterman, stored crabs and other seafood he had brought home. That, too, was all ruined, and the freezers still lie in a disarrayed heap on the broken up floor. They had no insurance.

"I hardly know what's what," Landon said. "But I got to clean it all up."

The Landons said other islanders were hit even harder.

"I thought I was the onliest one in trouble," Maxine Landon said. "But once the shock wore off, I saw there were people worse off."

Mike Litten lives just down the street.

Litten had been restoring his home for years, only to have all his work destroyed by Isabel.

"It took four years to get it done and then this come along," Litten said. "Of course, homeowner's insurance don't cover any of it unless the roof's torn off."

The floors are warped, the walls are ruined, most of his major appliances were destroyed

and the house shifted so much that one of his doors cracked in half.

"I guess I'll have to go somewhere for the winter, because the heat don't work ," he said. "But we'll get by."

Litten did, like Mid Tyler, manage to save his furniture by propping it up before the storm.

His neighbors, Mattie Martin and Jerry Smith, took about a foot of water in their living room. Most of their appliances were wiped out as well. And already black-green splotches of mold are beginning to appear on the floral-print wallpaper.

'It's a tough commute'

In addition to all the first-floor flood damage, particularly in Rhodes Point, Smith Island suffered more at the hands of Isabel.

"The long-term impact is going to be the economic impact on the island," Edmund predicts.

First off, he said, there was the loss of work time - the time it took people to get prepared for the storm, and then they time it took them to clean up afterwards.

Then there was the loss of products and equipment. The destruction of freezers, like the one Ed Landon lost, represents the loss of days if not weeks of work. The seafood that rotted could have been sold. Now it's not even good for fish food.

Beyond that, there's the loss of habitat for crabs and oysters as a result of the storm, and the extent of that environmental damage won't be known for quite some time.

Plus, Isabel came at a time when the price for sooks, or mature female crabs, had plummeted.

"It's hardly worth for the guys to go out and catch them," Edmund said.

All these things are happening at a time when the population of the island is dwindling, and more and more young people are leaving the island. Just last April, Edmund said, 13 people in Tylerton (with a population of about 70) either left or decided to leave in the near future.

"People on the mainland can go out and do something else," he said. But on Smith Island, there aren't too many other vocational choices besides a life on the water.

"It's hard to keep the young people here," he said. "Unless you want to become a waterman."

As far as commuting goes, that's almost unheard of. Three or four islanders make the commute to jobs in mainland Somerset County.

'It's a tough commute," he said.

'A mighty fortress'

Edmund still has high hopes for the Island, where he wears many hats besides his official role as pastor.

Since none of the three towns has a police force, much less any local government, Edmund, as the leader of the only institution, is the de facto mayor.

"'Ambassador' is the word I like," he said.

In the absence of doctors on the island, Edmund and eight other certified EMTs fill that gap.

Edmund, with the help of the United Methodist Church and contributions from islanders, also keeps the streetlights running.

So if anyone's a spokesman on this island of rugged individualists, it's Edmund.

And he is convinced that Smith Island can make a comeback, with a little help from the outside world, in the form of charitable donations and volunteer work, as well as an increase in tourism.

The film "Beautiful Swimmer" was shot on Smith Island, and this brought in the kind of money that can keep the community alive.

"I see that as part of my calling to try to help out economically," he said.

Bringing in wealthy tourists is also another way to boost the local economy.

"I'd like to see this become a getaway for celebrities," he said.

The island itself, however, seems resistant to whatever nature can throw at it. For Edmund, the most potent symbol of the island's hearty constitution is found on a stained glass window in the Ewell church.

Edmund saw the window on his first visit to the island, when he was still a pastor on the mainland, and he has never forgotten it.

The window depicts an island tower perched high above a raging sea. The inscription around it reads, "A mighty fortress is our God."

"That was certainly appropriate here ten days ago," he said.


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