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Rising seas, sinking land put Maryland's waterfront communities at risk

Friday - 6/28/2013, 8:11am  ET

MDRising.jpg
On the mainland, high tides alone are enough to prevent charter fishing boats from clearing Fishing Creek Bridge on the western shore. (Capital News Service/Brandon Goldner)

Brandon Goldner, Capital News Service

CRISFIELD, Md. - Noah Bradshaw knows what the rising waters of the Chesapeake Bay can do to a community.

The 68-year-old city inspector grew up in a house in town that had been moved from nearby Holland Island a century ago.

"Holland Island is gone," Bradshaw said. "It's underwater."

The last house disappeared into the bay two years ago, marking the demise of an island once 5 miles long and home to a fishing community of 300 residents.

Now, rising sea levels and sinking land, the same forces that doomed the island, threaten Crisfield, its seafood industry and its 2,710 residents. And a newly discovered tidal pattern puts them in greater peril than previously known.

"This is our home, and eventually, this will be underwater," said Bradshaw, a bespectacled, balding man with a white beard. "We know that, because the sea level is rising."

Scientists say sea levels around the world are rising, that storms are intensifying due to climate change, and that policymakers need to make tough decisions on where to spend limited resources to protect the shoreline and what to let go.

Maryland's leaders may need to make those difficult choices sooner than other regions.

In his state-of-the-state address this year, Gov. Martin O'Malley warned that Maryland is one of the most vulnerable states in the country to rising sea levels.

Studies show he is right. The Chesapeake Bay is rising at two to three times the rate of worldwide sea levels. It rose more than a foot over the past 100 years and is expected to rise 2 to 5 feet within this century.

Property all along Maryland's meandering shoreline is at risk, from the seaside mansions of Anne Arundel and Talbot counties to the modest cottages of Somerset and Dorchester counties.

Industrial powerhouses like the Port of Baltimore, ecological treasures like Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and historic sites like the Harriet Tubman monument all lie in the path of rising sea levels.

Lawmakers say they want to protect Maryland's waterside. But the coastline is 7,700 miles long, according to updated measurements by the Maryland Geological Survey. That's twice previous estimates, because of improved aerial imagery and more complete accounting of coastal inlets.

Not all can be saved. And that is a touchy issue in a state where an estimated 900,000 people -- a sixth of the state's population -- live in neighborhoods likely to be affected, a CNS analysis of census and U.S. Geological Survey data found.

The state has adopted measures to protect its own property but ceded the tough decisions about the fate of coastal communities to local officials -- questions such as whether and when to build sea barriers, elevate land and buildings, or retreat inland.

Yet when researchers interviewed local officials all along the shoreline for a 2010 study, they found "no explicit plan for the fate of most low-lying coast lands as sea level rises."

While significant resources are likely to be poured into saving property in some of the bigger cities, such as Baltimore and Annapolis, shore protection is unlikely along 60 percent of the Eastern Shore, said the study, which was done for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That Eastern Shore stretch is dotted with rural, poorer and less-populated areas. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources offers communities financial assistance for sea-level rise planning through its federally funded CoastSmart Communities program. Just four of 16 coastal counties and the city of Annapolis have taken advantage of the program in the past five years to develop plans or guidance documents.

Dorchester County, just north of Crisfield, is among the few. Yet local planners "anticipate that most of the county will not be protected from sea level rise" due to "economic difficulties that the county and its residents are experiencing," the study said.

"Some of the solutions are very costly or very delicate in terms of making decisions about what areas you're going to protect and what areas you may not be able to protect," said Zoe Johnson, climate change director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

"There's a lot of public and social issues with making those decisions. Not many politicians are ready to take that on."

***

Maryland's predicament is due to a troublesome combination of rising water and sinking land.

The land in the Chesapeake region has been sinking over the past 1,000 to 2,000 years, said Raymond G. Najjar Jr., a Pennsylvania State University oceanographer who has studied the impact of climate change on the mid-Atlantic coast.

Called subsidence, the land has sunk 1.3 millimeters each year on average -- a trend scientists say is likely to continue at its current rate.

The rise in sea levels is a relatively new phenomenon and part of a global trend. As the earth warms, polar ice caps melt, the volume of water in the oceans expands, and sea levels rise.

Sea levels worldwide rose on average 4 to 8 inches during the 20th century -- but more than a foot in the Chesapeake region.

The rate that sea levels are rising appears to be accelerating, Najjar said. The bay is very likely to rise 2 to 5 feet more by the end of this century, according to his and others' studies. They also predict more intense storms, bigger water surges during storms, and higher high tides.

CNS analyzed the potential impact, using land elevation data from U.S. Geological Survey and population survey data from the U.S. Census. The effect of local man- made structures, such as seawalls, is difficult to determine and not included in the calculations.

The analysis found that if sea levels rose just 2 feet, water would cover roughly 800 square miles, a 12th of the state, inundating part or all of neighborhoods where nearly 900,000 people live.

At an increase of 5 feet, roughly 1,900 square miles would be underwater, reaching into neighborhoods with about 960,000 people and 440,000 homes worth more than $200 million. An estimated 3,700 miles of roads would be underwater.

Already, more than 13 islands in the bay have disappeared.

On the mainland, high tides alone are enough to prevent charter fishing boats from clearing Fishing Creek Bridge on the western shore -- and fill roadside ditches in low-lying areas across the bay, such as Somerset County, where Crisfield is located.

"They have this tradition of working with nature and being able to adapt," said William Nuckols, who co-authored the 2010 EPA report. "Whether they're able to work with the increased rate that we're expecting in terms of the changes they may see, that's a little more of an uncertainty."

***

Crisfield was founded as a fishing village in the mid-1660's on a finger of land that juts out onto the Chesapeake Bay. It's the southernmost city in Maryland, just a few miles from the Virginia border.

In the 1800s, large beds of oysters were discovered in surrounding waters. Oysters were so plentiful that much of downtown near the shoreline was built on an oyster shell foundation.

Residents would dredge for oysters in the winter and fish for crabs in the summer. Recognizing a business opportunity, the town's namesake and a former congressman, John W. Crisfield, brought the railroad into town, and by the beginning of the 20th century, Crisfield was shipping so many oysters and crabs that the city attracted workers from as far away as New England and the Midwest, briefly becoming Maryland's second-largest city, behind Baltimore.

"I remember as a kid having 40 or 50 seafood houses along the waterfront," said Carl Emely, 68, a retired waterman and seafood broker as well as a long-time city resident. "All of them going full-steam ahead with oysters and crabs and trainloads of seafood going out of Crisfield daily."

To this day, the city refers to itself as "the seafood capital of the world."

But today, Crisfield's main drag is dotted with empty storefronts dwarfed by new, bright, luxury, waterfront condo developments. Some condos sell for nearly $400,000. They dominate the skyline, towering over the old seafood boats.

The oyster catch began to decline due to overfishing, disease and bay pollution by the 1950s, said Tim Howard, museum director for the J. Millard Tawes Museum in Crisfield. Crisfield sustained itself by switching to hard-shell, crab-meat production and processing, he said.

But the pollution also hurt the hard-shell crab industry, as did regulations and competition from Asian markets, he said. So the city shifted to soft-shell crabs.

Now two of Crisfield's main sources for soft-shell crabs -- Tangier Island, Va., and Smith Island -- are sinking into the bay. Tangier is expected to disappear in 50 to 100 years. Smith Island could be gone as soon as 2025.

Crisfield itself is surrounded by water on three sides. The community rests just 3 feet above sea level -- a problem if the bay rises another 2 to 5 feet. The CNS analysis found the entire city and its surrounding neighborhoods would be partially underwater at 2 feet; most would be underwater at 5.

Over the past half century, Crisfield has been declared a federal disaster area at least four times because of hurricanes and tropical storms.

In total, Crisfield drew more than $200,000 in aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, money used for emergency repairs. That doesn't account for the millions spent on long-term repairs for individual Crisfield residents, including almost $5 million to city residents just for Hurricane Sandy.

Crisfield was the hardest hit town in Maryland during Hurricane Sandy and among the worst on the East Coast.

The storm's intense winds and devastating waves flooded the entire town in 5 feet of water, damaging 585 homes of the city's 2,300 housing units -- with 71 of those homes suffering major water damage.

About 100 residents were forced to move out of their homes because of serious damage to the structures.

The storm was so damaging that the floodwater lifted a pair of coffins in a local cemetery from their graves they were discovered when floodwaters receded -- on Halloween.

After Sandy, oceanologists discovered a complex tidal pattern in the bay that not only changed how scientists study the Chesapeake Bay but may explain why Crisfield has been hit so hard.

Water is being pushed from the mouth of the Potomac on the western portion of the bay to the bay's Eastern Shore, creating a bulge that splashes into Crisfield. That bulge forces floodwaters deeper into Crisfield.

"The impact in terms of damage is going to be substantial because 1 foot makes a huge difference," said Dr. William Boicourt, an oceanologist who is studying the tidal pattern. "The average extreme event like Hurricane Sandy will make it far worse....All you do is go up a little bit, and it spreads a lot further inland."

***

Federal, state and local governments share responsibility for addressing the threat of sea level rise, said Ken Mallette, director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

He said his office assists with funding and guidance and could do better at communicating with local governments. But the choice of when and how to address sea-level rise is a local one, he said.

"It's not a state decision. It's a local decision. It's an individual decision because it not only impacts the individual, it impacts the economic viability of that local community," Mallette said.

Crisfield Mayor Percy Purnell, 72, said Crisfield sought funding from Mallette's agency for two years to install 24 tidal gates. Tide gates are structures placed in storm drainage pipes to stop water from flowing in but to allow it to flow out, preventing some flooding.

But the city didn't receive the $125,000 grant until last October -- a week before Hurricane Sandy. The tidal gates would have had a major impact during Sandy and will reduce flooding in future storms, Purnell said.

Mallette said a high volume of project requests as a result of hurricanes Irene and Lee partly contributed to the delay.

Since Sandy, city officials have scrambled to find additional ways to protect Crisfield, Purnell said.

"We never had a flood like this before," he said. "We had water in places we never had before."

He is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a proposal to install a series of pilings, known as breakwaters, into the shoreline. The breakwater measure is in the initial assessment phase and could cost $6.75 million or more. The corps would cover most of the cost with federal funds that Congress set aside for recovery from Hurricane Sandy.

The city also passed a new law requiring that the first floor of all new structures be elevated 2 feet above the base flood elevation level -- or 6 feet above ground in Crisfield.

The base flood elevation level is what the National Flood Insurance Program predicts will be the worst possible flooding an area could see in 100 years. But it is based on historical data and does not take into account climate change.

And while the tide gates and shoreline measures may alleviate flooding and erosion in the short run, they can't stop the sea from rising or the land from sinking.

Purnell said he has "no idea" what to do about that.

"You're talking about something that's going to happen 25 to 30 years from now," he said. He has more immediate concerns.

"The only thing is to bite into the problem and fight to survive."

***

Sitting at the countertop of Gordon's Confectionery, a Crisfield cafe established in 1924, customers can't help but notice a small photo taped to the mirrored wall.

The photo is the exterior of Gordon's when it was swallowed by the floodwaters of Sandy.

The picture is a reminder of the community's resilience. But that only goes so far when the bay is lapping at three sides of town.

"There's only a certain amount that you can do in a town like Crisfield. You can't be oblivious to it. It's going to happen," said Emely, one of the town's longtime residents, as he sat at a table in the confectionery. "People try not to dwell on it. You've got to carry on."

Donna Parks, a visitor waiting for lunch at the counter, said, "Everybody is so friendly and so willing to help each other that it would be a shame to lose this community."

"We'll leave it in the Lord's hands," Emely said. "Let him take care of it."

Capital News Service reporter Sydney Paul contributed to this story.

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