Sometimes it’s hard not to just throw up your hands at the idiotic decisions people make about where they choose to live. Evidence about environmental change? Please, we just lived through a pandemic in which public health was politicized for the first time in American history. Over a million people, nothing at all changed, except maybe that our ability to handle the next pandemic is even worse than it was before. So yeah, good times:
Ten summers ago, Maryland offered to buy residents off this iconic bit of land in the Chesapeake Bay known for picturesque watermen’s villages, famous cakes and pyrotechnic sunsets. Hurricane Sandy had damaged homes and climate change models offered the direst of forecasts: Rising waters could virtually wipe it off the map.
The four-square-mile archipelago was held up as a national example of what global warming could eventually mean to many more people living in vulnerable areas, and a way governments may respond. One article called residents “candidates to become the first climate refugees of the contiguous United States.”
But Smith Islanders rejected leaving, instead organizing to get tens of millions in government funding for infrastructure upgrades and fortifications against the waves. And in recent years, something improbable has trailed in its wake: a real estate boom.
More homes have sold on Smith Island in the last three years than in the previous 11 combined, according to sales data. Locals see a story of hope. Their efforts to rescue a 400-year-old way of life tied to tide and season are beginning to bear fruit. Many question the doomsday predictions for the island or hope they can find a way to ride out rising waters.
Environmentalists see a dangerous kind of denialism. They say Smith Island’s long-term survival is doubtful, so the only rational path is retreat. They see the recent interest in the island as part of an unsettling national trend — studies show more Americans are moving into climate danger zones.
Nick Pueschel and Tiffanie Woutila live on this knife’s edge between hope for renewal and peril from global warming. The couple in their 30s moved to Smith Island last summer, one of the group of new homeowners.
They love island life and wanted to continue it as part of a next generation in a place where the median age is 70, but disaster struck almost as soon as they arrived: A waterspout whipping across the bay slammed into their property.
I guess it will be the insurance markets that make this kind of thing impossible. But even though those companies exist to prevent people from things like this, it’s not as if insurance executives are immune to the same ideological issues that everyone else have, especially given their wealth. But, as we are seeing with companies pulling out of insuring Florida, eventually it’s going to be your risk to live in much of the country. And if people are so determined to live on barrier islands and in low-lying swamps and in wildfire-prone forests, maybe that is how it is going to have to be.