One of Our Islands is Missing

Going, going....  How is it we let one of our islands get away from us without learning anything? (Photo by Highcamera Aerial Photography Service)

Cedar Island, Virginia, going, going…. How is it we let one of our islands get away from us without learning anything? (Photo by Highcamera Aerial Photography Service)

The story of Cedar Island, Virginia, is a quintessentially American story, of a man who had a dream, who wrested from an empty landscape a vision of congestion, postage-stamp-sized, $100,000 lots — lots of lots — along with seaside highways, entertainments and villas. He called his vision “Ocean City, Virginia,” and it endured for half a century. But now Cedar Island’s 2,000 acres, dozens of seaside homes, and dreams of wretched excess have been wiped from the face of the earth by an implacably rising sea. Is this a great country, or what?

The dream and the story began with developer Robert Hall, back around 1950. He proclaimed Cedar Island, part of the barrier island chain extending southward from Chincoteague Island, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, to be the Next Big Thing. There would be a bridge from the mainland, a highway running the length of the island, it would be huge. He platted 2,000 lots.

Thirty years later there was still no bridge from the mainland and no highway bisecting the island. Those dreams had been dampened by the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962, which pretty much overwashed the whole island and seriously crimped the Ocean City thing. But in 1980, Hall’s granddaughter and her developer husband were back selling lots, although the pitch had changed. Now the brochures waxed eloquent about unspoiled beauty, and bragged that there was no bridge to bring in unwanted crowds. “Only you and a handful of others will be satisfied owners of one of the last unspoiled Atlantic islands.”

Even then, 30 years ago, there was trouble in paradise. Scientists told the Virginia Marine Resources Commission not to approve building more structures on Cedar Island, because it was disappearing. Some people spoke of “erosion” of the beach, an odd way of describing the natural littoral currents that move coastal sand in timeless patterns. To call that eternal circulation “erosion” is like describing a river as a leak. The scientists talked about migration, a slow geologic rolling toward shore, then out again, which they had recently come to understand all barrier islands will do no matter what is built on them. Then as now, nobody talked about the sea level rising.

But it was. It ate up to 200 feet per year of the island, and by 1998 when the Baltimore Sun went to have a look, some 16 homes had been taken by the sea, many more were abandoned, and some were being burned by their owners to avoid further littering the beaches with flotsam and jetsam.

In December of 2014, the Chesapeake Bay Journal recorded that “The last house on Cedar Island has slipped into the sea.” Except that, um, it didn’t, its owners burned it first because they did not want “their septic tanks, their drywall, to pollute the ocean.” I was left wondering how they got their septic tank to burn, but never mind. The thought is pure.

The only story I could find on the end of Cedar Island was in the little Bay Journal (Grist picked up a brief rehash of it), and it barely mentioned sea level rise. This is remarkable for many reasons, among them the fact that two months earlier, Reuters had published an heroic series of articles on the threat of sea-level rise along the Atlantic Coast (where the ocean is rising faster than anywhere in America). Oddly, the series did not mention Cedar Island, and even more oddly, no one in journalism seemed to think the end of Cedar Island was worth covering as an example of the danger of climate change to a state that officially does not recognize its existence.

Perhaps that’s because Robert Hall’s dream was too mundane. Maybe when nearby Wallops Island, another barrier island in the same chain, which is disappearing at roughly the same rate as Cedar Island, also slips beneath the waves, attention will be paid. Because it will take with it a billion-dollar NASA space-flight facility.

There it goes. Another quintessentially American story.


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10 Responses to One of Our Islands is Missing

  1. Tom says:

    Hey, easy come, easy go eh? It’s the American cultural story of recklessness, thoughtlessness, hubris, greed, addiction, bullying, and multiple personality disorder writ large – that’s the so-called American “dream” of wrecking the environment, failing to live as a humble steward of an ecosystem, falling for our own foolish ideas as something to act on – so one can be RICH! Ah, that false reward is just so fascinating, isn’t it? Yeah, we all got sucked in – no place for any other way (found that out back in the ’60’s) and here we are!

    Not that ours is the ONLY version of human stupidity – it’s prevalent the world over.
    In fact i’m inclined to think of our worldview as a genetic defect or infection of mass hallucination now. The predicament we’re in is so baffling, implacable, and hideous that all we can do is bear witness and try to remain sane and kind along the way down, while accepting our coming demise at any time (as it’s always been), to maybe live with a bit more urgency and appreciation for the miracle it is to even be here.

    Thanks Mr. Lewis for another spectacular post.

  2. John Flatley says:

    Just found your wonderful site. Thank you! I’ll visit often.

  3. Mike Kay says:

    The issue with climate change is not simply environmental, or simply political, or simply economic. For example; currently at least 20 facilities around the world maniacally beam intense microwaves into the ionosphere, and get press when they celebrate the “achievement” of creating artificial plasma clouds in this region. No one, to my knowledge, has ever imagined what the consequences of super heating the atmosphere might be
    Currently, the imposition of the “carbon tax” is gaining traction, and like all taxes, this one disappears into the financial netherworld never to be seen again.
    Meanwhile, forest ecosystems around the planet are collapsing at catastrophic rates.
    The picture certainly appears to be one of insanity given free rein, with multiple (hopefully) unintended consequences, overlaying a natural, living world that is failing under the strain.

  4. b traven says:

    “Son,” my father said to me, “someday this will all be yours.”

    Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle

  5. Yeah, waterfront property is desirable the world over and developers will do whatever it takes to build houses in flood plains and along shorelines of lakes and oceans. Even without ocean level rise this was a problem. I remember decades ago driving along the shores of Lake Michigan and seeing houses falling into the lake. After the last great flood on the Mississippi, some small riverside towns got relocated a little farther away from the river. Despite the best efforts of the army corps of engineers, shorelines are forever moving, not on a geologic time line but rather at a rate that humans can detect within their own lifetimes.
    On the opposite end of the flood are droughts. In California where I now live, most lakes are reservoirs fed by water runoff from the Sierra Nevada and other mountain ranges. Given the drought, water levels in the lakes are going down and for sale signs are popping up in waterfront resort towns. Google maps gets confused as well. Maps show nominal shorelines along with an overlay of roads. As a result, when the lakes are filled in to nominal capacity on the maps, many of the roads appear to be under water. But they are not. The roads reflect the need to get cars and boat trailers to the new water’s edge which is far from where it used to be. Yes, shorelines are ephemeral and an ongoing headache for mapmakers.

  6. Surly1 says:

    Tom, Cedar Island is actually north of Virginia Beach, It’s on the Delmarva peninsula, part of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Not far from the Wallops Island facility you mention. From Norfolk one can drive to the edge of the Bay and watch the occasional night launch from Wallops. For now, as Norfolk is dealing with both the same sea level rise you mention, as well as subsidence issues of its own. In 100 years Virginia waterfront property will start at Williamsburg.

  7. Surly1 says:

    Wow. That’s pretty amazing. I live in this area and have never heard of THAT Cedar Island. As you can see it’s pretty small and on the leeward side of the outer barrier island. Perhaps the Google has done what the former developer did, and written Cedar Island off entirely.

  8. Denis Frith says:

    I am glad that authorities are considering how best to protect New York from sea level rise. More barriers are being erected on the Thames River to protect London. And, of course, the Dutch are putting in more dykes to protect their low lying land. Even here, in Australia, authorities have provided information on those Melbourne suburbs will suffer from flooding. It is good that some people are being sensible!