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.