Maryland’s iconic Smith Island faces one of the nation’s most dire forecasts for rising seas, but real estate is booming
July 5, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
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.
What followed was a year of worry, endless paperwork, battles with an insurance company, and struggle with a dilemma that will define Smith Island’s future and that of millions of Americans in cherished places threatened by climate change: Should they stay or go?
A new life as ‘come heres’
Woutila and Pueschel lived in the Baltimore suburbs for years, but she always dreamed of living on a sailboat and he of owning waterfront property. As they scouted real estate listings, they hit upon a marshy plot in the middle of the Chesapeake: Smith Island.
Waterfront homes run roughly from $100,000 to $200,000 — far less than most spots on the mainland — so it was one of the few places that fit the couple’s budget. In comparison, a two-bedroom condo on the water in Annapolis recently sold for $530,000 and a small home near a dock in Shady Side, Md., went for $360,000.
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The island is the last inhabited one in Maryland not accessible by car, so its isolation was appealing. It takes a windswept, 45-minute boat ride skimming across whitecaps to reach its shores.
“This is a good baby step between society and living in the mountains by yourself,” Woutila quipped.
The classic memoir about the place is titled “An Island Out of Time.” Some residents trace their lineage to the first European settlers in the 1600s, island speech features colonial-era relics, and watermen continue the old ritual of steering boats out before dawn to harvest oysters and “scrape” for soft-shell crabs. The island is a living thread connecting the bay’s deep traditions to the present.
Woutila and Pueschel found their dream spot in Rhodes Point, one of the three villages that form Smith Island. They purchased a double-wide trailer with a zigzagging dock to park their boats. They could watch the sun rise over Tangier Sound out one window and set over the Chesapeake Bay from another.
They settled into life as “come heres,” as native islanders call newcomers. Woutila became manager of the Smith Island Cultural Center, while Pueschel planned to get his captain’s license to ferry tourists out on sailboat tours while working a software engineering job that didn’t require him to be in the office.
They grew to love the old-fashioned rhythms of island life and its tics. They play bingo in the community hall on Friday nights and had to learn to navigate “backwards talk” — the local habit of saying the opposite what someone means, as in “I don’t care much for you” for “I like you.” They handed out money to children when they went door to door for the “Christmas Giving.”
Laura Evans, a longtime resident who works as the island’s hair dresser, notary and electoral judge, among other jobs, decided to add one more title in 2021: real estate agent. She said she got her license mainly to help sell older properties that needed cleaning up. She hoped to move one or two a year.
But she said she was stunned when she sold five properties during one of the first weekends she was open for business. She said the pace hasn’t slowed. All told, 50 homes on the island have sold since 2020, representing about 20 percent of the housing stock, according to Multiple Listing Service data. The population of permanent residents on the island is around 240.
Buyers include a doctor from Indiana, a retired teacher from Minnesota and a marine biologist from Florida. Most are part-time residents, but a handful like Woutila and Pueschel have taken up island living permanently. They said in interviews they were lured by the uniqueness of the place, and few felt climate change was an imminent threat to their property. Some said they wanted to experience Smith Island before it possibly disappears.
“People want to escape the chaos,” Evans said. “You have that idyllic boat ride over. For 35 to 40 minutes, you can put your mind at ease, relax and just enjoy being out on the water. Then you reach the island and it’s just such a slow pace of life.”
Many residents get around by golf cart, so there are few cars, and restaurants close at 4 p.m. Crime is virtually nonexistent — some people leave their doors unlocked, and police officers are relegated to the mainland.
Evans and others said the newcomers have refreshed old homes and brought new energy and investment. They said there is still a ways to go, but such a turnabout was unthinkable just a handful of years ago.
By the time Hurricane Sandy arrived in 2012, Smith Island had suffered a long decline. The population had dwindled from a peak of around 800 in the 1900s to less than 200 and an economy centered on crabs and oysters was fading. Roads were crumbling and a sewer plant failing.
Another threat was also looming: climate change.
William Sweet, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the island, which averages a couple feet above sea level, could see bay waters rise by roughly a foot by about 2050, meaning even moderate flooding could send waters sloshing across the land. By 2100, Sweet said, an additional foot of sea-level rise is expected — a scenario that could submerge most of the island.
Sweet said Smith Island’s situation is worse because it is sinking, a process caused by land settling after the last ice age, groundwater pumping and the compaction of earth stirred up by an ancient meteor strike.
Attitudes vary toward climate science on the island. Some accept the projections, and others reject them. Many think the island’s population centers will escape the worst-case scenarios based on what they’ve seen so far. A common refrain from locals is that Smith Island’s biggest problem is “erosion.”
With bleak predictions of sea-level rise as a backdrop, Maryland officials in 2013 offered buyouts to some island residents following the damage wrought by Sandy. The plan angered and galvanized the majority of natives, who felt it could lead to a death spiral for their way of life.
“If government is buying you out, they are not going to reinvest,” said Eddie Somers, who grew up on Smith Island and now lives on the mainland. “It was going to kill the culture and place.”
Somers and others rallied against the buyouts, which the state dropped, and formed a group called Smith Island United to ensure the island is “around 400 years from now.” The group mounted a remarkably effective lobbying campaign. Somers is now president.
They drew up a vision plan for the island’s renewal in 2015 and have doggedly pursued local, state and federal funding to make it happen in the years since. That includes getting $9 million for a shoreline project protecting the wildlife refuge on the north part of the island, nearly $7 million for jetties to safeguard Rhodes Point, and millions more for roads, docks, sewers and other upgrades.
Somers and others said they are once again optimistic about Smith Island’s future. Wesley Bradshaw, a 78-year-old island native and retired waterman, said he’s noticed the change.
“Something’s in the wind,” Bradshaw said. “There’s a lot going on on this little island.”
But others are not as optimistic.
Mike Tidwell, the founder and director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network who made a film about Smith Island, said he would like nothing more for the island to survive, but the harsh reality is that it will likely be uninhabitable soon. He said it’s time to plan for an exit — not push for more homeowners.
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Some studies have shown similar trends elsewhere. One found more Americans are moving into hot urban areas and zones prone to wildfires that will be intensified by climate change. Hurricanes have become more devastating in Florida because millions have bought homes in their paths in recent decades.
“Smith Island is such an iconic place that lingers in the imagination of Marylanders as part of our real Maryland heritage. The idea that it would just disappear and we would raise the white flag is unthinkable for most people,” Tidwell said. “But if you do the math, that retreat is inevitable.”
Woutila knew those predictions better than most.
She was an environmental science major at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and had spent a class studying Smith Island. She and Pueschel said they accept the climate science. Both said they moved to the island fully aware of what its ultimate fate might be.
“I definitely wanted to experience it while I could,” Woutila said. “What’s the rate waters will rise? It may be 10 years or may be 100 years. Hopefully, it will be closer to 100 years.”
That hope was severely tested on Aug. 4, 2022.
The couple had moved into their home just weeks earlier. A brand new washing machine still sat uninstalled in the living room. It was around 7 p.m. when Pueschel said he heard thunder and decided to go to his dock to shoot photos of the storm clouds.
As he reached the front door, Pueschel said he yelled — he watched the roof peel off a nearby outbuilding and tumble by. Woutila hit record on her cellphone and captured the harrowing scene of a waterspout ripping through their backyard.
The video begins with another chunk of building slamming into the ground as the wind whistles.
“Holy s—!” Woutila yelled.
Woutila and Pueschel then retreated into the center of their mobile home and lay on the floor until the twister moved on.
When Woutila looked outside, she realized the home of her 88-year-old neighbor had been decimated by a direct hit. Woutila and Pueschel feared the woman had been killed, so they dashed over as the black funnel still loomed ominously in the distance. They found a stunning scene.
The house had been reduced to a heap of jagged boards and insulation, but their neighbor still lay in bed wearing the nightgown she had put on before turning in. She was shaken but suffered only a gash on her leg.
“She probably wouldn’t have made it if she was in her kitchen or living room,” Pueschel said.
The tornado continued to tear across the island, damaging 17 homes before spinning off into the bay.
Pueschel and Woutila soon discovered the extent of the damage to their home. The double-wide trailer cracked in half in the days after the tornado, and wind-whipped debris, including a red kayak, had badly damaged its walls. They soon concluded their home was a total loss.
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More bad news followed — their insurance company didn’t want to reimburse them because of an error in their paperwork. The couple spent months couch-surfing in homes across the island as they fought to win payouts for the damage to their home. Eventually, they purchased a camper, and it was floated across the bay on a barge to serve as a temporary residence.
But the biggest question remained: Would they stay?
On a recent day, Pueschel stuck his hand through a hole in the corner of the double-wide trailer punched by the twister. Behind it, the last section of their neighbor’s home was collapsing on a concrete pad. The woman had moved to a nursing home on the mainland.
Woutila pointed out tomato seedlings that she had hoped to plant but still sat in black trays. The salty bay water seeping into their front yard would kill them.
Almost nothing had gone according to plan during the couple’s first year on Smith Island. They fully believe climate change might one day force their exodus, but despite all the setbacks, they said they gave only fleeting consideration to leaving. They had grown attached.
Woutila said they had found something that outweighed all the risks: a home. They had made connections in the community and lived in a kind of paradise. Kayaking, fishing and trails were directly out their front door. Woutila understood it might seem irrational to others.
The couple got about $90,000 in payouts to rebuild their home. It was less than they needed, but they planned to defray the cost by doing some of the construction themselves. They hope to start in the next several months. Other Smith Islanders raised money through GoFundMe to rebuild their homes.
Woutila, Pueschel and others on the island want to hold on to this place as long as they can. There is no other like it.
“Everywhere you look here is absolutely beautiful,” Woutila said. “Everyone here is so nice. There is no crime. Everyone is going to come out to help you. When you go to the mainland you don’t have that.”
Story editing by Maria Glod. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Mina Haq. Design by Jennifer C. Reed.