"A place in crisis": Author documents life on disappearing Tangier Island

On a clear day, a peaceful boat ride to the middle of the Chesapeake Bay will bring you to Tangier Island, which is home to about 450 people facing a dire threat. Their island is slowly disappearing due to sea level change and shoreline erosion.

"You've got a remote community that's a working theocracy in many ways, that is facing the end times and trying to grapple with them and I thought that was a pretty irresistible draw," said author Earl Swift. 

Swift first set foot on the island as a reporter nearly two decades ago. He recently returned, and spent 14 months documenting a vanishing community and way of life for his book, "Chesapeake Requiem."

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"This is a place in crisis and it is merely the first of hundreds -- if not thousands -- of American towns that will be in similar crisis over the next 20 to 30 years," said Swift. "It's a question as to whether it's already too late for some parts of the country. And if it is, Tangier will be the first place to go." 

Since 1850, this island has lost two-thirds of its land mass. Some marine scientists believe water levels will rise about two more feet by the year 2050. Tangier rarely tops three feet above the tides.

Earl Swift said it is not too late for Tangier, but "not without heroic intervention," likely on the part of the federal government. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to build a $3 million jetty that would ease erosion next year.

The Corps wants approval by Congress and the Trump Administration for a large-scale study to examine how to protect Tangier. Solutions could be a seawall around the island, breakwaters, or relocation of residents to another part of the island or the mainland. 

The price tag could be hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. 

CBS News National Correspondent Chip Reid asked Tangier's mayor, James "Ooker" Eskridge, if he can imagine Tangier not existing. 

"No, no I can't," he said. "We've been here for hundreds of years and I want to be here for hundreds more. I don't even want to visit the thought that this will be gone one day."

Ooker is one of the many people on the island who make their living off the water, in what's become known as the "soft shell crab capital of the world." Ooker admits his island is disappearing, but he blames wave erosion, not climate change.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.