The First Climate Refugees in the U.S.?
The small island of Tangier sits 12 miles off the coast of Virginia. It’s a peaceful, salt-of-the-earth kind of place, with only 600 full-time residents, most of whom have known their neighbors—commercial crabbers, watermen, schoolteachers, parishioners—for generations. Shortly, however, that may all come to an end.
As soon as 25 years from now, Tangier is expected to disappear into the sea. The people who live there, along with the residents of similar coastal towns and islands threatened by sea-level rise, may become among the first U.S. climate refugees.
“I don’t want to be the last generation to live out here,” says a young crabber in Jeff Leeds Cohn’s documentary Tangier, premiering on The Atlantic today. “It’s heartbreaking… a place that you call home and you just love so much.”
Cohn’s short film is a solemn, atmospheric journey into the town’s partially water-logged streets. Visiting Tangier for the first time with his camera in tow, Cohn walked around, talked to people he encountered, and sometimes followed them as they went about their daily routines. “I tried to focus on the people rather than the politics,” Cohn told The Atlantic, “but it’s an inherently political subject…The idea of man-made climate change is not widely accepted there.”
In September 2017, after a major report detailing Tangier’s fate was published in Nature, President Trump called the town’s mayor, James Eskridge, to reassure him that “your island will be there for hundreds [of years] more.” Recently, the Army Corps of Engineers designated March 2019 as the new date for construction on a sea wall to mitigate coastal erosion. But the project has been delayed many times over the years, and according to Cohn, the town’s residents are skeptical that this time will be any different.
“The reality is that Tangier is one storm away from catastrophe,” Cohn said.
Residents need not use their imagination to envision Tangier’s evanescence. 90 years ago, a neighboring community, Uppards, met the same fate. In one especially affecting scene in the film, Cohn visits the abandoned town. What remains is—literally—a graveyard.
“Standing on the beach in Uppards was one of the most surreal experiences of my life,” he said. “You can read all the statistics and hear stories of towns being devastated by storms, but until you’re standing on the shore and watching the waves lapping at the foundation of someone’s house do you really get it. I couldn’t even read the names on the old headstones because they’d been sanded off in the surf. Seeing that firsthand was deeply affecting for me.”
“It would be almost impossible to move to the mainland and start over,” says another Tangier resident in the film. “The water is what we know—it’s what we do. This will all disappear. There are times I feel like we’re fighting for our lives.”