- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2003

TANGIER ISLAND, Va. — For crabbers on this tiny Chesapeake Bay island who carry the legacy of the “Soft Shell Capital of the World,” Hurricane Isabel dealt a crushing blow to a way of life that has survived for generations.

“There is no crabbing industry right now. It’s gone,” Tangier Town Manager Bill Reynolds said after a 6-foot surge destroyed or damaged most crabbers’ shanties, collapsed their wharves and washed away thousands of traps.

Rudy Shores, who has crabbed on Tangier for 28 years, lost his entire operation, and like most watermen who build their piers offshore, has no insurance.

“We lost our building, floats, peeler pots, coolers, refrigerators, generators,” he said. “It was quite a shock when you pull into the harbor and just about everything you’ve accumulated over the last 25 years is gone in a couple of hours.”

Mr. Shores plans to rebuild because he said the entire Tangier community relies on the watermen to survive. The island has no other industry, save for the inns and restaurants that cater to tourists who flock here in the summertime.

Isolated over the centuries from the mainland, many of the 600 residents on Tangier are related and nearly a third share the surname Crockett — descendants of John Crockett, who settled the island with his eight sons in 1686. Residents still speak with the distinct Elizabethan accent of their ancestors from Cornwall.

There are few cars and trucks on the 3-mile-long island. Residents use golf carts to maneuver the narrow lanes lined with simple clapboard homes. Many had yards this week still resembling moats, with blades of grass poking through the water like tufts of hair.

Crabbing has dominated the local economy since the 1860s, when the railroad was extended to the nearest mainland town, Crisfield, Md. Today, Tangier still calls itself the “Soft Shell Capital of the World,” though local officials say that may be a thing of the past without federal aid.

Mayor Ed Parks, a Tangier native, estimated that 90 percent of the population is employed directly or indirectly by the crabbing business.

He said rebuilding is possible, but “it’s going to take a lot of money and a lot of time and manpower.” Officials have started a relief fund to help the watermen and their families.

Teddy Marshall, who has crabbed on Tangier for 17 years, was one of the lucky ones. He spent the night of the hurricane on his pier trying to protect his crab pots from flying debris.

“I thought the roof was going to blow off,” he said of his crabbing shanty. “My wife wanted me home, but I thought it was important to stay.”

Mr. Marshall said many of the 60-foot wharves that crumpled like pickup sticks in the 60 mph winds were old and dilapidated. One would go down and spill its load of crab pots into the Bay, he said, then blow into another one, knocking it down.

“Some have talked about rebuilding, some have no interest,” he said. “The water business is not what it used to be. The Chesapeake is overharvested. A lot of people are turning to tugboat jobs because they offer benefits.”

More than two-thirds of residents fled the island by ferry before the storm, returning earlier this week to begin cleaning up. Outside waist-high wire fences decorated with colorful buoys, people had formed mountains out of wooden planks, rolls of ruined carpets and bags of bundled reeds — testaments to the severity of the flooding.

Those more hard-bitten by previous storms decided to ride Isabel out near their businesses.

Grace Brown, a Tangier native who has run the Sunset Inn for 28 years, watched from one of her cottages as the water rose over the seawall and flooded five of her rooms.

“I have been here 28 years and it’s never been this bad,” she said. “We tried to save what we could.”

What Mrs. Brown couldn’t save was sitting in piles outside the cottages — stacks of water-logged carpet 6 feet high and mattresses left to dry in the sun. Still, she said she was lucky she didn’t lose power.

There was one other benefit. The storm surge deposited enough white sand to create a new beach at the southern end of the island.

“You should see what it’s brought us,” she said, beaming. “The sand is perfect. It’s pristine. We can’t figure out where it came from.”

A fund has been established to help the island recover: Tangier Island Relief Fund, P.O. Box 244, Tangier, Va., 23440.

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