Way of life washed away

Watermen: Tangier Islanders who lost the makings of their bay-dependent livelihood to the rage of Isabel wonder how they will recover.Watermen awash in storm loss

April 17, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

TANGIER ISLAND, Va. -- Tropical Storm Isabel ripped through the harbor of this Chesapeake Bay outpost last fall, destroying a rough-hewn collection of crab shanties and threatening the precarious hold that islanders have on their way of life.

The hard-crab season is off to a sluggish start in still-chilly waters. Rebuilding the shacks will be crucial for harvesting soft-shell crabs when they begin molting in the next few weeks, and federal officials are trying to come up with a plan to help pay for the repairs.

But for now, 34 shanties are damaged or gone. Watermen are wondering how they'll manage. The economic ripple seems unavoidable in a community where the livelihoods of 602 inhabitants are as intertwined as the pieces of the ecosystem on which they depend.

"I'm not going to put it all back together this year, that's for sure," says William "Bit" Pruitt, who, at 60, has worked the water for 45 years. "It might be next year before I can be where I was, if then. Everything just costs a whole lot of money -- money I don't have."

According to an economic-impact analysis compiled by Town Manager Bill Reynolds, Tangier suffered nearly $2 million in damage from Isabel. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, a presence throughout the battered bay region after the storm, won praise for helping islanders whose homes were damaged.

But structures built over water -- such as the shacks that watermen say are as important to them as a barn is to a farmer -- aren't eligible for aid.

The needs of Tangier watermen, who can't get business insurance or qualify for government aid, sounds almost paltry: an estimated $3,600 apiece for plywood and two-by-fours, wood pilings, electrical wiring and switchboxes to rebuild the crab shanties. The tab would total about $122,000, Reynolds estimates.

But in a community where the median income is $26,000, there isn't much extra. Town leaders collected about $37,000 in a Tangier Relief Fund that was doled out in the weeks after the storm.

Beyond rebuilding, watermen whose shanties bore the brunt of the storm's fury when it slammed into the southeast corner of the harbor also must replace the shacks' freezers and refrigerators. Those with shanties that were largely unscathed on the north and west side of town have lent crab pots and other equipment to their colleagues.

"You could think of this whole setup, including your boat, as kind of a `401 plan' for a waterman," says Mayor Ed Parks, 56. "I lost diesel parts, tools, outboard motors. Pretty much everything you'd need to make your living on this water was right there -- everything you build up over time that you could sell whenever you retire."

Some have taken on low-interest small-business loans. But in the remote village, which sits about 12 miles out in the bay from Crisfield -- the main port for residents from Tangier, as well as those who live nearby on Maryland's Smith Island -- folks prefer to pay their own way.

"I'm just trying to do the pay-as-you-go method. I can't totally fix it, but I've done enough to at least be able to work," says 53-year-old Larry Dise. "Even if there are some low-interest loans, I've got all [the debt] I can handle right now."

Those who are financially able are scrambling to complete work on their shanties, especially the series of "floats" where molting crabs are kept during four distinct stages.

Constantly bathed in salt water pumped from the harbor, the "peeler" crabs are moved from one float to the next. When the final shedding is complete, watermen have about an hour to pack the soft crabs on ice for shipment to Crisfield or beyond.

The 24-hour-a-day operation demands constant attention from mid-May to late September.

Many islanders who derive the bulk of their income from soft crabs are now busy tending crab pots, catching hard crabs in the bay and in Tangier Sound -- work that could, if necessary, carry them until the season ends next fall.

Even that option requires significant investment, since an estimated 16,000 traps, worth $25 to $30 each, were washed from shanties when Isabel brought a 6-foot tide and 80- to 90-mph winds.

Jim Tyler, a 48-year-old crabber, earned a paycheck from FEMA for a few months, working on a crew that cleaned up debris left in the wake of Isabel. He hadn't worked since January but began setting crab pots when the season opened two weeks ago.

"I lost everything, a total wipeout," Tyler says. "It's something you put together all your life, then it's just gone."

William Bonniwell, 33, and his brother Craig, 30, are working with other watermen, tending crab pots. It was work they thought would last them until they started catching peelers. Now they're not so sure.

"This was a sad-looking place after that Isabel," William Bonniwell says. "After seeing that, I didn't think we'd ever be back to what it was."

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