Smith Island, Maryland – Three trucks set sail for a two-hour trip through the Chesapeake Bay Friday morning.
Smith Island, a small and isolated Maryland community of about 200, was hit by a water storm, and recovery efforts began within minutes. Like anything else that makes its way to the island, recovery will arrive by boat.
Shortly after a woman was injured by the tornado, severely damaging some buildings and cutting power to several residents around 7:30 p.m. Thursday, a boat was on its way. Denny Crockett of the A&N Electric Cooperative set out from Tangier Island, 10 miles south in Virginia, to begin efforts to restore power. He and others worked until about 1:30 a.m. on Friday, then “sitted” generators overnight as they tried to sneak in within two hours of falling asleep.
Later Friday morning, a crew on the mainland in Crisfield, Maryland pressed three electric trucks onto a barge, along with four electric poles and lots of wires. The barge set off by 11 AM and slowly made its way to the island, arriving after 1 PM and not making its full way to the damaged area until 4 PM.
Rebuilding on an island accessible only by boat and helicopter presents a unique challenge: each step of the recovery process requires a boat.
“We’re used to it, most of us have lived here our whole lives,” volunteer fire chief Eddie Evans Jr. said.
Tourists know Smith Island in Somerset County as a charming community with ancient roots. It is a relic of colonial America, and its inhabitants still speak with a rhythmic accent that blends Elizabethan English with tone.
Born on the island, Carol Ann Landon can trace the origins of her ancestors on the island to the early 17th century.
Her husband, Everett Landon, is the island’s patron, and he has stressed the importance of heritage for Smith Island, which prides itself on living a slow and steady life, rather than a “rat race.”
“It’s living history, what it is,” he said.
But Thursday brought something new as a typhoon hit the island for the first time in recent memory.
Betty Tyler and her family were on their pontoon boat when they spotted the water column – a rotating water column – near the island. She, her husband and others had spent 15 years building a manicured three-story home, which was completed in 2019. The building was originally planned to be their home, but two years ago they chose to convert it into a rental property that sleeps 14.
So Tyler and her family retreated to their home on Thursday, out of the way of the hurricane. After she passed, she called her son to check on his safety.
“He said, ‘What, the whole third floor is gone,'” Tyler recalls saying of the building that they almost made their home.
The top floor of the rental, dubbed “Island Time,” stretched across the island, with insulation up to a mile. A deformed bed frame, a twisted bike, and a mattress with a metal rod are pushed through it about 100 feet from the structure.
Although she spent years building the house, Tyler remained in good spirits on Friday, despite the damage. “Laughter is better than crying,” she repeated.
In addition, she described the damage to her home as “non-material” compared to what happened to her neighbour, who spent Thursday night in a hospital on the mainland.
“My third way,” she said, “has no meaning whatsoever for what the lady next door has experienced.”
This week was one of the highlights of the Smith Island calendar. The history of the Christian faith is so crucial to many residents, it’s time for the 136th Camp Meetings. It’s a period when people from all over the island – and a few from abroad – gather for a kind of religious revival.
Lindsey Bradshaw, one of the island’s many born residents, was in the meeting tent as part of camp meetings when his pager went off Thursday night. A volunteer firefighter, he checked his pager to discover that he had been called to the address of his 88-year-old mother, Doris.
He said: “They said: The collapse of a building.” “So I knew it wouldn’t be very good.”
When he arrived at the scene, a group of others assured him – “She’s fine!” – They all worked to remove the debris from it. Doris Bradshaw’s trailer was flattened, her belongings, furniture, and appliances thrown on the floor in a whirlwind. But her bed, while she is inside, is relatively untouched.
While receiving help, a defenseless resident wiped her hair, and Bradshaw replied, “I just fixed my hair – don’t ruin my hair.”
One of two island ambulances drove her to the quayside, where Terry Laird—a boat captain and another Smith Island resident of 72 years—carried her in his 1977 watercraft to the mainland, where she was taken to hospital.
Bradshaw was still receiving treatment on Friday as her son was working to clean up the wreckage of her trailer. Like many other islanders, Lindsey Bradshaw thanked God for his mother’s miraculous survival, given the destruction of her home.
When asked what Smith Island meant to him, Bradshaw stopped and exploded. He’s lived on the island for all his sixty years, and he’s not going to replace that with anything.
He said, “There is no place like it.”
The majority of Smith Island is in good condition. Although there were no tourists on the island on Friday, due to the ferry cancellation, it is likely that they will be allowed to return soon. Smith Island Cake, Maryland’s state dessert, has been sold out. Camp meeting services continued, as did life on the island – their patented slow motion version.
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However, there is still a rebuilding to be done. Seventeen homes were damaged across the island and some will need extensive work.
Tyler wasn’t sure if she’d ever get the third floor back from the vacation rental she had spent more than a decade building. Each step in the process adds a unique challenge not encountered anywhere else on Maryland’s east coast.
“You just order 500 pieces of wood, and then you pick them up, and you have to put them on the boat,” Tyler said. “And you have to pick it up from the boat and put it in your truck, then take it out of the truck and put it in the yard, and then you take it home.”
On Friday afternoon, locals – each with identical Old English accent and friendly demeanor – exchanged stories about where they were when the hurricane landed or what they saw. One resident heard what he described as bricks on his roof, while another wrapped himself in a blanket to protect himself from the shattering glass of the boat he was inside. Some have described the noise as “like a freight train coming” or the color of a hurricane at some point as “as black as your bitches.”
Even while processing events, recovery efforts began. A restaurant owner in Crisfield put Gatorades, water, and snacks in a boat bound for Smith Island, while some on the island were sending out phone calls from people willing to donate thousands of dollars to the cause.
As the three trucks worked to restore power after their Chesapeake ride, Tyler began taking measures to protect her now-vulnerable rental from more wind and rain. A crew of volunteers placed dozens of two-by-fours on top of the exposed building, laying the foundation for a tarp to protect it from the elements.
The planks of that day were picked up, like nothing else, by boat.