Case Analysis: Smith Island

The issue surrounding the fate of Smith Island, the last inhabited island of the Chesapeake By is controversial at heart. In response to the damage caused by hurricane Sandy in October of 2012, the state government considered using two million dollars of their allotted federal disaster aid to begin to buy out the inhabitants of Smith Island. In this proposed situation, the government would buy houses from the Smith Islanders, tear them down and ensure that the land would remain undeveloped. In theory, this would reduce the population of Smith Island as the island continues to be a target during natural disasters. According to Rev. Richard Edmund, the minister of Smith Island, a few inquiries were voiced in reference to the potential buyout, but no individual definitively committed to the proposal. Smith Island United, a group focused on the preservation of the island, banded together to fight this proposal, wrote letters and created social media attention. The end decision of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development  (DHCD) was against the buyout due to the overwhelming opposition from Smith Islanders.  Visiting the island and listening to the people talk about this specific event, one can begin to understand the specific relationship these people have with their land. Many are vocally opposed to leaving the island even as others encourage it. The underlying issue for the fate of the island seems to be rooted in the struggle for the people to remain living on Smith Island in spite of outside opposition.

In proposing a buyout of Smith Island, the Maryland DHCD may not have taken into consideration an important ethical aspect of such an event. Although this program would have been voluntary, it would have been in place of other financial assistance for damage from the hurricane. Those who could not afford to rebuild or repair their homes may not have had a choice other than selling their home and leaving the island. Uprooting these people from their home could be seen as morally unjust. These people have lived on this island for generations and have created a very cohesive community, one that is noticeably different from communities on the mainland. If these people were displaced from Smith Island it would likely not be an easy transition.  Transitioning watermen into a more modern and structured lifestyle would be difficult due to the nature of such a job. The watermen work on their own time. They are their own bosses and changing this type of lifestyle while ripping them from their home and their community may seem unjust to some. Aside from the watermen, the others living on the island have become accustom to the security of the community. Moving these people in to areas of higher population and higher crime rates would be morally unacceptable.

Many are beginning to see the potential danger in keeping a population of people on a naturally changing island. The demise of other Chesapeake Bay islands shed light on a possible future for Smith Island. If this island is fated to demise like the other islands of the Chesapeake, should the people leave now or stay on the island to watch their home get destroyed over time? The argument may be that the island still has time and may never be completely destroyed, but the people have already seen the degradation of their land and of their economy over a generation or so. If the people of Smith Island stay, they may be forced to watch as their livelihoods get swept away by natural disasters, economic depression. Some may find it unethical to keep these people on an island that may cease to exist in another generation.  Others may argue that the island might be able to recover and resist the effects of sea level rise and erosion using technology. At what point will this option fail? If sea levels are eventually going to rise, there will have to be major implements in place to counteract such an event. The fact that there is a possibility that the island could exist for another three hundred years may be enough to keep people there. Ethically, others should consider these possibilities for the people of Smith Island. If there is even a slight chance that the island could survive, the people should not have to unhappily live elsewhere.

The most ethically acceptable course of action is to keep the people of Smith Island in their homes. These people have the right to a happy life in the location of their choice and should not be forced to leave. One must consider empathy when assessing this situation. If this were our own community that was being targeted and coerced into moving, there would be the same opposition. Naturally, people are creatures of habit and often do not enjoy change, so in this case, it would be unethical to cause these people misery over leaving their home. It has been predicted that the entire Chesapeake region will eventually be subject to the affects of sea level rise (Earth Under Water), but these people do not seem to be targeted as the Smith Islanders have been. Those who wish to stay on the island have the right to live there and should continue to receive the support of the rest of the community in times of need. These people are continuing to take precautions against these disasters by means of evacuation and technologies protecting the island itself.  They are not putting themselves in any more danger than the rest of the area. These people may need to find other alternative courses of action to prevent the destruction of their island, but it seems that it will be no different than the course of action our entire area will need to take in the long run.  The decisions of the Smith Islanders should be respected so that they can live happily on their home island rather than be forced to flee to an area that may have the same issues as the place they fled.


 Earth Under Water. Dir. Tilman Remme. National Geographic, 2011. Film

Giles, Ben. “Scientists Warn of Smith Island’s Demise, Residents Are Skeptical .The Philip Merrill College Of Journalism, 20 Apr. 2010. Web.

 Smith Island Environmental Restoration. US Army Corps Of Engineers.

State of Maryland Action Plan for Disaster Recovery Community Development Block Grant Program. Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.


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