In Observations

Danny Dawson and Kathy Harvey love low-lying Dorchester county—he for his whole life, much of it as a waterman; she since she first came from the hills of Garrett county and crossed the Choptank River in 1980.

And they have built themselves an eye-catching retirement home here on the long Bishops Head peninsula that dangles marshily between the broad tidal waters of Honga River to the west and Fishing Bay to the east.

But what first catches your eye is not the charming bungalow; rather it is the bathtub appearance of their acre or so of land. Everything is diked in—“bermed” is the term used down here. A three-foot high wall of packed earth encircles everything, extending about a thousand feet.

On the outside of the berm, tides and salt rule, growing spartina grass, periwinkles, marsh elder and pine. Inside is lawn and trees, flowerbeds and a vegetable garden, all growing in topsoil that has been hauled in, as was the clay that made the berm.

Every feature is a response to high tides. Even the henhouse is raised. The septic tank is mounded up, as are three parking spaces for cars. Instead of a guard dog they’ve got a pet ‘guard goose’ who honks mightily at intruders.

They knew when they moved here they’d need more protection against tidal surges that appear to have been getting worse in recent decades, Danny says. “We’d see white perch and blue crabs swimming through some days, and great blue herons coming in to fish for them.”

Hurricane Isabel in 2003 underscored the point, putting some 20 inches of water on the property in the town of Wingate that did not recede for days.

During Isabel’s record surge, which put nearly half of Dorchester county underwater, Danny and Kathy were sitting on the front porch about 2 A.M. when a 20-foot john boat, powered by a 100 hp Mercury outboard, cruised up the driveway and tied to the porch. “You wouldn’t happen to have some cigarettes and a beer?” It was Danny’s nephew, Andy, out assisting neighbors in retrieving possessions that had gone afloat.

They would eventually contract with Donnie Moore in Cambridge, whose construction company has become the go-to place for the increasing number of Dorchester homeowners concerned about rising tides.

Berming in a place is not as simple as just piling up dirt. Digging ditches in what are usually tidal wetlands runs afoul of too many regulations, so dirt for a berm must be hauled in—more than 70 truckloads so far at Danny and Kathy’s place.

Mr. Moore says you don’t want the berm so high that if it were to be breached by an historic tide, it would allow water to pile up high enough to flood the home inside the diking. At Danny Dawson’s he installed drainpipes so that after a heavy rainfall, they can remove caps on the ends of the pipe and drain water off to the marshes outside the berm.

You have to wait for low tide outside to do that, so saltwater doesn’t run in through the drains, Danny Dawson says. Another satisfied Donnie Moore customer demonstrated how she waits for low tide to mow the vegetation on the outside of her berm.

Kathy Harvey is yet another of many locals we’ve talked to who swears that after Isabel’s floodwaters lay on the land for days, drainage patterns changed permanently. “We saw a four or five inch depression of our yard after Isabel,” she says.

Rising tides and sinking land not with standing, “I plan on living here the rest of my life,” says Danny, 66.

“If you want to go fishing, it’s right here; if you want to go crabbing it’s right here,” Kathy says. Adds Danny: “when I come back from Cambridge and I hit that big marsh, I always slow right down, just look around…It’s such an amazing place.”

 

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