Thursday, September 1, 2011

Crews Working To Reopen Assateague

Parking Lot/February 2010

ASSATEAGUE -- Officials at Assateague Island National Seashore and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge are scrambling to reopen Assateague beach by the holiday weekend after Hurricane Irene destroyed the parking lots, depositing up to 18 inches of sand in some places.

The storm also created a breach at least 100 yards wide just north of the parking area joining Swan's Cove with the Atlantic Ocean.

"None of the damage was minor," said Refuge Manager Lou Hinds, adding "the best-case scenario" is to have 200-300 parking spaces available this weekend.

There are usually 961 parking spaces at the beach.

Hinds said the U.S. Park Service found more damage than was first thought. The latest plan officials are considering is to rebuild whatever spaces can be put in place by the weekend, then stop until spring because the demand for parking goes down after Labor Day and there is "a high probability it would only get washed away" during winter storms, he said.

The beach remained closed to visitors during the last full week of the summer season as workers using heavy equipment attempted to rebuild as many of the parking spaces as possible before Labor Day weekend, when thousands of tourists traditionally flock to the refuge and seashore.

The refuge reopened Tuesday under a temporary arrangement that includes opening a lifeguard-protected beach two miles north of the current recreational area, which visitors can access by bicycle or on foot.

In recent years the beach parking lots at times were completely full during holiday weekends, with one vehicle being allowed onto the refuge as another left.

"We knew this day would come... It just happened the storm hit the weekend before Labor Day weekend," said Hinds, who in the past has warned local and federal officials of the need for a backup plan in case a storm wiped out beach parking during the tourist season.

The remnants of Hurricane Ida last year also destroyed the parking lots, but workers had time to rebuild them before the next summer, at a cost of $450,000.

Hinds accompanied Chincoteague Mayor Jack Tarr, Accomack County Supervisor Wanda Thornton and other Chincoteague officials on a tour to inspect the damage, as well as to see the northern beach, which he proposed to open as a temporary solution to provide beach access to visitors this week.

That area, including plans for up to 8.5 acres of parking, is also proposed as the permanent site for the recreational beach in the future in two of four alternatives listed in the refuge's Comprehensive Conservation Plan. The plan was unveiled at recent open houses at Assateague Beach and the Chincoteague Center and was the subject of two public input meetings in Melfa and Pocomoke City.

Thornton kept an upbeat attitude after viewing the damage, saying, "It isn't as bad as I anticipated -- I've seen it a whole lot worse."

She predicted the breach at Swan's Cove will fill in over time.

Thornton also said Labor Day is traditionally not as busy for the seashore as other holidays like July Fourth.

Donna Mason, owner of Waterside Inn, said while she had some cancellations from guests affected in their home areas by Irene, bookings were holding steady for the weekend.

"We're hoping for a good weekend," she said. "Just tell them Chincoteague is open for business."

The northern beach, accessible from the Swan's Cove Trail off the Wildlife Loop, will have lifeguards on duty from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., but it will have very limited facilities.

Refuge officials encourage visitors to bicycle to the refuge due to the lack of available parking.

Vehicles may enter the refuge, but can go only as far as the Herbert H. Bateman Educational and Administrative Center. Limited parking is available there, as well as at the lighthouse, which will be open normal hours, and at the wildlife loop.

In addition to destroying the parking lots, Irene left groups of Chincoteague ponies freely roaming the beach road and the Bateman Center parking lot after gates were opened ahead of the storm's arrival to allow the ponies to seek higher ground. The ponies are usually kept away from areas frequented by people.

Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company's Saltwater Cowboys at some point will round up the ponies, for the second time this summer, and return them to their customary grazing grounds. But refuge officials did not put a timetable on that effort, saying they are sensitive to the extra work volunteer fire and rescue personnel put in before, during and after the storm.

In the meantime, drivers should proceed cautiously to avoid harming ponies they encounter in the road or parking lots. Visitors should not approach the wild ponies.

Entrance fees to the refuge were waived this week during the recovery effort. The refuge is open during reduced daylight hours, 7 a.m.-8 p.m., with tentative plans to resume normal hours Friday.


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