Coast weathers severe nor'easter

Life began to return to normal in coastal Delaware on Wednesday, as flood waters from this week’s late-season nor’easter finally began to recede and damage assessment turned into recovery. The sounds of chain saws, pumps and rakes were common throughout the area mid-week, as property owners sought to clean up what Mother Nature had flooded, shredded and broken Monday into Tuesday morning.

By mid-day Wednesday, the deep flooding on Pennsylvania Avenue in Bethany Beach seen Monday and Tuesday had been reduced to a few lingering puddles and piles of shredded leaves and broken twigs, ready to be cleaned up with a broom while wearing sandals rather than buckets while wearing waders.

Bethany Beach public works crews on Tuesday had cleared the town’s wooded property at Garfield Parkway and Route 1 of fallen limbs, joining many of their neighbors who conducted similar clean-up operations starting as soon as winds from the storm died down and water retreated into the inland bays.

Trees were the most common victim of the powerful mid-May nor’easter, whose gusts peaked at 60 mph in Bethany, according to resident Harry Steele’s rooftop weather station. They took along with them power and telephone lines, leaving as many as 60,000 customers of Delmarva Power and Delaware Electric Cooperative without power at the peak of the damage. Crews had most of that power restored Tuesday.

Motorists were detoured mid-afternoon Monday from Route 26 at White’s Neck Road, near the Millville Pet Stop, due to a large tree downed next to the roadway, near power lines.

Other casualties of the wild weather included the wooden marquee sign at the Cottage Café, which broke at its midpoint, as well as several cars in the area, with reports of one vehicle hit by a falling tree on Cedar Neck Road near Ocean View and two others damaged at car dealerships in Selbyville, by a falling tree and a falling billboard.

Reports of roofs and siding damaged in the storm were also common early in the week, as the fierce winds stripped shingles from roofs and siding from buildings, throwing it around to land on neighbors’ properties.

South Bethany resident Mark Brown apologized with some mirth to neighbor and town council member John Fields on Tuesday afternoon for depositing shingles in his driveway, saying the damage to his home hadn’t even been visible until viewed from another neighbor’s deck. Fields praised the town’s public works department for clearing up the mess early on Tuesday, without so much as a call.

Fenwick Island Building Official Pat Schuchman reported Tuesday that one property in the town had lost a roof in the storm, while others lost some shingles or siding, with minimal damage overall. She said back-bay flooding had persisted through high tides on Monday and Tuesday morning.

Flooding shuts down Route 1, envelops Bethany

Flooding was the major impact from the storm for most area residents, with inland bays, creeks and canals rising feet above their normal highs as high tides on Monday afternoon, Monday night and Tuesday afternoon were driven even higher by fierce onshore winds.

Coastal Point staffers watched on Monday as White’s Creek slowly rose to cover the marsh and a private pier behind their office, then rose above the level of landscape lighting at a neighboring home before enveloping most of the property owner’s back yard and the first two steps leading to the office’s first floor, ending up just a few feet below the parking lot surface.

“This is the highest I’ve ever seen it,” said Point Publisher Susan Lyons, a lifelong resident of the area and avid kayaker.

Downtown Bethany Beach on Tuesday morning remained flooded from rain and the overflowing Loop Canal, with Pennsylvania Avenue closed from Garfield Parkway to the north, though some drivers found ways around traffic barriers and used side streets to access the flooded area, despite warnings from police not to traverse flooded roads.

Trash cans and newspaper boxes floated down the street, while an apparently abandoned car sat in the middle of Campbell Place west of Pennsylvania Avenue, up to its wheel wells in water.

But flood waters in the town receded surprisingly quickly on Tuesday. A high-water mark on the steps leading to Bethany Blues indicated the water had dropped at least 5 inches from its high point during the storm to the level seen at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Water continued to swirl deep around Sedona at that point, but the town was all but dry again on Wednesday.

The Indian River Bay and its offshoots also overflowed their usual banks during the storm, running over onto Route 1 as Monday progressed and forcing state police and transportation officials to close Route 1 from Fred Hudson Road to Dewey Beach, as well as Fred Hudson Road near Route 1 and Old Mill Road in Millville, which crosses a flood-prone section of White’s Creek.

Route 1 and the Indian River Inlet Bridge remained closed for nearly 24 hours, starting at 4:30 p.m. on Monday and running until mid-afternoon Tuesday. Motorists traveling south on Route 1 were advised to take Route 24 to U.S. 113 to Route 26. Northbound motorists on Route 1 were directed to take Routes 26 or 54 west to U.S. 113 north.

Officials in the Indian River School District canceled classes two hours early on Monday and announced that evening that schools on Tuesday would open two hours late, with no morning kindergarten.

Indian River High School’s band and chorus concert was rescheduled for Monday, May 19, at 7 p.m. And Lord Baltimore Elementary School in Ocean View was among the buildings that lost power at various points during the day Monday as the weather’s impact spread.

Evacuations in the area were limited to two communities well to the north of the Lewes-Rehoboth area, with comparatively little impact to the south compared to communities on the Delaware Bay.

Beach damage assessment under way

Tony Pratt, program administrator for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s (DNREC’s) Shoreline and Waterway Division, was in the area on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, surveying the damage that had already taken place and getting a game plan moving for the beaches’ recovery.

“We’re getting a better idea where the extent of the dune damage is and how much coming back,” Pratt told the Coastal Point on Wednesday afternoon, fresh from a helicopter overflight of the shoreline. “There’s a lot of sand moving back in fast,” he said.

Pratt said that he had particularly noted accumulation of returning sand where the grounded ship was resting on Bethany’s shore.

“There’s a good bit of sand about 20 or 30 feet in front of the stern and it’s moving rapidly,” he said. “During the next couple tides, we expect to see it welding onto the beach, through tomorrow and Friday.”

DNREC workers had already begun repair efforts on Wednesday, cleaning up fence poles and downed dune fencing up and down the coast, Pratt said.

Over the longer term, Pratt said, the recovery effort for the area’s beaches would depend on the availability of sand. As sand naturally begins to return to the shore, he said, “We’ll start pushing it with ’dozers, back onto the dune. I don’t know where we’re going to be able to start. It’s going to be where the sand is available first. We may start in Rehoboth or I may spread the equipment around.”

Pratt said officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was responsible for the beach reconstruction projects throughout the area, were particularly looking at the Bethany Beach/South Bethany project area now that the storm had passed.

“The Corps is surveying the Bethany/South Bethany project, as far as sand loss, and we’ve been doing the same thing in Rehoboth with our crews,” he said. “We’re trying to get some hard data on the losses and look at it from an engineering standpoint to see what can be done.”

“Bethany/South Bethany is still an active project,” Pratt emphasized, with the final phases of construction only now being completed as final bits of dune fencing were being installed this spring.

“We’re waiting to see what the Corps’ assessment is and whether anything can be done while it’s still under contract with Weeks Marine. We can’t bring the dredge back in, but we want to see if we can move the equipment back up and repair it that way.”

Push on for beach access by Memorial Day weekend

Time is of the essence in this recovery project, in more ways than one.

“In a week or so, we will know a little bit more than we do now,” said Pratt, noting that a return to “normal” weather would allow the beach to begin accumulating sand and set a level from which recovery efforts would proceed.

“I am absolutely sensitive to the fact that Memorial Day weekend is coming up,” he emphasized, acknowledging the official beginning of the all-important summer season at the shore. “And then we’ll have a couple weeks of quiet. But about that third week in June, people will be heading down for their vacations. So, we have about five weeks to really get things going.”

Pratt said his first focus is on getting access for residents and visitors alike to get onto the beach in time for the big holiday weekend.

“A big objective is to get down to beach,” he said. “It would be a real loss — absolutely a travesty — to have the beach be there and not have a way for people to get down there.”

That means that, alongside the now-anticipated dune reconstruction, “access a major thing,” according to Pratt.

“We’re already starting to work on it. In Bethany, we’ll need to push the sand up, and we’re pretty sure we can,” he said.

The goal mark for DNREC will be to have access to the beach restored in time for Memorial Day weekend’s crowds. But in just two short weeks, is that even possible?

“Assuming we don’t have another storm, that we have calm weather, definitely,” Pratt assured.

Beyond Memorial Day weekend, the attention will likely shift to the dune itself, he added, with the target to get some bit of the reconstructed beach’s pre-May 12 appearance and function back for June vacationers.

“It’s all weather- and sand availability-dependant,” he noted. “If it’s like normal, if we have enough sand to work with, we’re going to work in the most populated areas first. In Bethany, we need to get the job done before people come in for their vacations at the end of June.”

Pratt said his yardstick for priority with the state’s sand and equipment resources would be based mostly on population. That would mean Bethany and Rehoboth would have first priority, since they see the most summertime visitors, he said. Dewey Beach, South Bethany and Fenwick Island – the latter two of which saw only minimal dune damage in the storm – would come lower on the list.

“If I have to make a choice, it’s going to be where the biggest crowds are,” he said.

As for Fenwick Island’s beach, which had its reconstruction completed in 2006, “I flew over it and it looks fine. It looks great,” confirmed Pratt after Wednesday’s overflight.

“South Bethany looked really good from the air,” he added. “It reconfirmed that it held up very well. The beach is depleted, but it’s already starting to repair itself, and the dune is in great shape.”

Grounded ship just one element of beach recovery

Residents clustered at the end of what was left of the beach walkways on Tuesday, peering down the beach at the most dramatic evidence of the storm’s power: the research vessel that had grounded itself just off Parkwood Street in Bethany Beach after its crew had been airlifted Monday morning from its foundering structure 14 miles off Rehoboth Beach to the hospital in Salisbury, Md.

One crew member was fatally injured when the ship lost power, listing to one side, and he was trapped under heavy equipment below-deck.

Town officials had sealed off the beach walkways at the dune crests on Wednesday, keeping onlookers back from the dune drop-off and away from the boat as salvage operations began. The section of the boardwalk between Hollywood Street and Oceanview Parkway was also closed.

Salvage workers on Wednesday said they were in the process of preparing the boat for a possible tow-out back into the Atlantic as soon as Thursday, May 15, or Friday, May 16.

Pratt said he was not concerned over any possible impact of the beached ship in Bethany on beach recovery efforts there. He said DNREC had brought in a bulldozer to help relocate a work trailer for the salvage project as the tide moved in Tuesday but that he had been told Thursday was the goal date for bringing in ocean-going tow boats to try to move the damaged liftboat back out to sea.

Storm impacts a testament to successful projects

Pratt said Monday afternoon that the damage to that point had already included some major dune erosion from Rehoboth Beach to the south, but particularly in the north.

“We’re taking quite a beating at the north end of Rehoboth Beach,” he said from that town during some of the worst parts of the storm. “We are seeing dune damage, and this event isn’t finished yet. … We are losing dune in Rehoboth, and parts of dunes all over.

South Bethany was seeing problems with blown sand on Monday and Tuesday — a common occurrence in the town from a nor’easter, even before beach reconstruction. Pratt said the town would be clearing sand from Ocean Drive, where it started to create its own mini-dunes Monday, as usual, after the storm.

Brown and Fields both noted substantial flooding in the gully between South Bethany’s Ocean Drive and the back edge of the new dune.

“It’s below sea level, and the water just seeps through the dune,” Fields said Tuesday, noting that the town now plans to ask DNREC to fill in some of the gully to raise it above sea level and eliminate the collection of water there, which had been seen even prior to the nor’easter.

Fenwick Island Town Manager Tony Carson said that town’s beach had seen a pretty rough tide, too, but had weathered it well.

“Water came up to the dune line. But it looks like it held up as good as can expected in weather like that,” he said, adding, “The good thing is we are having the beach clean–up on Saturday, so it’s good timing for that!”

The most concrete damage to the recently completed replenishment effort may be damage to the new beach walkways in Bethany and South Bethany.

Pratt said, “The front end of the dune is chopped off, so the walkways are chopped off.”

By 9 a.m. Tuesday, the extent of the damage was clear — a 6-foot and higher drop-off in some locations in Bethany, from the remaining portion of the dune to the beach, with dune fence dangling over the edge.

Pratt said Monday afternoon that the damage in south coastal Delaware to that point was minimal compared to that to the north.

“Right now, we’re having severe property damage on the Delaware Bay,” he emphasized. “On the ocean coast, we’re looking at wind damage, trees down, siding coming off, but we’re not worried along the ocean coast about any house taking damage, or any sewer line, water line or roadway.”

Indeed, Pratt said much of what he was seeing in the Bethany Beach area appeared to be good news for the storm protection and beach reconstruction project.

“The damage is all confined to sand and fencing, which is good news,” he said. “I can only imagine what South Bethany would look like with this storm if we didn’t have the new dune. Half of Ocean Drive would be gone now and most of the town flooded — the same with Bethany, if we hadn’t had this in place.”

Pratt said the minimal damage thus far was an indicator of the success of the storm protection factor provided by the beach reconstruction project.

“That’s what we planned for. That’s what we wanted the sacrifice to be — not the town and not the boardwalk,” he emphasized. “We’ll know how well it really fared in a few weeks.”

Pratt said DNREC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would come back and fix whatever damage was done to the replenished shorelines in this storm.

“We can’t put it back before Memorial Day the way it looked two days ago, but we will have people on the beach, and the towns will serviceable,” he promised of the upcoming kickoff to the summer season. “The beach is going, if it calms down, to look pretty good, and it will be a nice place for people to recreate on. We’ll get it built back up and the fencing back in place.”

Coastal Point Staff Reporters Ryan Saxton and Monica Fleming contributed to this story.