BREAKING NEWS: Boat removed from beach, temporary access restored

Workers from Delmarva Salvage Company and Tow Boat U.S. removed the damaged research liftboat Russell W. Peterson from the shore at Bethany Beach just after dawn on Friday, May 16, clearing the way for temporary repair and long-term restoration of the town's reconstructed beach, and allieviating any lingering concerns about environmental impacts of the storm-ravaged ship's presence on the coast.

Coastal Point • Shaun Lambert: The Russell W. Peterson beaches at Bethany Beach on Monday, May 12, after the vessel’s engine failed during the powerful storm that hit the Mid-Atlantic region earlier this week. The liftboat was removed early Friday, May 16.Coastal Point • Shaun Lambert
The Russell W. Peterson beaches at Bethany Beach on Monday, May 12, after the vessel’s engine failed during the powerful storm that hit the Mid-Atlantic region earlier this week. The liftboat was removed early Friday, May 16.

Officials from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) directed their resources at the damaged beach and dune late this week, using bulldozers to move some of the returning sand from the edge of the ocean to restore some semblance of the engineered walkways that had allowed beachgoers to cross the dune to the water just last week.

In place of the 6- to 12-foot sheer drop-off seen in many places along the front edge of the dune, where Monday's nor'easter had eaten away an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the sand involved in the beach reconstruction project, there were a series of sloped access paths. They aren't the gentle, winding packed-sand paths that led visitors to the ocean earlier this spring, but the work restored access to the water just days after the storm, fulfilling the promise of DNREC's Tony Pratt that there would be access in time for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet acknowledged Friday night that the work wasn't up to the highest hopes of the town or DNREC, since sand had been slower than wished in its return to the beach after the storm. However, Graviet said, there was a sizeable sandbar just off the shoreline that foretold the return of much of the lost beach to the shoreline in the coming weeks. DNREC was expected to continue work with its bulldozers on Monday, to help complete the temporary walkways and to resolve safety issues with the remaining sheer cliffs of sand where storm-tossed ocean met dune.

Graviet emphasized that the town had closed some segments of the beach in the meantime, due to concerns that a collapse in the cliff-like dune front could dump many feet of sand on beachgoers, including children, and possibly lead to tragedy. Those sections are marked off with "Beach Closed" signs and warning tape. Beachgoers were advised to stay clear of those areas and to use only the temporary access areas to get to and from the water.

Over the longer term, Graviet said DNREC and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials were planning to ask beach reconstruction contractors Weeks Marine to return with their "mega-dozers" in the coming weeks to begin to rebuild the beach to the template of the recently completed beach reconstruction, complete with the full dune, walkways and expanded beach in front of them.

Graviet noted that, ironically or helpfully, the end date of the Weeks Marine contract for the project had been set for Monday, May 12, the day of the nor'easter. A walk-through of the project and final check of its meeting specifications had been planned for that day. With the storm damage happening prior to the officials completion of the project, all of the repair work needed to get it back into the mandated condition will still fall under the existing contract. Graviet said there were hopes that the work to get the beach back to full project specifications might take place as an adjunct to planned three-year beach replenishments for the completed Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach projects, set for this fall.

Many this week expressed thankfulness that the new dune had been in place in time for the storm, wondering at the possible toll of damage to the boardwalk, utilities and private propety if the dune had not been built or built as high. Graviet pointed out that the waves had breached the top of the dune in a few spots during the storm, perhaps calling into question the wisdom of calls to lower the dune line from its 16-foot height. Still, some of those who have called for a lower dune and other alterations to the design questioned this week whether the damage to the dune might bring an opportunity for some changes, such as a reduced height or seating areas atop the dune crest. At present, there are no such plans, with the verdict from the Corps still due on whether a 14-foot dune would provide sufficient storm protection and real-life indicators this week that perhaps it would not.

Boat removal completed quickly

Millville resident Clark Droney and other Tow Boat U.S. workers were out on the damaged research vessel on Wednesday afternoon, pumping out the boat’s interior compartments of water, sand and oil. Main exterior components of the vessel, including its radar, were removed prior to pumping, to allow for easier maneuverability, noted Droney’s wife, Carol, who also works with Tow Boat U.S.

“In a perfect world,” Clark Droney told the Coastal Point on Wednesday afternoon, from inside the beached vessel, “the tug boat would be out here [on Thursday], but it looks like it’s going to be Friday, now, which is still sooner than we expected.”

The mixture of sand, water and oil was pumped into two 25,000 gallon tanks, in effort to preserve the environment and lighten the craft.

“We can’t pump this stuff overboard,” emphasized Clark Droney. “It’s just a matter of getting everything into these tanks.”

The tanks were filled through Thursday, clearing the way for ocean-going tow boats to come around 6 a.m. on Friday and tow the Russell W. Peterson off for salvage. Many who had kept watch on the progress of work on the grounded ship were surprised to see it gone by the time the sun was fully up on Friday. The ship had been at least as much of an attraction along the town's shoreline since the storm as the dramatic damage to the reconstructed beach. One crew member was killed when the ship lost power 14 miles off the coast of Rehoboth Beach on Monday morning. It was being used in research on migratory birds for the planned Bluewater Wind wind-farm project.

Other than the beach and dune, Bethany Beach mostly saw damage to its trees and flowers during the storm, according to Public Works Director Brett Warner. Home owners in the town had to deal with flooding, particularly from the overflowing Loop Canal. Some residents had their cars towed out to dry land after the storm, unable to open car doors without the risk of flooding their interiors.

Pick up the May 23 edition of the Coastal Point and stay tuned to for updates on recovery from this spring's nor'easter.