Double nor’easter slams coast

See a slideshow of the damage to Bethany Beach’s dune and shoreline

Local and county officials had already warned residents and emergency services staffs that the impact of a nor’easter that roiled off the Atlantic Coast of Delaware starting last Thursday afternoon was likely to be significant. But as the weekend wore on, two separate storms and astronomical high tide combined to damage beaches, break trees and cause flooding throughout the area.

County employees were on call over weekend, while volunteer ham-radio operators were in action to provide storm updates in coordination with emergency officials.

In downtown Bethany Beach, the Loop Canal once again reached capacity and then some, swamping flood-prone Pennsylvania Avenue from the town’s northernmost street nearly to Garfield Parkway. Floodwaters remained on even the highest portions of the street through early this week, and Pennsylvania Avenue itself was closed to traffic.

Farther to the north, Fred Hudson Road – also prone to flooding, due to its bayside location and low elevation – was also under water for much of the weekend, as were the access roads adjacent to the Indian River Inlet Bridge, where state officials postponed a planned open-house and tour for the new bridge project.

Damage to reconstructed beaches and dunes was reported in the coastal towns. South Bethany Town Manager Mel Cusick told county officials that as much as 25 percent of the town’s dune had been eroded in the storms, while Bethany Beach and Lewes both experienced what was described as “significant erosion.”

Though no injuries or serious property damage were reported, between the flooded roadways and eroded coastlines, county officials decided it might be worthwhile to ask for the public’s help in documenting the storm damage. Sussex County Emergency Operations Center Director Joseph L. Thomas put out the call on Monday, Oct. 19, for those who had photos of flooding and other damage to submit them to the county via its Web site.

“These days, everyone has a digital camera or a picture phone that can capture in an instant what’s going on right in front of them,” Thomas said in his request on Monday. “The public can and does serve as an invaluable resource in events such as these, giving emergency officials on-the-ground observations.

“Certainly, someone out there has pictures of this weekend’s storms, and we would encourage them to share with us what they saw. That helps us to better plan for future weather events.”

“We thought this was a good opportunity for the council to see some of roads that are always seeing flooding,” Thomas told Sussex County Council members at their Oct. 20 meeting. “We thought it provide fuel for the council in its discussions with DelDOT about transportation funding needs.”

The resulting slideshow of citizens’ and staff photos depicts significant flooding at the National Guard training site north of Bethany Beach; and on Fred Hudson Road – where DelDOT road improvements have already been done, “yet we still experience these issues every time we have a storm,” Thomas noted – as well as on areas of Long Neck Road and in Oak Orchard.

“These are all typical flooding. These people experience this every time we have one of these events,” Thomas emphasized of the images.

“We tell people not to drive through standing water, but they still do it, because it’s the only way to go,” he noted.

“It’s passable, but…” put in County Administrator David Baker, who himself drove around flood-prone areas last Saturday to document the storm.

Thomas had also included in the slideshow some photographs taken during a storm on Oct. 7, 2006. They were, he said, “almost identical” to the photographs taken just last weekend, depicting no improvements to the situation in the flood-prone areas in three years.

“Is this DelDOT’s responsibility? Is it the developers’?” asked County Councilwoman Joan Deaver of Long Neck Road.

Thomas noted that Long Neck Road is under state responsibility, and with significant flooding near Pot-Nets, on three areas of the road, it was a major headache for residents over the weekend.

Deaver said State Rep. John Atkins had told her the estimate to improve Long Neck Road had been $3 million when it was made years ago. “And nothing was done,” she said, questioning the county’s decisions to continue to permit further development in areas that have infrastructure issues, such as being flood-prone.

“We wanted to show you these are the same repetitive spots, over and over again,” Thomas emphasized.

In Bethany Beach, town officials have been pushing for decades to get assistance with improving Pennsylvania Avenue, which can flood significantly under even moderate rain or tidal flooding conditions. Estimates for some projects have run well into the millions and have been expected to bring only minimal relief.

In recent months, the town welcomed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff as they visited some key locations in potentially trying to alleviate some of the flooding problem. No project plan or specific grant funding for construction has been arrived at, as yet.

But some consider the problem a routine and unavoidable one.

“Even the stormwater management wouldn’t control this kind of thing,” said County Councilman George Cole, who represents the Bethany area, on Tuesday. “There are things we have to deal with in this county. Every year or three we have one of these storms,” he said.

“The people who live in these areas seem to be somewhat used to it,” allowed Baker. “They don’t panic. There are very few calls for rescue.”

“On Pennsylvania Avenue in Bethany Beach, this always happens,” said Cole, who also owns a business at the north end of that street. “On Fred Hudson Road, it doesn’t even take a storm like this. You can’t pump it anywhere, because the bay and the canals and the ditches are full and there’s nowhere to pump it.”

While Bethany Beach continues to work to see if there is a possible solution to at least some of its flooding woes, county officials were focused this week on possible transportation funding that might come in the form of federal dollars to improve infrastructure, as well as working with state transportation officials on chronic problem spots.

Thomas noted that the federal funding would not go to home owners who have experienced flooding. “It’s the roads that are damaged,” he said of the targeted problems.

Delaware Emergency Management Agency (DEMA) officials were expected in the area on Oct. 21 to view some of the damage with DNREC officials to see if obtaining some federal funding might be possible. “It’s too early to know,” Thomas said Tuesday of that possibility.