Barrier Island Picking Up Storm Debris

ASSATEAGUE – Last week’s storm that lashed the mid-Atlantic coast with a fury not seen in recent years did not spare Assateague Island, where state and federal officials this week were assessing the damage and picking up the pieces, including thousands of old tires that broke loose from a decades-old artificial reef and washed ashore.

Major storms such as the three-day event that stalled over the region last weekend are certainly not uncommon to Assateague, but last week’s so-called storm of the decade inflicted considerable damage on the barrier island. The high winds, heavy rain and pounding surf washed over dunes, flooded or destroyed many man-made structures and swept away hundreds of feet of sand from the pristine beaches, but things returned to normal somewhat this week as state and federal officials assessed the damage.

Assateague Island National Seashore (AINS) officials this week announced the park is open to visitors, but some hazardous conditions and closures of certain areas are still in place. Assateague took a beating, just like every other coastal area in the mid-Atlantic region, but order is being restored rather quickly, according to AINS spokesperson Rachelle Daigneault.

“We look at this as a very natural event,” she said. “Storms change the coastline almost constantly on Assateague in a very natural process. At the Maryland end, water washes over the dunes from time to time, but this one was a little different.”

Unlike its neighbor directly to the north, Assateague is largely undeveloped with a few scattered buildings, boardwalks, roads and other man-made structures. Consequently, the restoration of the barrier island is more of a natural process than the bulldozing of sand going on this week in Ocean City, where millions of dollars of real estate is protected by a man-made dune structure.

“We view this in a different way,” said Daigneault. “Unlike Ocean City and other coastal areas, there are very few structures to worry about.”

There were few people on the island during last week’s storm, save for a few hearty campers who decided to ride it out, and although some boardwalks were wiped out, some roads flooded and other structures were damaged, the impact is being viewed as more of a natural process.

“In a dangerous situation, we absolutely get people off the island,” she said. “On the Maryland end, we had a few campers that decided to stick it out. We had some damage to some roads and buildings and a couple of entrance stations that got turned into bathtubs and a boardwalk that broke off. We’ll go in and clean up and make the necessary repairs.”

Perhaps the most visibly alarming post-storm scene on Assateague is the thousands of old tires that washed up on the beach from one end of the island to the other. Daigneault said roughly 2,000 tires from an old artificial reef placed offshore a few decades ago washed up on the beach during last week’s storm.

“The tire thing was very unusual,” she said. “Over the years, we’ve seen tires from those old artificial reefs wash up on our beaches, but nothing like we’ve seen this time around. We know those reefs are coming apart slowly but surely, but there must have been a fairly substantial failure for more than 2,000 tires to wash up. Undoubtedly, there are more out there that could still wash up.”

Back in the 1970s, old tires were popular artificial reef-building materials, but the concept was flawed. The poor design of some of the reefs caused tires to often break loose during storms and wash ashore on the beaches, but never have so many come ashore during a single weather event such as last week’s storm. The flawed tire program led to a lull in artificial reef activity for much of the 1980s and 1990s until the Ocean City Reef Foundation was formed and renewed the effort with better materials and better designs.

Daigneault said as of mid-week, park officials along with volunteers were removing the washed up tires from the beaches of Assateague.

“Our concerns range from the aesthetic, in terms of visitor experience, to the damage they are causing in terms of an environmental impact,” she said. “We’re working on getting them cleaned up before they either get buried on the beach or they get washed off again.”

Meanwhile, order is being restored on Assateague as National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are coordination efforts to repair roads, trails, buildings and other facilities. Nonetheless, many areas on the barrier island are still closed or restricted. For example, the Barrier Island Visitors Center and most of the nature trails and public beach areas, as well as the Over-Sand Vehicle Zone, are open, but all ocean-side drive-in and walk-in camping areas remain closed.

The bayside campground is open, but all backcountry camping areas will remain closed until further notice. Most of the public hunting areas are open with some restrictions in place.

“We regret any inconvenience and we absolutely understand the desire to experience a barrier island after a storm,” said AINS Superintendent Trish Kicklighter this week. “We ask for understanding and patience as we work to re-open areas as quickly as possible.”