Shawn J. Soper
ASSATEAGUE – While the fierce coastal storm that lashed the mid-Atlantic region in November has become a distant memory for many in the area, officials on Assateague Island are still repairing the damage and making long-term plans to mitigate similar destruction in the future.
Assateague Island National Seashore officials last week announced while much of the repairs on the barrier island have been completed, there is still a considerable amount of work to be done to ensure the park will be ready for the summer season next year.
The mid-November storm ravaged much of Assateague with dunes over-washed and boardwalks, walkways and other man-made structures severely damaged.
Perhaps the most visible aspect of the storm damage on Assateague was the emergence of thousands of old tires on the beach, vestiges of a failed artificial reef project installed off the coast in the 1970s. As of last week, more than 1,800 tires and 40 tons of debris had been removed from the beaches on Assateague, although there is still plenty of evidence of the storm.
Perhaps the most significant damage occurred to the beachside parking lots on Assateague, particularly on the Virginia side of the barrier island. Last week, park officials requested over a half a million dollars from the federal government to repair the damaged parking lots on Assateague alone, according to Superintendent Trish Kicklighter.
“The National Park Service has requested approximately $550,000 in emergency funding to rebuild the parking lots, and if the funding is approved and the weather cooperates, we will have them open in time for the summer season,” she said.
Kicklighter said repairing and replacing the parking lots damaged in the storm is only a short-term solution to ready the park for next summer. She said park officials are exploring ideas to move the beachside parking lots to a different, more stable part of the barrier island to avoid similar losses in future storms.
“Keeping the parking lots on the beach is not a sustainable solution,” she said. “We must find an alternative location on more stable land that is not threatened by rising sea levels or frequent storm damage.”
While finding an alternative location on the naturally migrating barrier island might be a difficult undertaking, Kicklighter said there is likely a workable solution. She said the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service are trying to find a more permanent solution.
“At this point, we have not identified an alternative site for the parking lots, but one thing is for sure,” she said. “Before we abandon the parking lots on the beach, we need to have new parking lots built so there will always be ample parking for island visitors. Both the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service realize how important those parking lots are to the local community and the county.”
Meanwhile, while the repairs to Assateague are ongoing, there are plenty of activities both inside and out during the holiday season for visitors to the barrier island. For outdoor enthusiasts, the national park is offering plenty of fresh air activities including the “Life of the Dunes Walk” and the “Sea S.I. Beach Walk.”
In addition, the Assateague Coastal Trust is sponsoring the 30th annual New Year’s Day Beach Walk on the barrier island. Participants are urged to meet Ranger Chris Seymour on the Assateague State Park parking lot at 1 p.m. on New Year’s Day for the annual event.
“This is the perfect opportunity for families to spend time together exploring the outdoors,” said Kicklighter. “Bundle up and join park rangers for a variety of winter activities.”
For those who enjoy a warmer atmosphere, the park is offering several opportunities at the Barrier Island Visitor’s Center including the aquarium feeding program and the “Assateague Challenge,” an interactive program to learn more about the island.
“Bring your family and friends over to the island for a day discovering what Assateague Island has to offer in winter,” said Rachelle Daignault, chief of interpretation and education on Assateague.