Barrier Islands Take A Pounding

Jan 29, 2016

Chincoteague Island before and after the storm
Credit Patrick J. Henderson via USFWS and Highcamera.com

The storm that paralyzed Baltimore last weekend also took a toll on ocean front communities. A section of Ocean City’s fishing pier collapsed into boiling seas. And farther south, wind gusts of up to 85 miles an hour whipped up pounding surf that carried away parts of the beach and parking lot at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. That may be normal for a barrier island, but it's a huge problem for the nearby town of Chincoteague.

More than a million tourists a year visit the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge to see the wild ponies, protected species, and a working lighthouse and, of course, the pristine sandy beach that's part of Assateague Island National Seashore. That’s worth about $50 million of economic activity a year to the nearby town of Chincoteague. But the beach is on a barrier island and its sands shift all the time, particularly at the southern end of the island, says Kevin Sloan, who manages the refuge.

"They describe it as the tail of the dog is wagging," he says.

Parts of the island weren’t there 100 years ago. And parts that were there 100 years ago are gone.

Sloan says his biggest challenge is maintaining the beach and adjoining parking lot. The National Park Service has spent about $6 million making repairs since 2003 making repairs after storms and another $1 million every time they’ve had to move the tom’s Cove Visitors Center because of storms.

Last weekend’s historic storm took chunks of the parking lot out to sea and Sloan estimates it will cost upwards of $800,000 to repair. The gaps in the beach will likely fill in until the next storm, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to move the beach and parking lot north to a more protected area and leave the current beach to Mother Nature.

That worries Chincoteague Mayor Jack Tarr, who says that the existing dune system protects his town and if they "just let nature take its course and wash the barrier island away, then Chincoteague is vulnerable for the ocean the next storm."

It’s not just Chincoteague that faces these problems. Communities all up and down the East Coast deal with it.

NASA’ Wallops Island Flight Facility is on a barrier island just south of Chincoteague. The facility spent $40 million to replenish its 3-mile long beach and protect it with a quarter-mile long, 14-foot high sea wall, then had to go back after Hurricane Sandy blew through in 2012 and “put about $11.3 million worth of work on the beach,” says NASA spokesman Keith Koehler.

All of that protects $1.2 billion worth of assets owned by NASA, the Navy and the Commonwealth of Virginia, including launch pads, a space port, and a drone runway under construction. But Mayor Tarr knows he’ll never see that kind of money for his tiny town and for the disappearing beach from which his constituents make their livings. So, he’s asking state and local politicians and the Army Corps of Engineers for help.

"We think the elevation of the beach should be much higher," he says. "We're asking for some dunes, for some sand fencing in the winter months to help stabilize the beach and keep it there for as long as we could, and we think the wagging tail will stop wagging so much."

The beach should be restored by the time another summer tourist season rolls around. Meantime, Mayor Tarr and Chincoteague residents will continue to fight to keep the beach where it is while working with the federal government to determine the town’s future.