State fights coastal flooding 

Indian River Inlet Marina Manager Theresa Mosier talks with Gov. John Carney as DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin, left, looks on during a visit to the Indian River Inlet Marina on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

REHOBOTH BEACH — As the lowest lying state, Delaware is especially vulnerable to flooding. That concern is only magnified in southeast Sussex County.

For 17 miles, from Rehoboth Beach to the state line south of Fenwick Island, Del. Route 1 runs straight along the beach. For most of the stretch, the road lies less than 1,000 feet from the Atlantic Ocean, and at its widest point, it’s still no more than a third of a mile away from the waterfront.

While it looks as though Delaware will be spared the wrath of Hurricane Florence, the beachfront remains an area of critical importance, and you don’t have to look back far to see examples of water and sand shutting the roadway down.

The state keeps the road clear through preventive measures by several agencies, and the Department of Transportation carefully monitors road conditions during storms and shuts down the road when necessary.

Key to the preventive efforts is beach replenishment. Since the start of 2013, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has invested about $66 million into beaches and dunes in Sussex County’s coastal communities, from Lewes down to Fenwick Island. Most of the money has gone to waterfronts along Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach, Bethany Beach and South Bethany.

By dredging or pumping sand from the ocean, officials can rebuild natural barriers, creating wide plains and tall dunes designed to stop flooding.

“It’s very critical, and it’s the reason we do it,” Delaware Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Shawn Garvin said Thursday. “It’s to protect the infrastructure, to protect the cities and more importantly, the people. It’s interesting because the natural solutions are sometimes better than the man-made solutions and so building back up the dunes and creating that natural barrier has been extremely beneficial.”

Traffic crosses the Indian River Inlet bridge on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

For about 5 miles from south Dewey Beach to the Indian River Inlet, Del. 1 practically sits right on the beach, making it extremely prone to flooding. Even if water stays off the road, fierce winds can still blow sand onto Del. 1, blocking traffic.

If the Charles W. Cullen Bridge, which spans 500 feet over the inlet, is inaccessible, it becomes much harder to reach the communities south of the Indian River Bay.

Under normal conditions, a trip from Rehoboth Beach to Ocean View, for instance, takes just 25 minutes, according to Google Maps. With the bridge shut down, such a journey ends up lasting slightly more than an hour — and that’s without considering traffic and other roads that may be shut down or impacted by adverse conditions.

The bridge itself is secure, according to DelDOT.

“We have no concerns about the Indian River Inlet Bridge’s ability to withstand a major storm,” agency spokesman C.R. McLeod wrote in an email.

“The current Indian River Inlet Bridge opened in January 2012, and one of the main improvements with this bridge from the previous bridge is that it is 2,600 feet long and does not have piers in the water which were susceptible to scouring from the fast moving water currents through the inlet. This was a major issue with the previous bridge structures that spanned the inlet.”

During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, water levels rose in the Rehoboth Bay, flooding into the northbeach nightclub in Dewey and other parts of town. (Delaware State News file photo)

A more primitive bridge over the inlet was destroyed by ice flow and tides in 1948. This bridge, Mr. McLeod said, is designed to last at least 100 years, and it includes a fiber-optic system to monitor weather conditions.

Earlier this year, DelDOT repaved part of Del. 1 south of Dewey Beach, adding 6 inches of pavement to a 2,000 foot stretch between New Road and Keybox Road.

“However, storms are unpredictable and SR 1, like many other roads in Sussex, will flood during severe weather events and residents need to be prepared for that likelihood when a major storm approaches,” Mr. McLeod said.

“In terms of preparation for storm events, it really comes down to us monitoring the tides and watching the approach of water. We will also position equipment in the area to remove sand and debris that may end up on the road so we can get reopen to traffic as soon as water has receded and it is safe to do so.”

When Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in October 2012, Delaware avoided the worst. However, the storm was still strong enough to erode beaches and dunes and break off pieces of the roadway leading to the Cullen Bridge.

With Delaware projected to get nothing more than a bit of rain from the fringes of Hurricane Florence, campers at Delaware Seashore State Park can rest easy. Evacuation is not expected to be necessary, and the boats at Indian River Marina can remain in the water.

The Delaware National Guard barracks in Bethany Beach were surrounded by flood waters in 2012 following Hurricane Sandy. (Delaware State News file photo)

In the past, campers have been instructed to head inland, such as to Trap Pond, Killens Pond or Lums Pond, while boats have been taken out of the water or sent up to a marina along the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.

“We can breathe now,” Theresa Mosier, superintendent of the Indian River Marina, told Gov. John Carney, who has visiting coastal areas this week in anticipation of the storm.

As of Thursday afternoon, the National Weather Service forecast had Florence being downgraded to a tropical storm by Saturday morning. In Delaware, rain appears possible through Wednesday.

North Carolina’s coastline is not expected to be so lucky. Some areas could see “catastrophic and potentially record-breaking rainfall and storm surge,” according to the state’s Department of Public Safety.

While the First State should escape unscathed, Delawareans and visitors are urged to be on the lookout just in case.

Pittsburgh residents Ray Balint and Judi Radaci didn’t plan to let any adverse weather ruin their vacation. Staying down in Fenwick Island, the two had been carefully monitoring the storm and decided there was no reason to leave before Tuesday, their planned departure day.

Andrew Vogt, general manager of Hammerheads Dockside restaurant at the marina, was hopeful rain and wind wouldn’t disrupt his business or cause trouble for his employees.

“What we’re really worried about is the coastal highways shutting down. It’s the first thing that floods and I have staff coming from both sides, from Maryland and Lewes and Dewey,” he said.

While Sussex has several thriving coastal communities, it’s not the only county that sees flooding. Towns along the Delaware River, such as Bowers Beach, are vulnerable during heavy storms, with flooding making some roads impassable.

Several roads and dozens of homes in Bowers Beach are within 500 feet of the river, and water creeping toward their houses is simply a fact of life for some residents.

A few miles up north, individuals living along Pickering Beach have experienced water damage just this week. Mike Parker said a weekend storm surge turned his yard into a pond and created sand drifts more than 3 feet tall in spots along the road.

“It was a rush of water and there was nothing to retain it, stop it or hold it back,” he said of the rain.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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