Primehook Beach residents may have a little more to be thankful for this holiday.
After years of delays and inaction, there is a glimmer of hope that state officials may be able to secure funds to fill breaches at nearby Fowler Beach to stem the flood tide that has plagued the small community on the border of Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge for more than three years.
It took the near-hit of Hurricane Sandy to get the message across, but it appears state officials are finally backing residents' demands to fill the breaches.
Greg Patterson, Gov. Jack Markell's legislative liaison, said the Markell administration has requested $20 million in federal disaster aid to repair damages to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge caused by the hurricane.
Patterson said Markell will advocate that the cost, and possibly federal permission, for filling the breaches be included in a potential supplemental federal budget appropriation now under consideration to cover Sandy-related costs and damages for Northeast states. The state's federal delegation and refuge officials have been informed of the state's request, Patterson said.
Hurricane Sandy widened the series of breaches along the Delaware Bay coast north of Primehook Beach and damaged and forced the closing of Prime Hook Road, the community's only public access. Although the road is open, several areas remain unpaved and high tides result in flooding on portions of the road.
Storms over the past three years have wiped out the dune line and most of the beach front along a 4,000-foot stretch north of Primehook Beach. The constant tidal flow of saltwater from the Delaware Bay through the breaches and into refuge area has destroyed a freshwater marsh that traditionally provided flood protection to Primehook Beach. The freshwater marsh is now open water.
Resident John Chirtea calls the current conditions the new normal in the area, with higher water levels in the former marsh and more frequent flooding in the community, which is made up of about 200 homes.
Patterson said the passage of supplemental funding is not assured. “Also, this may be complicated by the fact that some parts of the breaches are on private land. However, we intend to pursue it,” Patterson said.
“The Prime Hook Beach Organization is very delighted that the governor's office, along with DNREC and DelDOT, is supporting the community of Primehook Beach along with the other Delaware Bay communities so impacted by Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent nor'easter,” said Cindy Miller, president of the organization
“We've been told frequently that Delaware coffers do not contain the necessary funding for the work necessary to save the Delaware Bay communities, so this is very hopeful. We'd hope that Delaware's federal delegation helps support this as it works its way through Congress as well. With Thanksgiving occurring this week, it gives us some hopefulness for which to be thankful,” Miller said.
State focused on two actions
Patterson said the Markell administration is focused on maintaining access to Primehook Beach and pushing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to complete the refuge's comprehensive conservation plan, which will provide the direction refuge officials plan to take to deal with environmental issues within the refuge. That request was made directly to Interior Secretary Alberto Salazar, who said the plan is expected to completed by the end of the year.
“Because the lands and waters that have caused much of the flooding issue are under federal control, this has been the extent of the what the state can do, and it has been frustrating, though not nearly as frustrating as we know it has been for residents,” Patterson said.
In addition to the request for $20 million, the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control has hired a coastal engineer to look at possible solutions to provide some flood protection for Primehook Beach homes that flood frequently. Patterson said analysis DNREC has done on the use of sand bags and earthen berms has not been encouraging because of the size of the problem and the amount of material that would be needed. However, he said, the engineer will continue to look at options.
“Given all the factors, finding a quick solution to prevent recent repeated flooding of homes while seeking funding and permission through federal action to fill the breaches are the steps that Gov. Markell plans to pursue over the next several weeks,” Patterson said.