Living life on the edge - of Delaware Bay

January 8, 2013

When Rick and Diane Allan first discovered their Prime Hook home in 2006, they thought they had found their slice of paradise.

No wonder. Beautiful, unspoiled, and with a beach devoid of crowds, Prime Hook reminded Diane of the Cape Cod she knew as a girl.

Visiting Lewes, they had run into a friend from home in Brookfield, Md., who invited them to see his place at Prime Hook. Soon after, they joined him in the bayside community that lies between Delaware Bay and the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

It’s a decision Rick regrets every night as he tries to sleep and every morning as he checks the water levels behind his house.

Gesturing toward the refuge in back of his house, Allan recalled what it was like just a few short years ago. “This was a pristine freshwater impoundment, loaded with wildlife - everything imaginable, turtles, frogs, bugs, ducks, everything.”

What was once a freshwater marsh is now open water. Salt water surging through breaches in the dune line is forming back bays, which constantly threaten to overwhelm the only public road connecting Prime Hook with inland stores, towns and services - including emergency services.

I visited Rick the day after Christmas. It was raining hard and didn’t look like it was going to quit any time soon.

Just before reaching the part of the narrow road - no shoulders - that snakes between the back bays, I saw a large caution sign, courtesy of DelDOT, warning of water ahead. I was afraid I had picked the wrong day: I wanted to see Prime Hook when the weather was bad, but I didn’t want to get stuck there either.

I was lucky. Water hadn’t yet covered the road, but it was lapping close enough to be disconcerting.

That’s what it means to live in Prime Hook. No farmer pays closer attention to weather reports than Rick Allan; no fisherman relies more on his tide charts.

Yes, tide charts. Before Rick or Diane run an errand or go to a doctor’s appointment, they consult tide charts. While storms remain the biggest cause for concern in Prime Hook, what’s frightening for residents is the “new normal.” It’s become routine, during lunar tides, for water to wrap around Rick’s house. The road out becomes impassable.

“Just a casual wind” - far short of a nor’easter - will bring water into his first floor. In fact, water began seeping into Rick’s house the day I was there.

Not that that was anything like Superstorm Sandy. As lucky as Delaware was - as compared to our sister state across the bay - the storm forced Rick and Diane to evacuate. “We got out just in the nick of time,” he said.

It also brought 18 inches of water into their house. Rick said the water gurgles away surprisingly fast, but the muck remains. Friends came over with wet vacs and bleach and they cleaned it up. Ricks also raised the electrical outlets a couple of feet.

But of course another big storm will come. High tides and winds are constants.

The solution, as Rick and other residents see it, is to fix the breaches, hence the signs that have sprouted along Route 1 calling for action. The state is requesting money from the federal government to do just that.

Whether that help will come soon enough - if it comes at all - is another question. There are also questions about whether fixing the breaches will solve the problem; a strategic retreat from the shore line has also been suggested, though that’s hardly the option favored by residents.

(While Prime Hook may be the community most in danger, it’s far from the only one. On Saturday morning, Dewey Beach residents told new District 6 Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, at a Friends of Dewey gathering that they also feared the flooding caused by what used to be routine high tides.)

I talked to Rick about 90 minutes as the rain outside continued to fall. I wondered if I would be able to get out.

Not to worry. Rick consulted his tide chart. He said I shouldn’t have any trouble leaving; he was right. But the fact remains, Prime Hook is a community hanging by a thread.

Email bag

Mitch Crane, a 2012 Democratic candidate for insurance commissioner, wrote to say that the number of complaints from manufactured home owners cited in last week’s column was inaccurate. The 5,500 complaints received by the insurance department came from a variety of sources, not just manufactured home owners.

Crane, who used to serve as the department’s director of consumer services, said the number of complaints did begin to rise, though, because only one company was writing new policies for older homes. The department, he said, needs to recruit insurance companies to write new policies, an issue he hoped to address if he had been elected.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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