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Officials: Despite gridlock, Lewes fireworks a blast

More than 15,000 view inaugural Lewes display
July 6, 2018

The inaugural Go Fourth Lewes Fireworks show went off without a hitch, until it came time for everyone to go home. 

Officials estimate there were more than 15,000 people on Lewes Beach watching the show, from Roosevelt Inlet to Cape Henlopen State Park. Many walked or rode bicycles, many others did not, creating unprecedented gridlock on the city’s two roads off Lewes Beach and those that feed into them.

“You can only do so much,” said Mayor Ted Becker. “We knew it was going to happen, but I think it was even greater than what we had anticipated.”  

Police Chief Tom Spell said the bridges on Savannah Road and Freeman Highway are natural choke points, and once traffic passed through, it greatly improved.

“It was more difficult than I envisioned,” he said. “There is just no way to get that volume back off the beach. Add into that thousands of pedestrians and bicyclists that are intermixed with that traffic, and it was difficult. We’ve already talked about how to better manage that next year, but it’s not going to be to the point where everything is smooth.”

Many people waited two-plus hours to get out of town after the show. Spell said there were 10 Lewes officers, two Delaware River and Bay Authority officers and one Delaware State Police trooper on duty. There were also 28 volunteers from the Lewes Fire Department and Sussex County EMS, and the new Sussex County Mobile Command Unit was parked at Queen Anne’s Pier off Savannah Road.

“I think with triple the resources, it wouldn’t have made a difference,” he said. 

Lt. James Azato said traffic is not uncommon for a fireworks show in the Cape Region. He said that’s on par with Rehoboth Beach and Laurel. 

With that said, the fireworks committee said they will take all of the feedback they’ve received and try to work on improving traffic and other aspects of the show next year. Spell does not believe making Savannah Road or Freeman Highway one-way with two lanes would be an improvement because of the bridges being a choke point. He is willing to consider closing the beach-bound lane of Savannah Road to traffic to allow for the thousands of nonmotorists to walk or ride back into town.

“Even with changing a few minor things, there’s not going to be any significant improvement in traffic flow,” Azato said. “We should work on changing the perception. They should expect a two- to three-hour traffic delay.” 

He said people were warned about the potential traffic issues, but it didn’t get out to enough people.

“We had people running out of gas as they were waiting,” he said. 

Becker said all in all, the show was a huge success. He said the 15- to 20-minute show lasted at least a half hour, as Lewes was the beneficiary of a canceled show earlier in the week. 

Spell reported only three arrests, no car crashes and no bicyclists or pedestrians injured. The lone incident occurred after the fireworks at Cedar and Canal streets, as two people got into a fight. Spell attributed it to road rage and alcohol. Both drivers were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. The third arrest was alcohol-related, too. 

Go Fourth Fireworks Committee member Deborah Evalds said the show itself could not have gone any better.

“It was magical on the beach,” she said. “The kids were busy at first – then all of a sudden two minutes in, they kind of just dropped and went quiet, and everyone just watched it together.” 

Heath Gehrke, director of ferry operations at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, was incredibly pleased with the turnout at his venue, which offered food and drinks while a band played on stage on the green. 

“For the amount of people at our facility, I think it went well,” he said. “We were definitely at capacity, which caused us to stop admitting vehicles at one point.” 

There were long lines for food on the lawn and long waits at On the Rocks Bar & Grill, he said, and the staff has some notes on how to improve.

A tree obscured many of the lower fireworks, sending guests scrambling for a better view. But the larger fireworks were easily seen from the ferry’s open area. 

As far as traffic, as people tried to leave the ferry terminal, he said, there is room for improvement.

“The traffic going out afterward will be the thing most talked about on the downside,” he said. “We’ll all have to put our heads together to come up with solutions on that.  As most people know, our options for exit routes are somewhat limited.”

Becker said the committee will learn from the inaugural event and use it to make things better next year.

“We certainly know a lot more about what we can expect in future years,” he said.

He said they have one more year to prepare before 2020, when the holiday falls on a Saturday and the Fourth of July festivities will be grouped in with the St. Peter’s Art Show and the Lewes Farmers Market.