At least a dozen wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland that drowned in the weekend storm were trapped on a narrow, unprotected spit of sand, the National Park Service says.
"Coming as fast as it did, we know there was about 5 feet of water across that area of the island," Roger Rector, superintendent of the national seashore, said today. About 30 of the beloved ponies made famous by the children's classic "Misty of Chincoteague" inhabit the northern end of the 31-mile-long island, he said.
The swiftness of the storm apparently caught the ponies off guard and left them with no escape route, Rector said. Some areas on the island's northern end are as narrow as 300 feet between the Atlantic Ocean and Sinepuxent Bay. Also, there are virtually no dunes in that area, he added.
Although the ponies can swim and the water may not have been above their heads, Rector said, the force of the waves apparently swept them away.
About 150 ponies inhabit the Maryland portion of the national seashore. A similar size herd lives on the Virginia portion of the island.
An undetermined number of Sika deer, an Asian species introduced on the island in the 1920s, also drowned, Rector said. They, too, were on the northern end.
Rector said the storm was the worst officials had seen on the island since a nor'easter in 1962 that caused extensive damage. About 150 ponies drowned during that storm.
Carcasses of ponies and deer were washing up across Sinepuxent Bay on the mainland, which is from 500 feet to 1 mile west of the island.
Today, officials with both the National Park Service, which oversees the national seashore, and Assateague State Park in Maryland were surveying damage to the island. The seashore and park, which use a common entrance, were closed indefinitely.
Rector said roadways were buckled by the storm surge. Bike trails were damaged and parking lots were covered by sand, he added.
"An incredible amount of water came up," said Denise Volk-Webber, a ranger at Assateague State Park. She said 10-foot waves were breaking on the roofs of picnic pavilions normally 100 yards from the surf.
The 1,000-acre park normally reopens for general use in April, but officials say it may take longer than that to clean up after the storm.