ASSATEAGUE ISLAND -- The National Park Service, worried that the next storm to hit the Eastern Shore might cut this fragile barrier island in two, wants to spend millions of dollars to dump tons of sand onto a weakened strip of undeveloped beach.
The project -- which officials describe as a emergency repair of damage caused by two recent northeasters -- would cost taxpayers about $4 million. That is in addition to $68 million in beach-building proposals that had been announced before the storms.
Park officials say that because of Assateague's condition, even a moderately severe storm could cause a serious breach in the island, creating an inlet. Besides altering an area that attracts 2.5 million visitors a year, a breach in Assateague could leave the mainland residents of Snug Harbor with no barrier between them and the storms that whip inland from the Atlantic Ocean.
The park service is trying to persuade the Army Corps of Engineers to approve the plans and pay for most of the work.
"The island's wounded, but it's not dead," said John Burns, the national seashore's chief ranger. "The sand is intended to help it heal."
Back-to-back northeasters slammed the area on Jan. 28 and Feb. 5. High winds and surging tides caused millions of dollars in damage to Assateague, filling some bathhouses and campsites with sand, obliterating dunes and damaging bicycle trails.
The most worrisome and potential long-term damage was done to a 1.5-mile strip of beach near the northern end of the island. The wind and water pushed and scraped more than 5 feet of sand off the top of Assateague, from bayside to oceanside. Now, during high tides, the ocean washes over into the bay. Officials fear this area will become an inlet in the next storm.
To lessen that likelihood, the park service has proposed spreading 350,000 cubic yards of sand atop the damaged area, elevating it to its prestorm height. That is a lot of sand -- it would fill about 1 million standard-sized bathtubs -- and even officials acknowledge that the sand could be blown away by the next storm.
"Not doing anything isn't really an option," said Carl Koenings, park service superintendent on Assateague. "What we want to do is kind of a Band-Aid approach, but it's desperately needed."
Doug Garman, a spokesman for the Corps of Engineers, said the proposal is being reviewed to determine whether it makes environmental and economic sense.
Besides the $4 million being requested to dump sand on the recently damaged stretch, the park service is seeking approval and funding for two related projects.
One involves dumping tons of sand in the surf zone near the
northern tip of the island. The sand would be carried south by the currents to help strengthen the area of the island that has been developed for camping, with bathhouses and concession stands. Maryland has been working to repair the damage to the state's portion of the island and should be finished in time for its regular opening April 1, said Ken Layman, a state park ranger.
Another project would pump sand from around the jetty to the dump site. About 180,000 cubic yards of sand would be moved every year to replenish the stockpile. The cost for that project is estimated at $50 million over 35 years.
U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland is seeking money for all of the projects anywhere he can find it. Thursday, he and fellow Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski asked Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt for $4 million -- in addition to the money that would be used to replenish the beach -- to pay for damage to the island's dunes, beach houses and trails.
"The senator believes Assateague is a national treasure, which we really don't want to lose," said Jesse Jacobs, a spokesman for Sarbanes. "Without this stabilization effort, we could see the island divided into a series of islands -- plural."
The Corps of Engineers may be receptive to the park service's emergency request at least in part because it was a decades-old corps decision that has left the island so susceptible to storm damage. In 1933, an unnamed hurricane created the inlet that separates Assateague and the barrier island of Ocean City. To keep that inlet open, the corps built a jetty that sticks out like a hockey stick from the northern tip of Assateague.
The plan worked. Ocean City, benefiting from marine access to the back bays, boomed. At the same time, the jetty disrupted the natural flow of sand, and Assateague is slow to rebuild itself after a major storm. When it gets hit by especially severe storms -- or by a series -- it is in real trouble.
"The fault lies with whoever built the jetties," said Orrin Pilkey, a coastal geologist at Duke University and a frequent critic of the Corps of Engineers. "What we're seeing is perhaps the most spectacular example of jetty-caused erosion on the East Coast."
The park service's usual strategy for its beaches is no strategy. It simply lets nature take its course. Pilkey and others have argue that rather than have taxpayers subsidize coastal developers by constantly rebuilding beaches, barrier islands and coastlines should be left to the whims of nature.
"We have to start thinking new or we're going to continue to lock ourselves into these impossible situations," Pilkey said.
The Assateague dilemma is so perplexing because the jetty altered the natural course.
After the Feb. 5 storm, Koenings said, "What we're really trying to do is restore the natural processes in an unnatural way."
Pub Date: 2/28/98