In the aftermath of last week's powerful coastal storm, Dukes County manager Winn Davis filed an application Friday with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) to request $511,000 in disaster relief funds.
Mr. Davis wants to use the money to plug or span the wide breach created by a combination of storm-driven ocean waves and powerful spring tides in Norton Point Beach, the two-and-a-half-mile long strip of county-owned barrier beach that connected Katama to Chappaquiddick until last week.
The ideas floated by Mr. Davis for closing the breach include using the town dredge to pump sand into the opening, installing a culvert under the sand and building a bridge similar to the bridge and culvert on State Beach commonly referred to as little bridge.
In a cover sheet faxed Friday with a preliminary damage assessment (PDA) report to Doug Forbes, a local coordinator in the MEMA Bridgewater office, Mr. Davis wrote, "Please find attached our PDA initial request for Emergency Funds to Restore our Norton Point Beach, which serves as an emergency exit for the 375 homeowners on Chappaquiddick in the event of fire, and to restore our public recreation area where thousands of visitors and locals go every year. There is also an expectation of being able to restore a protected nesting area for the Federally protected Piping Plovers."
Aerial video clip recorded Saturday by state Division of Marine Fisheries
biologist Greg Skomal.
Under the heading of Norton Point Beach restoration, the PDA provides the following damage cost breakdown: $51,000 for an emergency exit road for 375 Chappaquiddick homes; $450,000 to dredge and fill 75,000 cubic yards; and $10,000 to restore federally protected bird nesting areas.
This morning, Mr. Davis is scheduled to host a preliminary assessment beach site visit by state officials, including representatives from MEMA, Coastal Zone Management and Mass Highway. Town, Island and county officials were also expected to attend.
MEMA responds whenever there is a disaster. The agency coordinates federal, state, local and private resources throughout the state during times of disasters and emergencies.
According to MEMA coordinator Forbes, today's meeting and site inspection is a "very preliminary" damage assessment, the first step to determine eligibility. He said if MEMA can help out the Island community, it will.
Peter Judge, MEMA public affairs officer, said that beginning Monday teams spread out across the state to assess damage. He explained that the state must verify $7.7 million worth of storm damage in order to qualify for Federal disaster relief funds.
If the state does qualify, individual counties would then have to meet specific population-based damage assessment measurements to qualify for a share of any federal dollars. In the case of Dukes County, that minimum number is $45,000 worth of infrastructure costs.
The falling tide flows through the breach out of Katama Bay.
In a telephone call Tuesday, Mr. Davis said the decision to file for emergency funds was made quickly under a five-hour filing deadline, after receiving a telephone call.
"MEMA called me directly and said we know you had damage done to your areas," recounted Mr. Davis. "Do you see an opportunity for MEMA to assist you? And my first thought was, it would be great to restore the emergency access route, if nothing else."
Mr. Davis said the PDA was completed that afternoon after meeting with county engineer Steve Berlucci and county emergency management director Chuck Cotnoir.
Asked about the reaction from The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), the private conservation organization that manages the beach, under a contract with the county, Mr. Davis said he had a "quick conversation" with Chris Kennedy, TTOR Island director, late last week and another this week.
"Obviously, they are concerned about making sure that the birds are protected, but other than that, they don't seem to have a problem with restoring the beach for the purposes its always been used."
Tuesday, Edgartown town administrator Pam Dolby said she had few details, and county officials had not consulted with town officials about the meeting or the PDA report.
As news of today's meeting spread and the scope of the proposals became known, the local reaction to the county proposal ranged from skepticism to incredulity that the county would even be contemplating such a plan.
Video of the breach taken on April 17th and 18th by Greg Whitmore of TTOR.
Several Chappaquiddick residents said that the possibility of a breach is a natural occurrence, an accepted fact of life for Chappy residents.
Those county commissioners reached by The Times Tuesday evening said they knew little about their county manager's effort to restore Norton Point, beyond the fact that he had applied for tax dollars intended to help communities recovering from natural disasters.
Initially, Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs, county commission chairman, said he knew little. Prodded, he remembered that he had received an e-mail from Mr. Davis letting him know that he was applying for funds and promising further details. "I know little or nothing about the details, just that he said he was going to do it," said the chairman.
Leslie Leland of West Tisbury, county commission vice chairman, had just returned from Florida and had not checked his e-mail.
John Alley of West Tisbury, long-time county commissioner, said he knew only what he'd learned from an e-mail he had received several days ago. "That's all I know," said Mr. Alley, referencing the e-mail from Mr. Davis.
Mr. Alley said it was important that Mr. Kennedy be consulted about any plans for the beach. "Chris [Kennedy] is the beach manager," said Mr. Alley. "And I think his input is needed. I think that's appropriate."
The e-mail sent to the seven county commissioners and elected county officers Friday afternoon said, "I have just sent out our application for emergency funds to MEMA, totaling $511,000 for beach restoration, road restoration, and bird nesting area restoration. This package was put together after consultation and input from Steve Berlucchi - Engineer, Chuck Cotnoir - Emergency Management Director, and Chris Kennedy - Beach Manager......a quick collaborative effort. FEMA will meet with MEMA and then they may send a team out to assess. We wait to hear."
An aerial view taken Saturday morning looking east toward Wasque Point shows the beach jeep track leading from Katama interrupted by the new opening in the beach. Photos by Ralph Stewart
This week, Mr. Kennedy rejected any notion that he supported the county's effort. He said that Mr. Davis called him Friday, April 20, and asked for beach dimensions but did not share any information about the MEMA proposal that came to light this week.
In a terse e-mail exchange Wednesday morning, shared with county officials, Mr. Kennedy chided Mr. Davis for sending an e-mail that appeared to suggest that Mr. Kennedy was consulted or that TTOR supported Mr. Davis's plans.
Mr. Kennedy said the Friday e-mail makes it appear that TTOR has been consulted and advised on the county initiative, when that was not the case.
Mr. Kennedy wrote that Norton Point is a barrier beach, and barrier beaches breach from time to time. The beach is important shorebird priority habitat that has been enhanced with the storm and is not in need of need of restoration, he added.
"Also, yesterday, you revealed to me for the first time that this proposal involved the filling of the breach with 75,000 cubic yards of sand and possibly the construction of a bridge and culvert system!" wrote Mr. Kennedy. "I advised you that such a suggestion would be viewed as foolhardy by many of us and would bring a swift and critical reaction... You feel that this is a roadway. It should be "fixed." We believe it is a barrier beach, which provides habitat for wildlife, recreation for people and commercial fishing opportunities for local shellfishermen. All of those attributes remain undiminished after the breach. The Trustees of Reservations does not support this proposal."
In a response, Mr. Davis disputed the notion that his Friday e-mail implied TTOR's support for any proposal.
He wrote, "I told you that this is a fact-finding discussion with MEMA, and that is what it remains. There are numerous options open to us, including but not limited to: Do Nothing; Fill the Breach; Install Culvert(s) and fill over to insure flushing; Build a Bridge and leave the breach open; and even just install a Foot Bridge. I am not an engineer, but I believe that reasonable people can find a way to achieve both public safety and environmental health. As a County, and the owner of Norton Point Beach, we may have serious liability issues by not restoring the sole emergency exit for Chappaquiddick, when we have the opportunity. All of these issues need to be discussed, and the window to apply for funds is very short. I trust that The Trustees of Reservation will maintain an open mind about the problem and join in a full and transparent discussion. As a community, we have an obligation to consider all the options and give appropriate weight to public safety and environmental concerns. I ask TTOR to join us in that responsibility."
Terre Forde, president of the Chappaquiddick Island Association, said that when he learned about today's meeting, he called Mr. Davis and asked about attending. He said the county manager was resistant.
Mr. Forde said attempts to fill the breach are doomed to failure. "I think that Mother Nature should take her course just like she always has in the past," he said. "I think it is going to be impossible, impossible to fill that void in. I think they are whistling in the dark."
Fran Clay, a Chappaquiddick resident and avid fisherman, said that when she and her husband first arrived as seasonal residents there was a breach. Ms. Clay said the ever-present possibility of a breach comes with the territory, and most residents accept that fact.
She said the major problem resulting from the breach would be the overtaxing of the ferry that crosses Edgartown Harbor.
By several accounts, the tide continued to run strongly through the breach Mr. Davis is contemplating filling.
Environmental police officer Matt Bass, a former Chappy resident, flew over the opening Sunday and said it looked wide and deep.
"It definitely looks like it is going to be around for awhile," he said.
Division of Marine Fisheries biologist Greg Skomal said he thinks the cut will enhance fishing. That prediction has already proven true. Striped bass were caught on Monday.
Edgartown harbormaster Charlie Blair said the breach has affected tides and currents in the harbor.
"The tide is running backwards here now," he said. "It comes in from Katama for high tide now, just the opposite of what it did."
Mr. Blair said several lobster boats also went through the cut this weekend. And Dana Gaines kayaked around Chappy Sunday morning, he said.
Fishermen, curious Islanders and gulls have flocked to the opening. Many made the long hike out from Katama last weekend, when the beach trail was still closed to vehicle traffic.
David Belcher, Chappaquiddick TTOR superintendent, said the Katama side of the beach roadway is now open to over-sand vehicle traffic. However, the roadway on the Chappaquiddick side was almost completely consumed by the break in the beach and the surge of storm seas.
Beach over-sand vehicle permits are available at the TTOR office in Vineyard Haven, the Dukes County administration building at the airport, Coop's in Edgartown and by mail. The cost is $60 for a resident and $100 for a non-resident.
Historically, openings have occurred with some regularity in the two-and-a-half-mile long barrier beach that separates relatively shallow and normally placid Katama Bay from the Atlantic Ocean.
Norton Point has been breached during other storms, including the gale of January 1886, the 1938 hurricane, Hurricane Edna in 1954, and Hurricane Bob in 1991.