Edgartown goes with tidal flow at Norton Point
The town of Edgartown stepped into the breach created by a storm-created cut in Norton Point Beach and the widely criticized move by the Dukes County manager to apply for disaster relief for dredging to fill the gap.
This week Edgartown leaders pushed the county and the effort to recoup federal dollars for storm-related expenses to the side, and focused on how best to handle the possible long-term effects created by the cut, in particular potential public safety risks created by swift currents in once placid Edgartown Harbor and Katama Bay this summer.
The plan now taking shape includes close cooperation and communication among emergency services that would be needed should a boater, swimmer, or fisherman end up in the water, along with a public information campaign to notify boaters that extreme care must be used when entering Edgartown Harbor.
Edgartown Harbor master Charlie Blair is planning to place an announcement on the harbor web site, edgartownharbor.com, to provide information for voters. He also wants to place a buoy at the entrance to Edgartown Harbor and in Katama Bay cautioning boaters.
The Edgartown Parks and Recreation Department is planning to have a plan in place so that lifeguards stationed at popular South Beach can respond to emergencies at the cut. The shellfish department also plans to maintain extra vigilance at the Katama boat landing.
The town is also preparing an emergency contact list and protocols for handling various incidents. For example, in the event of an emergency outside the cut, the communications center would immediately notify the Coast Guard as well as local responders.
The town is also planning to enlist members of the Surfcasters Association, a local fishing organization, in the effort to inform people who may not fully realize the public safety risks associated with the cut.
On Tuesday morning Edgartown selectmen held a special meeting with town department heads and interested parties to discuss the planning effort. The attendees included county manager Winn Davis, Robert Nadeau, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) region II director, and Chris Kennedy, regional supervisor for The Trustees of Reservations, the conservation organization that manages the county-owned Norton Point Beach.
It was the first meeting held between Edgartown selectmen and Mr. Davis since he filed a preliminary damage assessment with MEMA on April 20 meant to qualify the county for federal disaster relief. In his application, Mr. Davis estimated it would cost $511,000 in federal emergency disaster money to repair a beach he said provides an emergency exit for 375 homeowners on Chappaquiddick in the event of a wildfire.
Edgartown officials were angry when they learned of the application days later. The prevailing town view was that the disaster was not a disaster and that local officials should have been consulted.
Despite the furor, the selectmen said little to Mr. Davis. Mr. Davis said even less to them.
Selectman Margaret Serpa kicked off the 11 am meeting flanked at the table by selectman Michael Donaroma and Edgartown town administrator Pamela Dolby, who is spearheading the response. Selectman Art Smadbeck was absent.
Ms. Serpa said the town was experienced with storms and the loss of the beach. The cut was an act of nature, she said, and town departments regularly prepare for storm-related emergencies.
On Monday the heads of town departments, including police, fire, shellfish, conservation, harbor, and parks and recreation had met with Ms. Dolby and Mr. Kennedy to identify steps they needed to take. All present agreed the meeting was a good beginning.
Roy Hayes, owner of the Chappy Ferry, which now provides the only link to Chapaquiddick, discounted the notion that the beach route provided any measurable traffic relief during the busy summer months. His main concern was the increased time it now takes to cross the harbor in the increased current. That could result in a backup, he said.
Mr. Hayes said that a northeast wind coupled with fast moving tides could mean more cancellations, stranding residents on both sides. Ice moving through the channel during the winter would be another factor. "I don't know what is going to happen but it will definitely be different," said Mr. Hayes.
Charlie Blair, Edgartown Harbormaster, assured Mr. Hayes that he would do everything needed to work with him and to keep boaters safe and the ferry operation working smoothly.
Mr. Blair said one of his concerns was rescuing people in the cut itself. He described some of the various scenarios. "If the current is going out that could create dangerous surf rescue conditions," he said.
Ms. Dolby said that in the weeks ahead she would meet with various groups to hone the response. She said it was important to make sure all parties could communicate.
Mr. Kennedy said The Trustees had posted signs warning people of the conditions and prohibiting swimming. "Can we prevent a drowning?" asked Mr. Kennedy. "No. What we can do is prepare for any eventuality."
Amplifying the need, Edgartown Fire Chief Peter Shemeth said a rescue exercise was scheduled Saturday morning at the cut.
Ms. Serpa said the town's position was that the town needed to manage the situation and let nature takes its course. Mr. Davis, who sat silent, was asked by The Times about plans to dredge. He aid the county had no plans and never did have any plans to fill in the breach. The application was filed to keep options open, he said.
Mr. Nadeau endorsed that approach. He said the initial application did not bind anyone to anything. He explained that while mitigation measures might not be covered by disaster relief overtime costs would be eligible.
Mr. Nadeau said that if the state was granted federal relief the process started from scratch. But if the county were not part of the process it would not be possible to apply.
But Ms. Serpa was not putting any stock in federal dollars. "So I think basically we're on our own," she said. The county could spend money to fill the cut and have it open up a week later, she said, adding that the goal now is to prepare for any emergency.
Edgartown may have to learn to live with the cut for some time. Asked about the cut following the conclusion of the meeting, Joanne Taylor, a coastal planner with the Martha's Vineyard Commission, told The Times, "This is the real thing. It will probably take ten to 15 years to totally seal."