Deteriorating East Chop bluff qualifies for FEMA funding

Good news comes against a backdrop of concern highlighted in a recent update report.

Fil photo by Ralph Stewart

At Tuesday night’s selectmen’s meeting, Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has reversed its initial rejection on funding to repair the East Chop Bluff, so the town is now eligible for public assistance under the Hurricane Sandy disaster declaration. Town officials had made repeated appeals to FEMA since the initial decision, citing at least 12 instances over the past 100 years when federal assistance paid for repairs to the bluff.

Mr. Whritenour said the vote at this year’s town meeting to approve the town’s acquisition of the bluff from the East Chop Association, which was also a reversal of a previous decision, helped turn the tide. “A major stumbling block was who has the legal authority over the property. Now it’s clearly public assistance for the public good.” Mr. Whritenour said.

The scope of the repairs and subsequent funding will be determined in further negotiations with FEMA. “It’s a negative that we have to wait, but there are potential benefits,” Mr. Whritenour said, noting that the original request was only to restore the bluff and was not a long-term solution.

The good news from FEMA comes against a backdrop of increased concern about the condition of the bluff. At the request of Oak Bluffs conservation commission agent Liz Durkee, CLE engineering, the firm that made an emergency inspection of the bluff in November 2012 after Hurricane Sandy, recently returned to the Island to update their findings. They determined that the already crumbling corniche has seriously deteriorated.

“The inspection revealed continuing deterioration along the toe of slope, slope sections and the top of slope along the roadway,” the report, dated April 17, stated. The report noted “increased section slope failure as evident by sloughing of sediment and the development of horizontal cracks running parallel to the roadway.…”

Natural erosion continues to eat away at the middle slope, the report said.

“CLE affirms our previous recommendation dated November 2, 2012 to close the seaward lane along East Chop Drive and monitor the remaining coastal bank for weakened areas. Please note that increased growth of summer vegetation may hamper visual inspection of the coastal bank and lack of clear visual evidence of slope failure does not indict a stable coastal bank.”

“I was told it’s getting critical and it should be checked after every storm,” selectman and East Chop resident Walter Vail said. “We need to be very careful.”

Oak Bluffs conservation commission chairman Joan Hughes said her conversation with CLE engineer Carlos Pena took on a dire tone. “He said the bluff could be another Washington,” she said, referring to the March 22 landslide in Oso, Washington.

At the May 28 meeting of the roads and byways committee, a number of options, including a total closure of the road between Brewster Ave. and Munroe Ave. will be discussed, according to Mr. Vail.