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Let’s Protect Delaware’s Beach Highway—for the “Correct” Reason

“Even on sunny days, southern Delaware’s Route 1 has been overtopped with water from tidal flooding between Dewey Beach and Fenwick Island,” stated a recent article on WHYY’s website indicating that tropical storms and nor’easters threaten to cut off access to the highway that runs along a thin strip of land between the ocean and the bay.  In addition, the article indicated “the state launched a study with help from the consulting firm AECOM to determine how to make the road more resistant to flooding threats.”

With dramatic images from the barrier islands of Sanibel Island, Naples, Cape Coral, and other coastal areas near Fort Myers and Punta Gorda fresh in our minds’ eyes, now is a good time to plan how Delaware should respond to coastal flooding.  The entire range of tropical storms, hurricanes, their remnants, and nor’easters garner most of the attention as they cause significant damage in drastically brief timespans.

It is important to note that flooding occurs now during high tidal conditions in many areas along the coast, including the State’s barrier island, State Route 9, and the road to South Bowers.

Thus, I applaud the State’s effort.  Unfortunately, the State’s Secretary of Transportation, Nicole Majeski, tied the AECOM assistance solely to…climate change.  Citing Governor Carney’s Climate Action Plan, she argued to a US Senate Committee that “Delaware is seeing firsthand the effects of climate change and sea level rise” as part of the effort’s plan.

Why invoke climate change?  Over the years, Delaware’s beaches have been damaged by tropical storm and hurricane remnants that have passed by.  Between 1923 and 1974, a report by the University of Delaware noted significant events occurred in 1923, 1924, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1943, 1944, 1950, 1951, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1964, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1973, and 1974 with multiple storm events occurring in some years.

Suffice it to say that coastal erosion, damage to buildings, and overtopping of roadways from coastal storms have been commonplace in Delaware—and well before the age of “climate change.”

However, the quintessential event occurred in 1962; fifty years ago this past March.  Known colloquially as the “Five-High Storm” (because it lasted through five high tide cycles), the nor’easter hung on for three days.  Significant damage occurred along Delaware’s barrier island and, along the coast, Route 14 (renamed Route 1 in the 1970s) experienced up to four feet of flooding north of the Indian River Inlet.  In fact, flooding was so severe that the ocean and inland bay waters met as the barrier island was overtopped.

The inlet where Lewes Creek flows into the Delaware Bay has migrated several miles northwestward from the 1600s until the early 1900s when it was channelized into the Roosevelt Inlet.  The Indian River Inlet, a natural break in the barrier island that connects Rehoboth and Indian River Bays to the Atlantic Ocean, has moved northward over the years.  Since the late 1800s, many efforts were made to dredge a channel but reoccurring storms opened and closed various pathways.  It wasn’t until the late 1930s that jetties were installed to keep the inlet from silting in again.  As every geologist knows, land can be dynamic and barrier islands, in particular, are highly dynamic changing considerably over time.  We must always remember that fact and plan accordingly.

So, yes, it is a very good idea to plan for the future; especially when these events have happened (relatively frequently) in the past.  Delaware needs a plan to protect its citizens and visitors from the ravages of storms and tidal fluctuations that frequent the coast.  Evacuation plans and routes have been mapped, but when a storm is bearing down on the Delaware coastline, these evacuation routes must remain open.  What we need now is an action plan that addresses keeping roadways open and protecting citizens and visitors.  I applaud such an effort.

What I fear most is that this discussion will be tied to addressing climate change and that reducing fossil fuel usage will be a magic bullet to protect Delaware’s coastline.  Indeed, the Secretary of Transportation has indicated she views this as an arm of Governor Carney’s Climate Change Action Plan.  As history shows us, these events have occurred rather frequently over the past century.  Regardless of your view on climate change, I encourage the Executive Branch to proceed with plans to protect Delaware’s citizens without turning these much-needed plans into another effort to demonize fossil fuels and push for more wind and solar.  All the green energy in the world will not stop tropical storms and nor’easters from adversely affecting citizens and visitors to The First State.