Voice of Confidence Despite Mountain to Move
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By Windy Mason
After 23 years working in the maintenance department for the Virginia end Assateague Island National, Ish Ennis was promoted to chief of maintenance last September 1; and took over the office at the Maryland Visitor Center, in charge of the entire barrier island seashore. Two and a half months later, the November nor’easter called Ida roared up the Atlantic Ocean and dumped 3 to 4 feet of sand on the beach, burying the parking lots.
Suddenly, Ennis faced the massive job of moving a mountain of sand around and coming up with a plan to restore parking in time for the coming summer beach season, when up to 1,000 visitors a day travel through the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge to the oceanfront.
But Ennis is a voice of confidence. Not a sign of panic anywhere, even though the beach months are fast approaching. That’s because in his time Ennis has seen any number of storms. He had on his desk, with a 8×10 photo on the cover, a whole book on the Hurricane Isabelle recovery project, a storm that hit a few years ago. Bicycle racks and road signs in the photos showed sand levels near where they were after Ida.
But this year due to an unusually harsh winter, the beach parking lot recovery project on the Virginia end of Assateague Island is running about two weeks behind.
“This year we definitely had a rough winter. We’ve had a lot of pounding nor’easters that haven’t given us much relief,” Ennis said. “It’s been nor’easter after nor’easter,” said Casey Custer, the maintenance mechanic for the Virginia Assateague.
During the snowy season, the crew was doing its usual operational duties including snow removal and cleaning decks. In December and into January, plans were being made for the new beach configuration, devised by Ennis, the maintenance staff and Carl Zimmerman of resource management. “This week is the first week we are moving forward with any kind of construction,” Ennis said. “We’ve been excavating all of the old material out of the parking lots. We’ll reuse that material in the new configuration. Then, we’ll cap it all off with a couple inches of shells,” he said.
On Assateague Beach in Virginia, currently you will see high piles that are yellow. They look like sand, but are actually old, road base material. “We recover that road base and reuse it. Some of it has been used several times. It keeps costs down,” said Ennis. Around 9,000 yards of this clay road base will be relocated during the project. Sand will be moved to the east.
The parking lot, which is one foot deep, will be taken up. From this, material will be reused to fill the holes. There will be a one foot slope for drainage purposes. Above the road base material, there will be roughly 10 inches of sand and two inches of shells. Also, out of this project, 150 to 200 feet of eroded asphalt will be taken up and replaced with shells.
“We’ll start in the turn circle and work south first,” said Ish. This is in contrast to the first plans for the recovery, in which parking lot one on the north was to be repaired first. “The area to the north, parking lot one, has not settled down. We are still getting substantial over wash there, “said Ennis. “By working on the south lots first, this will provide more parking spaces by the busy season.” There are only 155 parking spaces in parking lot one on the north. There are 961 parking spaces in the southern parking lots. Once the area calms down, parking lot one will be made smaller and moved back according to the new configuration.
As maintenance chief, his new position covers both ends of Assateague Island, making him responsible for recreational beach facilities, producing a budget and acting as project manager in both Maryland and Virginia. Ennis, spends his Saturdays on the Virginia end working with the crew as well as taking the time to check in a couple of times during the week, while also maintaining his duties in Maryland. “The crew down there is flat out incredible,” says Ennis. “They’re working 10 hours a day, six days a week, day in and day out,” he said.
There are two loaders and one 25-ton off-road truck in use in the recovery effort now. More equipment has been ordered and will be in use during the peak of the construction throughout the month of April. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service crews are working together. Jack Williams, heavy equipment operator, is acting supervisor on the project. Casey Custer, maintenance mechanic, and John Watson, are also acting as equipment operators. Jeffrey Oshaben, motor vehicle operator, is also on the project. Fish and Wildlife people involved in the project are Charlene Swartz, Jeff Marshall and Grover “Drizzle” Wilgus.
While providing an honorable mention for all of this crew, Ennis said, “They go.”
“It’s a rush and it wears people down, There’s no doubt about that,” Ennis said. “The crew works because they know the impact they have if they don’t get it done. They’re motivated. They’re hearts are in it and they lose sleep over it,” he said.
The estimate for the project is still at $600,000 for the Virginia end of the island. Parking lots usually run $100,000 to 125,000 annually for general repairs after nor’easters and other storms, if none have to be moved. “This year, we’re going to move them back. The funding is being done by ERFO, Emergency Relief for Federal Owned Roads, under the Federal Highway Administration. This ERFO money comes through the National Park Service, which manages that fund,” explains Ennis.
The only ERFO funding is in Virginia. The money that goes into Maryland is not from ERFO. It’s money coming from the regional office budget. After this year, there may be no funding to cover parking lot recovery. The ERFO funding is for roads. “They have been nice enough to give us that money even though it doesn’t provide for parking. They have said that after this year, we won’t get anymore money for parking. We’ll get it for roads,” said Ennis. “ERFO has been generous to us. They realize just how important the beach is economically to the area,” he said.
In comparison of the Maryland and Virginia ends of Assateague Island, Ennis said, “We have a lot more land base in Maryland. It’s not as impacted by high tides as Virginia. The Maryland district of Assateague is not as vulnerable as the Virginia district. However, that’s not saying that we don’t have the same issues that we are going to have to address in the near future. It’s just we’re not as vulnerable at this time.” Just two years ago, there was a major move of a parking lot in Maryland.
The storm did hit the Maryland end of the island pretty substantially as well. The estimate for the recovery process in Maryland is non-ERFO money and is $298,000, from which some will also go to Virginia. It’s not coming from the ERFO fund and will be divided up between Maryland and Virginia. “All of this money will have to cover the work being done, the shells for covering the relocated parking lots, and overtime for the work crew,” explains Ennis. Virginia was actually estimated at $549,000 for ERFO money.
“We will have some parking by April 4. We’ll make a point to open up something. Wherever we are, we will shell and open up, just like we have done in the past,” Ennis said.