Bridge damage delays storm repairs at Assateague Span's supports exposed by erosion


ASSATEAGUE ISLAND -- Major repairs to the storm-ravaged state and federal seashore parks south of Ocean City were delayed yesterday so divers can determine the effect of Saturday morning's northeaster on the Verrazano Bridge linking the mainland to the barrier island.

State Department of Natural Resources officials closed the bridge and the island to visitors Saturday so they could inspect the beach. But repairs that were to have begun yesterday were halted when inspectors discovered that water rushing beneath the bridge had eroded the riverbed and exposed previously buried portions of the bridge supports.

Park employees examining the Assateague beach damage were restricted to crossing the bridge in light vehicles -- and only one at a time. Heavy construction equipment en route to the island was turned back.

Several pieces of heavy equipment already on the island were left stranded. "The equipment we have over there is trapped until further notice," said Kevin Farley, a DNR spokesman.

Divers are scheduled to inspect the Verrazano Bridge early today, as well as three other bridges connecting the mainland.

State Highway Administration spokeswoman Diane Levero said that the impromptu weight restrictions on the Verrazano Bridge were a DNR decision and that highway officials have not yet ruled whether the bridge is unsafe for heavy vehicles.

The arched bridge, opened in 1964, has a clearance of 35 feet. It is the sole vehicular entrance to the upper portion of the popular island park and refuge.

Portions of both the state and federal seaside parks on Assateague Island were heavily damaged during Saturday's brief but powerful storm. Three days later, many park roadways and beach areas remained covered by water.

The northern end of the island was hit by winds exceeding 70 miles an hour and a 5-foot wall of seawater rolled across the narrow, flat sands, pushing everything before it, including a number of the wild ponies that attract thousands of tourists to the parks annually.

"They couldn't move south quickly enough to higher ground," said Larry G. Points, chief interpreter for the federally owned Assateague Island National Seashore.

So far, park officials have tallied the loss of 10 ponies and a smaller number of deer living on the island. Most of the carcasses were tossed onto the mainland shore, where they were discovered by park officials and farmers.

Mr. Points said the ponies were buried beneath the sand on the north end of the island. He said the loss will not greatly affect the overall pony population -- which numbers about 140 -- but the deaths will hamper efforts to study the effects of a birth control program designed to keep the number of ponies below 150.

"A lot of these horses were important scientifically," he said.

Throughout the park, effects of the storm were evident yesterday. Asphalt parking lots and roads were ripped apart in some places, a ranger kiosk was knocked on its side and pieces of what used to be picnic benches were scattered yards away into thickets of bayberry bushes.

Park Superintendent Roger K. Rector said the extent of the damage and cost of repairs may not be known until next week.

Meanwhile, residents of the nearby waterfront communities of Frontier Town and Snug Harbor were busy gathering up what remained of their trailers, homes and boats.

Before it rushed back into Sinepuxent Bay, a temporary lake 4 feet deep covered Frontier Town after the storm hit, according Mitch Parker, a co-owner of the camp grounds and trailer park.

Trailers that were believed secure on land lay in the water yesterday. Boats that had been in the water rested high and dry on land. Trees were uprooted when a storm surge about 8 feet high struck the shore.

Mr. Parker estimated that, of the 170 trailers in Frontier Town, 50 were destroyed by the storm. Damage to the trailers and boats was estimated at nearly $2 million. Added to this was $250,000 to $500,000 in damage to the Frontier Town resort itself.

A half mile up the road, Raymond W. Hallman, 81, sorted through the junk pile that up until Saturday morning was an orderly ground-level machine shop beneath his Snug Harbor home. Mr. Hallman said he slept through the storm until he was awakened by his wife. "It scared the heck out of us," he said. The storm pummeled the little Snug Harbor community, shifting some houses off their foundations and rocking those that were built upon pilings.

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