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Responders Quick to Mitigate Isaac Impact

September 20, 2012
 
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

While the news about the devastating flooding that occurred when Hurricane Isaac slogged its way over Louisiana has slowly faded from coverage, the recovery continues on the outskirts of New Orleans. Those rebuilt, upgraded levees that surround New Orleans proper stood up to the storm that drenched south Louisiana and south Mississippi in torrential rain, but the areas around the metropolitan city suffered. LaPlace ended up with more than 7,000 homes flooded. Plaquemines Parish south of New Orleans suffered a similar fate. The storm also pushed water out of Lake Pontchartrain and caused flooding in Slidell.

The rebuilding is far from finished in Louisiana, which makes Alabama officials especially thankful that Isaac gave the state’s coastal area only a glancing blow.

There were incidents of flooding in south Alabama, but it was comparable to just about any tropical system that makes landfall on the northern Gulf Coast.

There were impacts, however. One incident resulted in a happy ending; the fate of the other impact will be more of a wait-and-see situation.

The happy ending had to do with the Gulf State Park Pier, which protrudes 1,540 feet into the Gulf of Mexico, making it extremely vulnerable during any tropical system landfall. When Tropical Storm Ida passed over Dauphin Island in 2009, the Gulf State Pier was on the east side of the storm and got hammered.

Terry Boyd, Engineering Chief with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), and architects designed the pier with removable panels that allow the force of the wind and water to be dispersed. This prevents damage to the pilings and caps on the new pier that replaced the one destroyed during Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Unfortunately, Ida’s impact was underestimated, and the storm sent the 400-pound deck panels flying into the air like they were made of Styrofoam.

After Ida was over, there were 109 of the 5-foot by 5-foot panels either moved or completely blown out. One panel was picked up more than 2 miles away.

Lesson learned, according to Boyd. As Isaac approached, the Engineering Section and contractors went to work in a frenzy.

“On Sunday afternoon, the Commissioner (N. Gunter Guy Jr.) gave us permission to implement the ‘Pier Evacuation Plan,’ and we removed about 200 panels from the pier,” Boyd said. “We removed all the panels from the octagon on the end. Then we removed two rows of panels on the south side of each piling bent to the mid-section. Then we removed five more rows from the mid-section toward the concession stand. That was based on previous events, like last year with (Tropical Storm) Debby.

“We had all that done by Monday afternoon, including taking all the signs up. When Isaac came through, it flipped four panels over. We had debated removing those panels that night. We didn’t. Now we know we should.”

That doesn’t mean the pier escaped damage, but it could have been a lot, lot worse. Boyd said the handrail around the octagon on the end was washed away, while several lights and electrical work were damaged.

When it became safe to return to the pier, ADCNR officials and contractors swooped in to start replacing the panels and repairing the damage.

“After the storm was over, we had the pier back open by Saturday morning,” Boyd said. “We had about $55,000 in damages, including putting back the panels and fixing the damage.

“During Tropical Storm Ida, we didn’t remove any panels. We had $120,000 in damage and the pier was closed for five weeks. With Isaac we were closed for three days and had $55,000 in expenses. So our plan worked.”

The other impact along the Alabama Gulf Coast was related to a previous tragedy, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

State and federal officials knew of areas offshore that held remnants of the massive oil spill in the form of tar mats. Those same officials expected that some of that material would end up on shore during a tropical weather event.

Ed Poolos with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management said teams reacted quickly after the storm.

“What occurs is we have SCAT (Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique) teams that have sections of the beach that they are assigned each day,” Poolos said. “They walk the beach and see if there is any impact from anything that was buried, and that Isaac washed onshore.

“They hit the beach as soon as it is safe to be there to see if the storm surge moved anything that had been buried and deposited it on the beach. They assess what’s there and call the operations team, which actually goes out and cleans up what’s there. The quicker we can get out there to see it and identify it, the quicker we can get the proper equipment out there to clean up whatever is there.”

Poolos said tar balls were picked up on the south side of Dauphin Island, as well as the Fort Morgan peninsula, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

“It was about what we expected,” Poolos said. “We knew there was buried stuff. We knew we expected to see it in certain areas. The day after the storm, we had four teams out working with the cities to get the information out as quick as we could.

“Obviously, with it being the week before Labor Day, we wanted the public at Orange Beach and Gulf Shores to have as normal a day as possible. And I believe we did that. That’s one of their busiest weekends, and we definitely didn’t want to see that affected.”

Poolos said there is no way to predict what’s going to happen when the next tropical system makes landfall on or near the Alabama coast, but he hopes the effects will gradually diminish.

“We know there is stuff buried out there,” he said. “We’ve identified stuff buried out there. We’re going to continue to look for stuff for the next four or five storms. Do we expect it? We hope it goes down after every storm. It will depend on the strength of the storm and where it hits. Hopefully, this will be the worst and it keeps going down. The thing we’re committed to is to get out there after the storm and get it cleaned up as quickly as possible.”

PHOTOS: (By Roger Reetz) Hurricane Isaac lashed the Gulf State Park Pier with massive waves, which wiped out the handrails on the end of the pier. However, the pier was designed with removable panels that were taken out to allow the storm’s energy to be dissipated through the openings. With a beautiful sunset as a backdrop, contractors and State Parks officials were able to replace the panels and repair the handrail in time to have the pier open for Labor Day Weekend.

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