January 27, 2012

Shoaling in Hatteras ferry channel continuing to cause problems


A federal dredge could soon be heading back to the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry channel to clear persistent shoaling that has plagued the waterway since Hurricane Irene in August.

For the last few weeks, ferry traffic in the channel has been limited to only smaller, lighter vessels and has been forced to slow way down at one section.

“It’s closing up,” said Dare County Board of Commissioners Vice-Chairman Allen Burrus, a native of Hatteras. “It’s the most dry land I’ve seen in the inlet in my lifetime.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the North Carolina Department of Transportation have agreed to have the Corps do emergency dredging in Rollinson Channel as soon as possible, followed by more extensive contract dredging in the fall. In exchange, the state would pick up the tab.

Once the agreement is signed by both parties, the sidecaster dredge Merritt, which had already done post-hurricane work in the channel in November, will return to Hatteras, said Roger Bullock, chief of navigation at the Corps’ Wilmington District.  The smaller dredge will work to get enough sand out of the channel so that the larger hopper dredge Currituck can follow behind and dig out more material. 

Burrus said that one side of the channel appears to be washing away while the other side is filling in. In some places, there’s less than 4 feet of water, he said. Even the small 150-foot ferries draw 3 to 4 feet.

Storms are the main culprit, Burrus said, but he also blames inadequate dredge funding from Washington, D.C. Since the ferry channel equates to the roadway between Hatteras and Ocracoke, the ferry service has suffered beyond mere inconvenience, he said.

“I would say they’re crippled,” Burrus added.

Terry Gray, Ferry Division operations manager for Hatteras Inlet, said that the area between Alpha Buoys 9 and 11 --- about 15 minutes from the Hatteras terminal -- is the worst area.  Wednesday soundings there showed only about 3 feet of water about one hour after high tide.

One some days, ferry runs --- which normally run hourly between 5 a.m and midnight, have had to be cancelled or postponed. Within the last week, he said, runs had to be suspended about six different times.

“Our guys are very, very careful not to inflict damage on our vessels,” Gray said.

Three vessels are running now in the channel, two actively and one on standby, he said.  The smaller Hatteras-class ferries draw less water but also hold fewer vehicles, said Lucy Wallace, public information officer for the Ferry Division.

There have been no injuries or damages related to the most recent crisis, but Gray said that is largely because the captains’ skill has prevented serious problems.

With the northeast or southwest winds, ferry captains have been forced to slack back on the throttle in the shoaled area, slowing from about 8 knots down to about 3 knots and exposing the boat to the danger of being pushed up onto a shoal by the wind.

No ferries have run aground in the channel, Wallace said, but there were two instances in December when they scraped bottom.

If the vessel bumps bottom, the Coast Guard has to be notified, and the ferry has to be inspected for damage before it is allowed to continue. But the number one priority, Gray said, is the safety of the passengers.

At a meeting last week with DOT and Ferry Division officials, Dare County Manager Bobby Outten said that it was reassuring to see that the state understood that clear passage for the ferries is essential not only for the economy, but also for emergency evacuation and access.

Outten said that there was mutual agreement that the situation was akin to a rockslide on a mountain road, and should warrant the same state and federal attention.

“So we had our sandslide on our highway to Ocracoke,” Outten said. “We got some encouragement from them that they recognize that.”

As a federal channel, the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry channel is the responsibility of the Corps to maintain. But Bullock said that the district has squeezed every penny it could from the budget to provide additional dredging to address storm-related shoaling at Hatteras and Oregon inlets, and only has about $300,000 left for Outer Banks projects for this fiscal year.

“It seems to have really unstablized in Hatteras, Ocracoke and Oregon inlets,” he said, adding that conditions are the worst he’s seen in his 22 years with the Corps.

Before the state agreed to pay, Bullock said, all the dredge work on the Outer Banks has been paid for by federal dollars.

Bullock said that the goal is that after the Hatteras channel is back in good shape, a contract will be let for additional work in September with a pipeline dredge, which will obtain the project depth for the Rollinson Channel of 10 feet. As a bonus, the dredged sand will be put to good use for bird habitat that was depleted in the hurricane. 

“When the (agreement) is approved, the Corps of Engineers is going to respond with government dredges, followed by a contract dredge operation,” Bullock said. “The material coming from the dredging will be beneficial to the bird islands.”

Most Ocracokers are used to the vagaries of nature on these barrier islands and plan for possible ferry delays.

Last Monday, Jan. 23, Georgeann Lyons was on the 1:30 p.m. ferry from Ocracoke after having been turned away at 8 a.m. when fog prevented the trip.

“I just kept calling the dock, and when I saw the fog burning off, I came down here,” she said.  “Delays have been happening fairly frequently since November.”

At least a few Ocracoke residents are trying to time their ferry trips at high tide when they can.

Several Ocracokers expressed concern about the lack of dredging and hope it can be accomplished before tourist season begins.

The best thing travelers can do to find out about delays, Wallace said, is to call the ferry terminal at Hatteras, 252-986-2353.

They also can sign up for Twitter feeds, which Wallace sends out frequently. 

Although those “tweets” may not be specific as to ferry delays, they will alert travelers, who can then call the ferry office, she said.

(Connie Leinbach also contributed to this article.)

 Comments are always welcomed!

     Subject :

     Name :  (required)

     Email :  (required, will not be published)

     City :   (required)    State :   (required)

     Your Comments:

May be posted on the Letters to the Editor page at the discretion of the editor.