Guest Column: A family’s safety for the birds?
By ANDREW MAXWELL
article has been written with no political agenda and does not include
any fictitious drama. This is simply a story reflecting a focus
of environmental priorities currently employed at the National Seashore
of Cape Hatteras in North Carolina that recently put some families in
serious danger. Allowing the temporary use of literally 5 feet of
protected sand would have allowed safe evacuation of more than 19
families from Cape Point within 15 minutes, yet we were denied.
38 years old and have been driving to Cape Point for the last 22
years. I have seen and been in many situations where Mother
Nature pulled a few tricks, and we had to leave the beach
immediately. I have always been respectful of the rules and
recommendations of the National Park Service and have never gotten
stuck – close, but not stuck.
Wednesday, April 4, we drove out to Cape Point at 12:30 p.m., well
before the 6:17 p.m. high tide. We passed through a narrow point
between the dunes and the ocean and decided that the 8 mph southwest
winds were blowing against the flow of water but to be safe we would
leave around 4 p.m.
winds didn’t shift or increase and the day was sunny and
beautiful. My wife Melissa, 3 ½-year-old son Aengus, and
1-year-old daughter Finley thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon watching
wildlife, fishing, and enjoying the view!
day went quickly and after catching and releasing all the sharks,
skates, and puffers we could endure, we flattened out the sandcastle,
loaded the truck, and began driving around the Point to go back on the
only path open because of bird enclosures. We rounded the bend,
having been on the south side only to see water breaching the bank.
something had gone terribly wrong with our prediction, I watched one
truck crawl through the washout. The next to attempt evacuation
was a man in his upper 70s who immediately got stuck. It was now
4:15 p.m., and the tide was coming in swiftly.
wading through the wash and deep soft sand, I reached the stranded
man. I tried to talk him into walking back to our truck, but he
stayed with his ship. A wrecker soon came and the driver had a
wave literally hit his truck in an attempt to reach the man. The
wrecker spent the next 15 minutes successfully pulling him out.
Hindsight says the older man had no choice but to stay in his truck, as
it was difficult for this 38-year-old to get through the rushing water
and soft sand.
was an hour before high tide, the water had breached the bank, and
upwards of 19 families had misjudged the tide. We were quickly losing
real estate to the water. It looked like the only solution would be
to move the protection string back 5 feet, allowing us all to hug the
bird enclosure line, using the already established bypass around the
dune, and reaching dry land. This request was later denied by the
National Park Service.
weather conditions hadn’t changed since noon and it appeared we all got
fooled by a spring lunar tidal. The only comfort was 95 percent
of us were very experienced off-road drivers and we all misjudged the
situation. This couldn’t be chalked up to stupidity and was
simply a genuine accident. The saying, “We are only human and
humans make mistakes” may apply here.
people called the Park Service only to be told we put ourselves in this
situation and we were essentially out of luck. The 6:17 p.m. high
tide came and went, and by 7:15 any barrier the shore offered had been
eroded and the water continued to come, even with the falling
tide. My son was scared and I assured him I was the smartest guy
in the world and could protect them from anything. My wife
disagreed. My daughter chose that time to begin vomiting, and my
parental instincts focused on getting home.
choices were limited. I could abandon the vehicle, walk through
the enclosure, get my family attacked by the birds, and have the Park
Service close the entire beach because of my choice. Or I could walk a
path through the knee deep sand to plan a route of escape. It was
now 8:15, getting dark quickly, and the water was still gaining
ground. The time for a decision was then and I chose the second
talked a guy who had a Jeep Wrangler into going first. If he
couldn’t make it, we had no chance. He plowed through the water
and sand. While we were loading up, four other trucks followed in
his tracks and barely crawled out of danger. I told my wife in a
calm voice the only thing I wanted to hear were words of encouragement
and we would be all right. She agreed and said, “Just do
it, with Finley vomiting we have to get back to the house.”
tires were already down. We buckled up and within 100 feet began to
sink. I drove directly toward the ocean and reached the hard pack
sand at the ocean’s edge. We were basically doing S-turns toward
and away from the ocean to continue forward movement. The truck
was pushing 4,000 RPMs, working harder than ever before, and we made it
to the narrowest part of the washed-out stretch.
immediately saw a newly formed drop-off and told everyone to “hold on
tight,” bracing for impact. I was able to enter the drop gently
allowing my rear end to push my front out and allow good traction to
pull us out. While in the drop-off, a wave literally crashed down
on the side of my heavy duty truck, foam was over the hood, and I may
have said a pretty harsh four-letter word.
made it through the next 30 feet to dry land, and I hopped out of the
truck with my heart racing. I waited with four other trucks for
anyone else to come through, not sure what to do if they got
stuck. It appeared no one else made the attempt and abandoned
the gravity of the situation began to set in, and we were on hard
ground, my son Aengus who was still holding on tightly from the
drop-off, asked if he could let go. We told him he could, and he
loudly yelled, “Daddy, that was crazy!” That laughter was
desperately needed medicine.
a beer at our home in Avon, I realized the battle for beach access was
just a symptom of a much larger problem. We as a country
sometimes prioritize idealistic beliefs at the expense of human
safety. A simple temporary compromise would have saved a bunch of
trouble. The bird enclosure was actually a pre-nesting enclosure
-- no birds would have been endangered, even if the Park Service had
moved the line by 20 feet.
children need to learn to respect and preserve the environment.
Often when we can’t experience something, we become ignorant of it, and
ignorance breeds destruction. This experience showed me that we
are well past that point of just a beach access argument. When
the rules our officials are told to enforce allow no compromise, the
average person who may have made a genuine mistake is put in danger.
National Park Service chose to protect the birds, putting 19 families
in danger, even when there was a temporary solution that was
harmless. Are we really willing to put human beings in danger
because of the lack of compromise? When human beings become that
unimportant, we are in grave trouble.
(Andrew S. Maxwell and his family live in Pittsburgh, Pa., and own a vacation home in Avon.)
note: The Island Free Press asked the National Park Service to comment
on the situation of up to 20 ORVs that were stranded at Cape
Point. Both Paul Stevens, chief enforcement ranger, and Cyndy
Holda, public affairs specialist responded.
Stevens said that, first
of all, Dare County Emergency Management had put out a bulletin on
Wednesday, April 4, about a developing northeaster and a lunar spring
tide. NPS, he said, shared that information with all personnel,
visitor centers, and permit officers. It was clear the tides
would be higher than normal.
Stevens and Holda both
noted that the fact that beaches may be impassable during times of high
tide is highlighted on the new ORV permit and the video that the public
has to watch to get a permit. The same language is also used on
all signs at ramps.
Stevens confirmed that the
Park Service chose not to move the natural resource fencing to allow
the folks who were stranded to immediately escape because seashore
officials did not think there was an emergency or that any of the
people were in imminent danger.
The ORV management plan,
Stevens said, does provide to allow vehicles in a resource closure in
the case of emergency, such as a medical emergency.
“We had these people out
there, and there was no emergency,” Stevens said, “so it was decided
not to let them through the resource area.”
A ranger who was scheduled
to be off duty at 6 p.m., Stevens said, received permission to remain
on the scene to monitor the situation. Again, he said, there was no
emergency, but if there had been a medical emergency or if lives were
threatened by the high water, the Park Service would have taken
The high tide receded, and Holda said that all of the stranded vehicles made it safely off the Point.
“We always err on the side of safety,” she said.
However, both Holda and
Stevens noted that there are long-time, die-hard fishermen who will go
to the points and spits, even though they know there will be overwash
and they will not be able to leave until the next high tide.
Stevens says that ORV
drivers must learn to “read the beach” and understand where and how
they might be stranded in certain tide and wind events.
Holda adds that the seashore’s scenic and wild areas are just that – wild in certain situations.)