April 13, 2012

Guest Column: A family’s safety for the birds?


This 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.

I’m 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.

On 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.

The winds didn’t shift or increase and the day was sunny and beautiful.  My wife Melissa, 3 -year-old son Aengus, and 1-year-old daughter Finley thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon watching wildlife, fishing, and enjoying the view!  

The 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.  

Realizing 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.  

After 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.

It 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. 

The 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.  

Many 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.  

My 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 option.   

I 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.”  

My 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.  

I 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.  

We 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 their trucks.  

As 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.  

After 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.  

Our 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.  

The 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.)

(Editor’s 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 immediate steps.

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.)

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