April 19, 2012
Cleaning up Hurricane Irene’s mess at Mirlo Beach
...WITH SLIDE SHOW

BY CATHERINE KOZAK

Devastated by soundside flooding in Hurricane Irene in August, owners of houses on the west side of Highway 12 in the Mirlo Beach subdivision were mostly left to fend for themselves to fill a crater-size hole and repair the access roads.

When the power company, transportation department and wildlife refuge officials declined to help, the private community pooled its resources, secured a loan, and with the paving completed last week, managed to get the job done just in time for summer.

“We were able to get the neighborhood back for the season,” said Jim Meyer, president of the Mirlo Beach Home Owners Association. “If we had not pulled it all together, that would have been some sight for tourists to see. It would have been traumatic, actually.”

The late August storm had destroyed Highway 12 on the north end of Rodanthe near Mirlo Beach. Houses on the oceanside in the subdivision were damaged, as they have been in several storms in the past decade, and one fell into the ocean.

However, the hurricane also damaged houses on the soundside of Highway 12. The storm surge wiped out the pavement on Green Lantern Court and Blue Sea Road, which face the highway, leaving huge pools of water lined with broken slabs of concrete in front of teetering houses, hovering stairs, and debris-strewn property.

By October, the North Carolina Department of Transportation had fixed the highway, but Mirlo homeowners were still struggling to address the extensive damages in their community. Until the hole was filled, it was impossible for many property owners to even get to their homes.

“There was no way to access it unless you had a boat,” Meyer said.

Meyer, who does pharmaceutical marketing in Pottstown, Pa., said that the association asked DOT to assist them in filling the hole, but the agency said they had neither the money nor the authority to work on private property.

The response was similar from the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, he said. Two streams of water running under the houses in Mirlo, he said, were coming from the refuge.

Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative, Meyer said, also declined to deal with three power poles sitting in the water at Mirlo because of private property constraints. 

“We recognized we had to help ourselves,” he said.

After applying for a state coastal permit and speaking with several contractors, Meyer said that Tarboro-based Barnhill Contracting Company agreed to fill, grade, and pave the area “at a tremendous discount.” Even so, costs totaled close to $500,000 to get the work done, including thousands of truckloads of sand at $300 each, and repaving of some residents' driveways.

 To put salt in their wounds, much of the repair work was not covered by flood or homeowner’s insurance.
  
All of the 50 or so homes in Mirlo were damaged to some extent ---many with decks, walkways, fencing and pools destroyed --- Meyer said, but there were eight that were directly affected by the destroyed private roadbed.

Eventually, six of them were able to pay $11,000 each toward fixing it, and the homeowners association chipped in some. The rest was covered by a bank loan, which Meyer said he expects will be paid within three years with homeowners fees and $400 assessments on the 70 lots in the association. Meanwhile, everyone has been sharing pickup of debris.

“We’ve got the place up and going,” Meyer said. “It’s really nice to be associated with a group of people who come together like that.”

In light of DOT’s response to Mirlo’s woes, Meyer said he is billing the agency for $7,500, which he said is what it cost to repair ruts in Mirlo’s road left by DOT equipment.

“I tell you, the last six months have been insane,” he said.

The homeowners’ association has consulted a coastal engineer and is looking into the possibility of getting compensation for the damage from the tidal surge, said association vice-president Wes Hutchinson.

“We’re trying to get together with our lawyer and our expert to see what we can do,” he said.

Hutchinson, a marketing professor who lives outside Philadelphia, said that sandbags on Highway 12 and an old drainage ditch from the refuge appear to have at least contributed to the powerful rush of water through the subdivision between the ocean and the sound,

“Once it broke through the island, it was just like a toilet flushed,” he said, “and when it flushed, it stripped out all that sand there.”
 
Dan Richards, who owns a house on Green Lantern Court, said he was one of the property owners who could not pay toward the road repairs. He said he is facing “tens of thousands of dollars” in costs to repair his septic field -- at least $50,000 just to replace the sand -- and $30,000 to replace his pool.

Richards, a Pittsburgh resident who works in sales, said he expects it would cost at least $100,000 to get his house back online, none of it covered by insurance. And the homeowner next door to him is in the same boat. 

 “I’m going to wait, along with my neighbor, to figure out what the best course of action is,” he said. “We’re going to pick away at it and try to get online next season.”

Since he has no septic or water, his house, which is structurally sound, is still condemned, Richards said.

But even as most of Mirlo is back on its feet, the community is facing another challenge. One of DOT’s proposed long-term solutions to fixing Highway 12 is construction of a 25- to 30-foot high bridge that would go right through S-Curves, and tie into the highway  just south of Mirlo. The final alternative is expected to be decided this month.

Richards said he fears that instead of a view of the ocean, he’d be staring at a concrete bridge. “We’re not happy about that at all,” he said.

Needless to say, such a scenario calls into question the wisdom of restoring his property.

“If the value of our property goes down because it’s a concrete jungle, and we’re asked to spend $100,000,” he said, “it’s lunacy.” 

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