At Tuesday night’s Dare County Waterways Commission meeting, commissioners met to hear from representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE), and the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) about the state of Hatteras Island’s surrounding waters. It was the first time the commission has convened since Hurricane Dorian tore through the island’s infrastructure, damaging dunes and homes alike.
Chairman Steve Coulter expressed concern about the lack of lit buoys in the South Ferry Channel. In the wake of Dorian, which hit just over a month ago, conditions in the channel have become more complicated, and even dangerous, to navigate. Cedar trees which once sprouted on the shoals now lurk in open waters where they are hazardous to vessels. The addition of lit buoys in the channel is especially pertinent with the onset of autumn, as the amount of daylight per day continues to shrink.
“South Ferry needs buoys with some lights. If you don’t know where you’re going in the bar, you’re in trouble,” Chairman Coulter said of navigating the channel in the dark.
Though the Waterways Commission has suggested this improvement several times since the beginning of the summer, the Coast Guard is hesitant to place buoys in the channel until they can be sure that the area is deep enough, i.e. at least six feet. The COE, whose last survey done just after the hurricane provides this data, promised to provide a clearer picture of the channel’s depths so that the Coast Guard can make an informed and accurate decision in the coming week.
Another major issue concerning the South Ferry Channel is that, as of now, the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the COE, the state, and the county that allows the COE to dredge the channel is void. The COE told the commissioners that they expect it will take 4-5 more weeks to get all of the signatures necessary for the approval of the new MOA. Until the MOA is renewed, the Corps is not permitted to survey the channel.
This news came as a surprise to several commissioners who had assumed the South Ferry Channel could be dredged before the beginning of December if need be. They were not pleased with the anticipated waiting period. The MOA, which expired in April of this year, was supposed to be a multiple-year agreement. Unfortunately, the new MOA will only last for one year as well, but the commission has made plans to get ahead of this issue in the upcoming year.
“Every party as a whole kind of dropped the ball on this one,” Waterways Commission staff Brent Johnson said.
The COE promised to give the Waterways Commission an update on the progress of the MOA in the upcoming weeks, and guaranteed that a dredge could be made available for their use as soon as the MOA is approved.
“I’m just trying to figure out where we messed up, so we don’t mess it up again,” Commissioner Natalie Kavanaugh said.
The NCDOT reported on the progress of South Dock at the ferry terminal on the north end of Ocracoke. In August, and prior to Dorian, contractors were scheduled to install a sheet pile in September to prevent further erosion at the site.
Despite major damage to the island from hurricane-force winds and the resulting delay in progress, contractors are still hopeful that the sheeting will be in place by November 11 of this year, with an overall completion date of January 31, 2020. Because South Dock requires constant maintenance, NCDOT is exploring the feasibility of constructing a new ferry dock just north of the pony pens on Ocracoke and abandoning everything north of that area.
NCDOT says their biggest obstacle to a project like this is, as of now, a lack of funding. If they are to go ahead with building a new ferry dock, they will need to garner the funds in order to maintain the level of service they provide now.
The Waterways Commission will next meet in room 168 of the Dare County Administration Building in Manteo on Tuesday, November 12, at 7:00 p.m.