Sandy prompts causeway closing on Virginia island

By Steve Szkotak

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Oct. 29 2012 8:36 a.m. MDT

CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. — The state closed Chincoteague's only link to the mainland Monday as rain and surging tidal waters powered by Hurricane Sandy flooded the causeway, leaving residents isolated on the 7-by-3-mile island.

Many streets on the island were under a foot or more of water as emergency officials advised islanders to remain in their homes.

"Our primary concern is for residents to remain sheltered in place because it's not safe," said Bryan Rush, Chincoteague's emergency management coordinator.

The island is in a flood zone and does not have any emergency shelters, he said.

While there was localized tidal flooding in much of Hampton Roads, the low-lying region had yet to receive the wallop that was expected from Sandy. Water was knee-high on some Norfolk streets, and portions of major interstates, bridges and tunnels were impassible because of the water. There appeared to be little wind damage.

John Gaigies, who has lived in his often-flooded Norfolk neighborhood since 1978, was out evaluating the flooding Monday morning and was pleased that it appeared it wouldn't reach his house. Nearby, the tidal flooding was approaching the doors of a stranded car.

"This is probably a nor'easter, a good nor'easter level for tidal flooding," Gaigies said as a light rain fell. "It's not exceptional. In a hurricane, the whole street goes under.

"It's pretty minor."

On Sunday, Dominion Virginia Power officials estimated there could be as many as 1 million customers who lost power during the storm, and that crews would have to wait until the strong winds passed before restoring electricity to many. On Monday, about 4,300 were in the dark.

Residents in low-lying areas of Chincoteague were advised over the weekend to voluntarily leave the island of 4,000. It is not known how many remained on the island, which was being lashed by gusting winds and rain. A mandatory evacuation was not ordered ahead of the "superstorm's" arrival.

The National Guard positioned high-terrain vehicles capable of navigating flood waters to assist local firefighters with any residents requiring evacuation to higher ground.

The Virginia Department of Transportation ordered the 5-mile causeway closed at 7:15 a.m. about one hour ahead of high tide as portions were swamped by water and littered by debris. Thirty minutes before the elevated roadway's closing, water at least a couple feet deep had already collected at the Main Street entrance to the road, making it impassable for most vehicles.

The storm is "such a long duration and that's what everybody is worried about," Mayor Jack Tarr said. "Once the causeway floods, we're all here."

Main Street and many residential streets were flooded.

Rush said the emergency center had not received any calls from islanders seeking rescue from their homes.

The island famed for its annual pony swim in July also attracts tourists and birdwatchers who visit Assateague Island, where about 130 ponies roam the dunes and scrub pine, but few visitors had remained on the island, Rush said.

Sunday, a trickle of residents voluntarily left the island but many chose to remain and weather the storm.

"I'll stay until they tell me to leave," said Everett Palmer, 87, a retired New Jersey firefighter who has lived on the island since 1980.

Islanders who are used to water lapping along roads said they're not easily spooked by severe weather. Still, some didn't want to take the risk.

Glenn Warner, 16, made a stop at a fast-food restaurant before he fled the island with his mother to stay with a family friend on the Eastern Shore. His father decided to stay, he said.

"I won't be trapped on the island," Warner said. "I really don't like this weather."

The hybrid hurricane-no'easter evoked memories of one of the worst storms to hit the island, the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962. It was notable for the death of ponies on the Assateague Island, the barrier island that takes the brunt of huge waves kicked up by Sandy.

"I'm sure the older residents are thinking about that at the present time," said Tarr, who was a child when the storm hit in '62.

As for the ponies, he said they typically move to higher ground on Assateague during a storm to avoid flooding.

Tarr said as Sandy approached the island, concern increased about the wild ponies, celebrated by Marguerite Henry's 1947 novel "Misty of Chincoteague."

"A couple of the first calls that came into the town dispatching units were, 'What are y'all doing about the ponies,'" he said.

Associated Press Writer Brock Vergakis contributed to this report from Norfolk.

Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap . Vergakis can be reached at http://twitter.com/brockvergakis.

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