Little Beach Lessons: Four Stranded In Recent Storm; Preventative Measures Needed

By: Alan Pollock

Firefighters used the department’s high water rescue vehicle to rescue several stranded people from the Little Beach neighborhood during the Dec. 23 and 24 storm. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM — The Dec. 23 and 24 coastal storm that caused unusual shoreline flooding came with plenty of warning, and residents of the Little Beach neighborhood are no strangers to flooded roads. Still, first responders had to rescue four people from the flood waters, three who were in stranded vehicles and a fourth who was wading out to assist.

Town officials took a number of steps to get ready for the storm, preparing the fire department’s high water rescue vehicle for action and bringing on additional staff to use it, and issuing a town-wide reverse 911 call warning residents of the forecast. When the first high tide cycle came, it brought more than three feet of water to Little Beach Road and Seagull Road.

“We ended up taking four people out of the water, three from vehicles and one on foot,” Fire Chief Justin Tavano said. “The person who was on foot was wading to attempt to get to her daughter, who was stuck in her vehicle.” All of those who became stranded were residents, as opposed to visitors or contractors unfamiliar with the area, he said.

The motorists were simply impatient to get where they were going, Tavano said. “We saw people drive right into the floodwater, seeing another vehicle up ahead that was already stranded,” he said. Three of the victims were rescued by the high water rescue vehicle, and a fourth was helped by Harbormaster Stuart Smith, who was stationed near the intersection of Morris Island Road and Dune Drive, north of the flooding. He said there was a steady stream of motorists asking to pass.

“The questions were — I felt like — wow. Were these people from Kansas?” Smith said. People, including some sightseers, were ready to drive through the water thinking it was a shallow puddle, rather than flowing salt water. As he prepared to come to the aid of the driver of a swamped pickup truck, Smith saw a contractor’s van pass by the truck, pushing a large wall of white water ahead of it. The water soaked the truck driver and flooded the vehicle’s cab and bed.

Public safety officials encourage drivers to “turn around, don’t drown” when they encounter water in the road.

“Don’t drive through standing water, fresh or salt,” Smith said. “If you’re going to drive through salt water, make sure it’s a rental car,” he said with a laugh. Even brief exposure to salt water can cause a vehicle’s undercarriage to rust if the salt is not completely washed away quickly.

The fire department used its high water rescue vehicle to recover most of the people, but also has a swift water rescue team trained to respond in boats when the water isn’t safe for the big truck. In either case, responding to stranded motorists means putting rescuers in harm’s way.

In department head meetings before and during the storm, town officials had no easy solutions to the problem, Tavano said.

“A conversation was had about how we were going to keep people from continuing to drive through the floodwater all night,” he said. “Going forward, it’s going to come down to public messaging, people having an awareness.”

The town could use signs and barricades, but they tend to be of limited value, Smith said.

“They’d just drive around the barricades. They think the barricades must be for somebody else,” he said. Signs and barricades also tend to blow over in high winds.

Following storms in 2018 that flooded the Little Beach neighborhood, town officials erected a tide marker on a utility pole designed to allow motorists to see the depth of the water there before approaching from the north. The tide marker was removed following complaints. In this case, it’s not clear that the marker would have been visible, since some of the vehicles were traveling from the south. Tavano said he doubts that the marker would have helped.

“If they’re willing to drive around a barrier, I don’t think a measuring stick is going to hold them back,” he said.

Town officials may propose the use of electronic sign boards to warn area residents prior to a storm. While the town’s reverse 911 system was used to issue a town-wide storm warning, it also has the capability to alert only residents of certain neighborhoods, a feature that may be employed in the future for areas where flooding is expected.

Aside from stationing police or firefighters north and south of the Little Beach flood zone to enforce road closures, there is no simple solution, Smith said.

One thing is clear: coastal flooding will continue thanks to winter storms that are becoming more frequent and severe, experts say.

“There’s no cheap or easy solution to it. It’s the ocean,” Tavano said.