Roadways to National Beaches Remain Shut

Wed August 31, 2005 - Southeast Edition

PENSACOLA BEACH, FL (AP) Repairs to 14 mi. of storm-damaged roads in two sections of the Gulf Islands National Seashore have cost $35.5 million since 1995, and officials estimate it will take another $27.3 million to get them open again after a double battering in July.

Access roads to Fort Pickens, a Civil War battle site and prison for famed Apache warrior Geronimo, and Opal Beach, named for a 1995 hurricane, have been closed since Hurricane Ivan struck last September, with only a brief exception.

There’s no timetable for reopening either area, both on Santa Rosa Island, after the roads sustained more damage last month from Tropical Storm Cindy and Hurricane Dennis, said Gulf Islands superintendent Jerry Eubanks.

National Park Service and Florida Department of Transportation officials are trying to determine how to redesign the roads to prevent further storm damage without also harming the barrier island’s environment. Using a ferry boat to replace one of the roads is another possibility.

“I don’t know that we can design to withstand the impact of a Dennis or an Ivan,” said DOT Project Manager Dominic Richard. “We’re trying to design to minimize the impact and minimize the repairs.”

Another obstacle is money. A federal emergency road fund for national parks has only $5 million, not enough for even one of the two Gulf Islands projects.

The roads, when open, handle more than 1 million cars annually, which ranks Gulf Islands as one of the nation’s 10 most visited national parks. Gulf Islands also has park areas at nearby Gulf Breeze and on other barrier islands in the Panhandle and Mississippi, but Fort Pickens and Opal Beach account for 63 percent of its revenues.

The extended National Seashore closure is another in a series of setbacks for the Florida Panhandle’s tourism industry due to Ivan, Dennis and other storms over the past year. They also have damaged and destroyed vacation homes, hotels and condominiums at Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach, two communities also on Santa Rosa Island.

“Fort Pickens has always been, even since I was a kid, one of our biggest tourist attractions, but right now, it’s not doing anybody any good,” said Escambia County Manager George Touart.

The two Gulf Islands roads, Fort Pickens Road and J. Earle Bowden Way each, are 7 mi. long. The latter cuts through Opal Beach connecting Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach. Bowden Way reopened for the first time since Ivan for July Fourth weekend only to be washed out again July 5 by Tropical Storm Cindy. Five days later Dennis caused more damage to both roads.

It took $18 million to repair the two roads after Opal in 1995, $1.5 million after Hurricane Georges in 1998, $13 million after Ivan last year and $1 million after Tropical Storm Cindy in June.