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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

Facing increasing flooding, Corps of Engineers could end century-old presence on Eagles Island

Both storm-related and tidal flooding has been damaging equipment, disrupting operations at the yard, which has been on Eagles Island since at least 1922

Flooding on Eagles Island has become so frequent and so severe that even the agency tasked with national flood management — among other duties — is exploring relocating.

As hotel and apartment developers eye parcels on Eagles Island and other areas across the river from downtown, the Army Corps of Engineers (COE) may be forced to bail out after operating on the island for at least a century.

The COE, which is technically older then United States itself (by a year, founded in 1775), is responsible for a wide range of engineering tasks, related to everything from national and economic security to risk-reduction for natural disasters. Eagles Island has been a part of that mission for a long time: the current yard was built in 1954 but the Corps has had a presence on Eagles Island for more than a century.

Uncertain future

Corps officials told WHQR that both storm-related and tidal flooding are taking a toll on its Eagles Island Engineers Repair Yard, near the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. In addition to flooding, the facility — which is in Brunswick County — also could be affected by a new bridge over the Cape Fear River.

“Over the past several years the facility has been routinely impacted by tidal flooding and significantly flooded during several storm events, damaging supplies, equipment and interrupting operations,” according to Jed Cayton, spokesperson for the Corps of Engineers Wilmington District. “Further, we continue to monitor developments with the proposed rail realignment and replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.”

For now, however, learning about the possible impact of a new bridge is further down the road. Although all current conceptual designs show a new bridge’s route crossing the repair yard, officials with the N.C. Department of Transportation said they would not begin coordinating with the COE and other possible stakeholders until the project is funded — the primary sticking point in the bridge project.

“Because this proposed project is unfunded in the current State Transportation Improvement Plan (2020-2029), any potential impacts to the Army Corps of Engineers facility and to other businesses are still to be determined,” an NCDOT spokesperson told WHQR.

Flooding, however, is certain

Meanwhile, flooding is happening now and has become a regular problem. That — along with the possible impact of a new bridge — has prompted the Corps to explore relocating, Cayton said.

“At this time, we have no definitive timeline or future location identified for the Engineer Repair Yard,” he said. “But our observation is that the frequency and severity of the flooding are both increasing.”

Although the COE’s headquarters is off Market Street on Darlington Avenue, the 2.5-acre repair facility on Eagles Island is for hands-on work and provides access to the river. The handful of staff that work at the repair yard make up a small fraction of the district's approximately 400 employees, but they perform critical jobs.

Cayton said that about a dozen welders, machinists and mechanics are based at the yard and provide maintenance and repairs for the district’s fleet of dredges as well as critical infrastructure, such as the dam at Boiling Spring Lakes. Support staff also are based at the yard, which stocks spare parts, welding and machining equipment, and vehicles.

Hurricanes have at times caused flooding at the yard, especially when wind and storm surge push water up the Cape Fear River. But tidal flooding — sometimes called “sunny-day flooding” — on Eagles Island has increased both in frequency and severity and also is affecting downtown Wilmington’s Water Street.

(Both Eagles Island and Water Street are about 15 feet above sea level, but sit barely above the Cape Fear River. Thanks to the bluffs on the east side of the Cape Fear, Front Street is 50 feet above sea level.)

Recent tidal flooding at the Battleship North Carolina forced visitors to take off their shoes and wade through knee-deep water to board and leave the ship, or to catch a ride in the back of a pickup truck. Even moderate rainfall causes flooding.

“More than half the days in a year we are flooded at some level,” said Capt. Terry Bragg, the ship’s executive director.

As a result, the battleship is embarking on a costly plan to raise its parking lot, which has been flooded with increasing frequency in recent years.

Flooding is getting more severe

It’s a problem that’s only going to get worse, according to NASA's Sea Level Change Science Team, primarily due to a rise in sea levels, which will magnify both storm and tidal flooding. Recent hurricanes have caused well over two feet of flooding in the repair yard’s welding shop. Both Matthew (2016) and Florence (2018) left 30 inches of water in the shop. In 2020, Hurricane Isaias made landfall at Ocean Isle Beach and tracked up the Cape Fear River, leaving 40 inches of water it the COE's facility.

Cayton said flooding now occurs frequently, even on a normal high tide.

“The water doesn’t necessarily get into the buildings every time. However, normal high tides impact the grounds to varying degrees,” Cayton said.

With the flooding threatening to damage equipment and supplies and disrupting normal operations, the Corps assigns an employee to monitor river-level and wind-forecasts, as well as lunar cycles, which affect tides.

“We move vehicles, equipment, and other supplies that may be negatively affected into our machine shop, which was built a few feet higher than the rest of the repair yard,” Cayton said. “To the extent possible, supplies, equipment and materials are stored on industrial shelves to keep them out of flood waters.”

The COE also monitors its access from the battleship since the road floods more easily than the repair yard. The most frequent flooding is in the yard itself, which can affect the crew’s ability to move about freely.

“In the more extreme events, the water will flood the welding shop and, worst case, the warehouse,” Cayton said.

At times, precautions can not be put in place, resulting in dumpsters floating in the water and vehicles and equipment being damaged, he said, adding that flooding has damaged buildings themselves, necessitating repairs.

“Welding machines, generators, vehicles, and parts stored in our warehouse have been damaged over time from flooding,” Cayton said. “Sometimes we can let the equipment dry out and repair it ourselves or we have a contractor perform repairs. Other times, the equipment is a total loss and we have had to replace it.”

When flooding is anticipated, he said, some equipment and vehicles are moved to the higher ground of the machine shop.

“That means that we have to stop working to move the equipment and while the equipment is in the machine shop, we cannot work normally because the shop is full,” Cayton said.

No specific dollar amount has been assigned to the flood damage, he said, adding that the fairly new flood protocols have helped mitigate the impact on equipment and supplies. The flooding, however, still has a major impact.

“Operational disruptions have been the most significant in terms of quantity due to the sheer amount of time we spend moving supplies and equipment to higher ground,” Cayton said.

As for the future of the yard, it’s too soon to tell, Cayton said.

“Wilmington District leadership is aware of current flooding challenges and potential concerns with future bridge/rail realignments, and the need for a long-term solution,” Cayton said. “As you can imagine, there are a lot of variables to consider as we weigh future options to maintain and enhance this operation for the long term.”

Scott Nunn is an award-winning independent journalist and regular contributor to WHQR News, Greater Wilmington Business Journal, and Greater Fayetteville Business Journal. A Wilmington native, he graduated from Hoggard High School and UNCW. For most of his career, Scott worked for StarNews Media, where he wore many hats, including copy desk chief, opinion editor, senior reporter, and local-history columnist. In 2020, his last year at the StarNews, he won 1st place for Editorial Writing, 2nd place for City, County Government Reporting (sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center) and 3rd place for Beat Reporting (health care) in the N.C. Press Association journalism awards.