Gulf State Park Pier all the way back

Published 10:28 pm Thursday, December 3, 2009

Anyone who has witnessed a tropical storm of any variety along the Gulf Coast realizes the potential for destruction. Now imagine jutting 1,540 feet into the Gulf of Mexico and the impact on the Gulf State Park Pier when Ida came ashore on Nov. 9.

Although Ida was a minimal tropical storm when the eye crossed over Dauphin Island, the east side of the storm slammed into Gulf Shores and Orange Beach with significant force.

Captured on security cameras at 11:30 p.m. on the 9th, a 20-foot wave pummeled the end of the pier, sending the 400-pound deck panels flying into the air like they were constructed of Styrofoam. The deck panels were designed to absorb most of the force to keep from damaging the pilings and caps.

Fortunately, for the most part, the pier is back in full operation. Soon after the storm, the first section of pier was re-opened. The end section, where the vast majority of damage occurred, had to be repaired. With the exception of some of the below-deck lighting, the longest pier on the Gulf of Mexico has been returned to its full glory.

“The pier did exactly what it was supposed to do,” said Barnett Lawley, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “We’re making changes suggested by engineers on repairing the pier after a storm. We’ve learned a lot and are finding ways to reduce costs associated with a storm, like removing panels ahead of a storm. But we’re very pleased with the way the design worked.”

When Gulf State Park Assistant Superintendent Trey Myers got to the pier the morning after the storm he discovered the extent of the damage.

“We had 109 panels, 5-foot by 5-foot panels, moved either an inch or completely blown out,” Myers said. “We picked up 13 panels off the beach, anywhere from a half-a-mile away to two-and-a-half miles away. Only one panel was that far away. And we lost about 20 feet of railing on the very end. We had some railing cap missing, about 40 feet. We had one or two above-pier lights that needed the bulbs replaced, but 14 of the lights under the pier are going to have to be replaced. Some were completely torn off or damaged beyond repair.”

Now that the pier has re-opened, the only thing missing will be the below deck lights and those should be restored within the next six weeks.

“We’re going back with lights under the pier that are more for a high-hazard area, and we’ll be able to pull them off a lot easier,” Myers said. “We didn’t have to replace a lot of wiring; it was mainly conduit that was broken when the panels came back down.”

The storm also revealed a few areas that needed to be addressed on the pier, which sits 20 feet above sea level.

“Now that we know what’s going to happen with a large tropical storm or category 1 hurricane, the contractors are helping us out by drilling holes in each panel so we can lift them out with a skid steer,” Myers said. “It’s the six panels on top of each pile cap. Those are the ones that get knocked out. When the wave comes in, it hits the pile cap and the wave shoots straight up. Those are the ones we know are going to get blown out every time if we don’t pull them beforehand. If we have the time and manpower before the storm, that’s something we can do. We pretty much know where the damage is going to occur.

“A lot of the conduit that was damaged was on the south side of the pilings, so they’ve moved all the conduit to the north side so the wave action won’t disturb it. It was something nobody thought about until this happened. A storm will definitely point out the weaknesses.”

Since the pier officially opened on July 20, Myers said the pier has lived up to its pre-construction billing.

“Actually, it’s exceeded expectations with the number of people we’ve had and the revenue it’s produced,” he said. “We’ve had about 88,000 visitors since we opened. People think it’s beautiful, they really do. They are amazed that we have something like this on the Alabama coast.”

The pier will remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The pier house, snack bar and bait shop will be open different shifts through the winter. Currently, the concessions are open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Then those amenities are open from 7 a.m. Friday through 11 p.m. Sunday. Myers said those hours will be in effect until further notice.

And the fishing has been good since the pier opened.

“After it opened, they caught king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, bonita, bluefish, speckled trout, white trout, sheepshead and spadefish,” Myers said. “This summer, people hooked up with tarpon and we had two sailfish hook-ups.

“Right now, they’re catching redfish, pompano and flounder, and they’re tearing up the whiting,”