Wednesday, February 11, 2009, By JEFF DUTE, Outdoors Editor.
Unfavorable sea conditions and high winds throughout winter have pushed back the expected completion of the Gulf State Park Pier to at least the first of May, a park official said Tuesday.
The state parks department issued a press release in December stating that the 1,520-foot, $17 million pier at Gulf Shores would be finished as planned in March. But Trey Myers, assistant superintendent at the park, said the contractor, LCI Inc. of Memphis, Tenn., has not been able to work as many days as anticipated.
"They've only been able to get their crane barge out there to work three or four times in the past month-and-a-half," he said.
"Even when they get it set up, they've been limited to two or three days by rough seas or high wind."
The new pier's length will make it the longest fishing pier on the Gulf Coast. It will be 20 feet wide and stand an average of 20 feet off the water.
Myers said Gulf waters were relatively calm when the cold north wind blew this winter, but when it picked up above a certain speed, it affected the ability of the crane operator on the barge to effectively operate the pile driver used to set the pilings that support the pier. When the wind turned to the south, it often kicked up waves too high for the crane barge to be safely moored at the end of the pier.
"It was either too rough on the Gulf, or when they were able to get the barge out there, the wind was blowing too much and they couldn't operate the crane," he said.
Toward the end of last summer, Myers said LCI was close to having all of the pilings driven when a number of them were damaged by waves generated by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.
Myers said engineers determined much of the damage to the pilings was caused because they had not been "tied into" the rest of the pier. Also, the pier's designers said it appeared that the waves had crashed directly on the tops of the unfinished piling caps, the worst possible scenario at the time.
Complicating the recovery from the storms, Myers said, was since the pilings are driven in sets of three, if one piling had the slightest damage, all three had to be replaced.
"The weather has not cooperated to the point that they're (LCI) not back to their pre-storm levels," Myers said. "In my estimation, if they could get steady working days, they probably could have it finished in 45 days if they could work every day."
He estimates more than 50 pilings remain to be driven.
Myers added that the pier's "sacrificial" wood deck panels worked as they were supposed to during last summer's storms. The panels are designed so wave action displaces them, reducing the stress on the underlying pilings and girders.
"We lost a few panels and the pilings would have withstood those storms if they had been finished out," Myers said.
Despite the setbacks, Myers said the project is within budget and state engineers remain confident in the pier's design, which is rated to withstand a Category 3 storm.
"We're still comfortable with the design," he said. "It'd probably do better from a direct hit from a Cat 3, than if the storm hits to the west. If a storm hits closer, the waves would be higher and likely would break over the top of the pilings. Or if it were farther away, they'd be breaking under it.
"In a Cat 3 storm, we'd probably lose those wood (floor) panels and some of the railings, but the pier substructure should be OK. Of course, there's no guarantee about anything."
Once the pier is completed, Myers said fishermen will likely have to pay more than they did to fish off the old pier.
It cost $5 to fish the old pier and $1.25 just to take a stroll on it. Fishermen also could buy annual permits.
"We haven't determined what the fees will be, but the rates are going to go up," said Myers, who indicated the increase would not be dramatic.
Fishermen also will be able to buy the required saltwater fishing license on the pier, Myers said, which was a service begun about a year before Hurricane Ivan blew away the old pier in 2004.