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Shutdown over, Assateague struggles to get back up to speed

(Oct. 25, 2013) Assateague National Seashore reopened its gates last Thursday morning, Oct. 17, marking the end of the U.S. government shutdown that closed it on the first of the month.

By 6:15 a.m., the first visitor returned to the beach for a routine walk, signaling a return to normalcy for the national seashore, Public Information Officer Rachelle Daigneault said.

Friends Beth Ford, left, a local, and Kathy Coyle, of Charleston, W.Va., enjoy Assateague National Seashore last Friday. The beach reopened Thursday, Oct. 17, when the government shutdown ended. (Clara Vaughn)

But while surfers rushed for the waves and day-trippers got an early start on their weekends during an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon, the seashore staff was still recovering from the closure.

“We don’t just close the door and walk away and open it back up and everything starts up automatically. It takes time to get things back on track,” Daigneault said. “We’re still playing catch-up. We’re still going through our emails. We’re still answering phone calls.”

The national seashore kept only 10 of about 90 employees on during the shutdown — five law enforcement officers, four maintenance workers and one part-time employee who maintained the aquarium at the visitors’ center, Daigneault said.

As a result, regular maintenance stopped, campsites closed, assistance halted and scheduled programs were put on hold.

School groups were particularly hit hard, Daigneault said. The shutdown denied around 500 students field trips to the national park, though the state park was able to host some groups. Many, however, still haven’t been able to reschedule trips, she said.

“It [the shutdown] affected everyone,” said Larry Fike, a Delaware local who has surfed Assateague’s waves for 30 years. He returned to the seashore Friday, and like most, was glad to have the entire beach open again.

“As surfers, we’re trying to spread out,” Fike said. “Since the state park was opened [during the shutdown], everyone went there and it just created overcrowding… It kind of threw us for a whammy.”

He added: “It’s kind of a shame, but I’m glad it’s over.”

Others had stronger words regarding the two-week closure of the U.S. government and many of its services and lands.

“It was a total waste of time and lost revenue,” said Steve Strong, of Annapolis, who was spending a long weekend at his house in Ocean City and surfed at Assateague last Friday.

“It was just frustrating,” said Kathy Coyle, of Charleston, W.Va., who was visiting a friend in Ocean Pines. “How in the world can you close the ocean?”

Thanks in part to the Assateague State Park, which stayed open during the shutdown for beachgoers and campers, shops along Route 611 maintained business.

“I didn’t really notice any difference [in business] between this time last year and this year,” said John Smith, Assistant Manager at Assateague Market, though he said sales increased a little last weekend when the national seashore reopened.

Though numbers vary with weather, around 7,000 people come to Assateague (Maryland and Virginia combined) each day in October, Daigneault said. Numbers last weekend were “a return to normal for beautiful weather,” she said.

“This is what we do. We serve the public. We provide opportunities for visitors to enjoy an incredible resource,” Daigneault said. “We know that the park closure had an impact on them, and we’re very happy to be back.”

The Assateague Island Visitor Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Camping at Assateague National Seashore is open on a first come, first served basis. Visit www.nps.gov/asis for more information.

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