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Brigantine's Marine Mammal Stranding Center looks to rebuild after storm

BRIGANTINE — A dolphin washed ashore in Point Pleasant Beach the day Sandy hit New Jersey, but Marine Mammal Stranding Center staff in Brigantine did not learn of it for a day and a half because of downed communication lines.

Even knowing the common dolphin had lain on the beach for 36 hours and likely was too sick to be saved, staff members raced to the beach. Volunteers helped load the dolphin onto a truck, and the crew headed south.

But it was too late. The dolphin was in such poor condition that the center’s veterinarian, who works at the Cape May County Zoo, took it to the zoo to be euthanized.

Sandy presented logistical problems for every public sector and industry in the state, but stranding center staff faced a unique set of challenges both during and after the storm. In addition to the more than $40,000 in damage to the Brigantine facility, center staff had to navigate communication failures and the fact that their credentials were not honored by police staffing check points.

The center is the only federally permitted responder in the state to work with stranded marine mammals and sea turtles. While New Jersey’s emergency responders focused on providing basic life services to humans and rescuing people in danger, seemingly few contingencies were in place to allow the stranding center to fulfill its mission.

As center co-director Bob Schoelkopf and his staff work to undo storm damage, they are working to correct problems in their operation highlighted by the event. Among those changes are redesigning certain aspects of the center’s facility, which had significant flooding and erosion. Another change is making sure the staff can do their jobs in a state of emergency.

“Part of the problem we have is, even though we’re still on call when the weather is like that, they closed the parkway down. We don’t have any credentials for them to accept us to go on the parkway,” Schoelkopf said. “Same thing coming into the island here (Brigantine). If we had animals here, we couldn’t get in here to take care of them.”

In fact, Schoelkopf’s son, who is an FBI agent, was able to flash his credentials to police officers staffing roadblocks to the Atlantic County barrier islands and had access to the center before Schoelkopf.

Schoelkopf said he will go to the center’s board meeting later this month to request members speak to state legislators and perhaps get them to draft a law requiring that check points allow stranding center staff access to animals as long as it is safe.

State Sen. Jim Whelan D, Atlantic, said he would support such a measure.

“It seems like a common-sense thing.” Whelan said. “I don’t even know why it would take legislation, but I’d be happy to sign it and be one of the sponsors of it.”

At the center, which is built on land leased from Brigantine, the damage from water, wind and waves was significant. Sheds along the waterfront were shoved off foundations by the waves. Water in the main pool was contaminated with flood waters and gasoline. The floating dock was left resting atop a piling, about 8 feet above the water. A tent covering pools used to house seals at the center was destroyed, and debris was strewn across much of the property. The center’s $10,500 generator — a recent donation — operated for 57 hours, but has since stopped working. On Monday, Schoelkopf discovered roof damage.

Schoelkopf was prepared for the damage. He and his wife, center co-director Sheila Dean, were forced off the island because of the storm but watched the waves, wind and water from their Galloway Township home via 16 security cameras the generator powered.

But paying for the damage is another story. The insurance company so far has sent two checks — one for $6,700 and another for $3,200 — but because Schoelkopf has questions and isn’t exactly sure what the money is paying for, he hasn’t cashed them.

Donations and grants to the center in 2011 were $386,000, more than $200,000 less than in 2010, according to the center’s 2011 tax return. The center’s budget of $634,000 was $54,000 more than in 2010. Schoelkopf’s salary was about $51,000 last year. There are six full-time paid staff members in addition to Schoelkopf and Dean.

Applying for Federal Emergency Management Agency money is unlikely, Schoelkopf  said, because FEMA provides only low-interest loans to businesses and money to a nonprofit may not be in the code, Schoelkopf said.

Finding money to help pay for whatever insurance doesn’t cover will be a major challenge. One of the stranding center’s major fundraisers, a 5K run in Seaside Heights, was scheduled for one week after the Oct. 29 storm. That event was canceled, partly because the boardwalk where the run was to be held no longer exists.

Attendance at the center on days it is open to the public has dropped since the storm. Visitors to the center’s museum and gift shop have been so few that the money made could not cover the hourly wage for a paid cashier those days, Schoelkopf said. This coming weekend, a center volunteer will don a Santa suit for photographs with children to draw visitors.

Sandy’s destruction came just as the water is getting cold enough for seals to venture south looking for food. That has center staff concerned, because December typically marks the beginning of the season for injured or sick animals coming to the center. In 2011, the center responded to 122 seals, with staff picking up 15 seals on the busiest day.

Right now, the center has room for only eight seals until the tented enclosure that contains four more tanks can be fixed.

Two weeks ago, a group of almost 30 volunteers spent two days cleaning up the property, removing debris, replacing the tattered tent and shoveling 26 tons of sand into holes that had been gouged by the floodwaters. By Monday, the only scars left were a new sandy foundation for where the sheds once stood. Volunteers and workers were installing a wooden retaining wall around where the tent stands.

Contact Sarah Watson:

609-272-7216

swatson@pressofac.com

Follow @acpresssarah on Twitter

 

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