Work is under way to repair Wildlife Drive in the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, which suffered extensive damage after Hurricane Sandy's storm surge plowed through sections of an earthen dike on which part of the eight-mile-long road is built.

Refuge manager Virginia Rettig said work, which began Monday, should be complete in the spring. An exact date cannot be determined because crews will have to contend with messy winter weather, she said.

But knowing the work is under way, at a time when the refuge itself could not pay the roughly $1 million price tag, is comforting to Rettig and other refuge enthusiasts, who cannot access much of the Galloway Township section because the road is not passable.

Because the road is considered public, and it is on federal property, Rettig said, the Federal Highway Administration took on the task and cost of repairing the road.

“That’s a real godsend for us, because if that money wasn’t available, at this time we would not be doing the work,” she said.

The closure has meant that many people who cannot walk long distances are not able to access the property, said Ann Marie Morrison, who works in the refuge’s visitor’s center with the Friends of Forsythe nonprofit organization. Many regular visitors, including people with limited mobility seeking a visit with nature, have stopped coming, Morrison said.

That has translated to a 50 percent decrease in sales at the center’s gift shop in December, she said. “That impacts our bottom line, because we use the profits from the store to fund projects, such as the environmental education program.”

When Sandy made landfall about 8 p.m. Oct. 29, the winds at the refuge switched to coming from the south, which brought a wall of water and debris into the 10-foot-high southern dike, which faces Absecon Bay and, in the distance, Atlantic City. The relentless waves on top of the nearly 9 feet of combined high tide and storm surge crashed against the structure, gouging away massive holes, that, in some places were 15 feet deep and as long as 50 feet, Rettig said.

The southern dike, which was built on the remnants of an old railroad bed, was raised and extended in the 1950s to create a freshwater wetland for migratory birds, Rettig said. Many of the ducks that had arrived for the winter left immediately after the storm, likely to find food because the freshwater wetland was flooded with several feet of saltwater.

Rettig said the refuge was closed for several weeks while crews conducted damage assessments and cleaned up as much of the debris as possible. Several walking trails were restored, but Wildlife Drive is closed until repair work is complete.

Elsewhere in the refuge system, the surge swept debris off the barrier islands and lodged boats, pieces of houses, furniture, decks, docks and anything else that could have been swept away, into the treeline along much of the refuge’s 50 miles of land, stretching from Galloway to Brick. Authorities identified 130 boats that were lodged on the refuge’s land, 60 of which have since been recovered after the owners were notified, Rettig said. “It's hard to reach all of (the owners,) so we're doing the best we can,” she said, “But at some point,we are going to move on and do the debris cleanup.”

Many visitors have been unaware of the damage to the refuge, Morrison said. Other visitors have offered to come help with the work, but Rettig said the job requires heavy equipment. “We’ve had almost overwhelming support, but we just felt it was a job for professional contractors to clean up,” she said.

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