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Florida beaches damaged by 2016 storms not ready to weather this hurricane season

 

Date: June 03, 2017
Source: Naples Daily News
Author:  Eric Staats

 

When Hurricane Matthew charged up Florida's east coast in October, beach advocates said, it delivered a message along with its damage.

Healthy beaches that were managed and renourished were better able to weather the storm and limit coastal damage landward of the dunes. Beaches that were not rebuilt and left to erode were no match for Matthew.

Eight months later, at the start of another hurricane season, some Florida beaches that bore the brunt of Matthew and earlier storms last year remain unrepaired, leaving beach towns vulnerable again.

Most of the $15.8 million in emergency dune repair money that Gov. Rick Scott sent to Flagler, St. Johns, Volusia and Brevard counties after Matthew remains unspent. Projects have struggled to get local matching dollars and environmental permits.

An additional $13.3 million to be split between Flagler and St. Johns counties for storm repair is included in the new state budget Scott approved only days ago.

"Are we prepared? The answer is no," said Flagler County Administrator Craig Coffey.

Communities on Florida's Gulf coast also are not ready for the pounding of storms this hurricane season, which started Thursday and will run through November.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted an above-normal season is likely, with 11-17 named storms. Of those, five to nine could be hurricanes, and two to four could grow into major hurricanes with winds of at least 111 mph.

It doesn't necessarily take a big, bad hurricane to do serious damage.

Last year, early season Tropical Storm Colin brushed past Manasota Key in Charlotte County, but its storm surge undermined condo foundations, splintered walkovers and left a few homes too unsafe to live in.

A year later, Charlotte County has developed a $21 million beach restoration plan but has only started the cumbersome permitting process and still has no plan for how to pay for it.

"We're just one large storm away from some major issues," said Manasota Key condo owner Damian Ochab.

A few storms after Colin, Hurricane Hermine took a similar path through the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall in the Panhandle, not far from Alligator Point.

The small rural town south of Tallahassee had given up on attempts to restore its eroded beach, and Hermine made the town pay, tearing out the coast road that was the only way out for hundreds of residents.

Scott stood among the jumbled pieces of torn-up asphalt and told residents he would help, but Alan Pierce is still waiting.

"Nothing came of that," said Pierce, former Franklin County administrator and now a consultant to the county.

The county paid to build a one-way limestone road where the two-land paved highway was, but Pierce is still waiting to hear from the Federal Emergency Management Agency about the county's $3.5 million request for a long-term fix.

And without an additional $8 million to build a beach along a mile-stretch of coastline, the Gulf of Mexico will be lapping beneath even a fixed road.

"It's a total nightmare right now," Pierce said.

In Flagler, Matthew's surge ate away the earth below A1A, which collapsed and has since been rebuilt. Sand filled swimming pools until only the tops of their shiny stair railings poked out. Water flowed through neighborhoods for days and flooded homes up to 3 feet deep.

And it could happen again.

"That's the threat staring at them now," Coffey said.

Of the four counties to get a piece of Scott's emergency money after Matthew, only Brevard has put sand on the beach.

That county had a project ready to go to build bigger and better dunes along 9 miles of coast for about $4 million, said county beach project coordinator Mike McGarry.

Brevard is in line for almost $3 million in emergency state money, but the county still is waiting to see how much FEMA might kick in.

Matthew washed away sand from other Brevard beaches, too, including a stretch that is waiting for money from the Army Corps of Engineers.

"We're not as strong as we were a year ago, but we're not in a perilous situation," McGarry said.

The same can't be said about other Florida beaches in the lingering aftermath of Matthew.

"We are very worried that our beaches are vulnerable to another hit," said St. John County public works director Neal Shinkre. "I don't think they can absorb it. We're very concerned about it to be sure, to say the least."

The county has piggybacked onto other agencies' projects to use sand dredged from channels and inlets to shore up the beach, but another 1 million cubic yards of sand still is needed, Shinkre said.

St. Johns is proposing to tax beachfront property owners to come up with local money to meet required matches for state and federal support.

But until the county knows how much FEMA will pitch in, the size of the local match cannot be determined, Shinkre said. Yet to be determined is how the $13.3 million in the state budget will be split with Flagler.

While the county waits, almost $3.8 million in emergency Matthew money Scott sent to St. Johnsremains unspent.

"Our plan is not to spend the money bit by bit," he said. "A lot of things are not done yet."

As for dune repair money in Volusia, FEMA approved "little to none," because the shoreline already is armored, said Joe Nolin, the county's project manager.

He said natural shoreline wasn't eroded enough, nor were structures at enough risk of future storms, to meet federal requirements for money.

Nolin said the county wants to use the $3.7 million in emergency money from Scott to match federal dollars, so the county has not spent the state money.

The Florida Department of Transportation built some emergency berms along stretches of beach where A1A was repaired, but FEMA disqualified the county's request for money to shore up the state-owned coastal highway with rebuilt dunes, Nolin said.

"We're not in the best shape we can be, but we're keeping our fingers crossed," Nolin said.

Money is only part of Flagler County's storm recovery troubles.

Bids for a first phase of a dune restoration project came back over budget, and without assurances of help from FEMA, the county could not move forward, said Coffer, the county administrator.

The county is looking for ways to cut costs, including using a closer inland sand source, but also faces permitting hurdles because of sea turtle season.

Coffey guesses the earliest sand could be placed on the beach would be late July or early August, two months into storm season.

"Our residents are very nervous about this stuff," Coffey said. "And you're just fighting an uphill battle when folks don't seem to have the same sense of urgency that people's lives and homes are in danger."