A Coastal Star Special Report:
Hurricane shows just how fragile our shores are
Sand is finite: A lexicon of sand
By Cheryl Blackerby
Hurricane Sandy had a diabolically ironic name. In October 2012, Sandy stole millions of tons of sand, washing it off Florida’s beaches and from underneath beachside condos, and carving five-foot cliffs where there had been gently sloping shores.
Floridians learned two hard truths about sand: It’s expensive and it’s finite.
In the year after Sandy, there has been much hand-wringing over what will happen to Palm Beach County beaches in the future, where new sand will come from and who will pay for it.
The mammoth Superstorm Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record measured by diameter with winds spanning 1,100 miles, skirted Florida as a Category 1 hurricane.
Floridians’ relief that the storm had bypassed them was short-lived. Sandy reminded them of a word that would change the way they would look at hurricanes in the future: surge.
Sandy didn’t do its damage with high winds or torrential rains, but rather with large swells and powerful ocean surges.
The wind trajectory around Sandy produced what meteorologists call an optimal fetch, a phenomenon that led to the development of large, long-lasting northeast swells that battered the South Florida coast. The storm peaked the weekend of Oct. 27.
The pounding surf led to large breaking waves, some estimated as high as 10 feet at Miami-Dade County beaches, and 20 feet or perhaps higher at the Palm Beaches.
The second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history ultimately caused $68 billion in damages on the entire Eastern Seaboard, and most of it came from surge, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In Palm Beach County, the total damage to public beaches was estimated at over $30 million. “This includes sand losses at every one of our beaches in addition to structural damages at our beach parks,” said Leanne Welch, program supervisor of Shoreline Enhancement and Restoration for the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management.
Where’s the money?
To repair Sandy’s damages, towns and government agencies scrambled for money from a variety of sources including county reserves for emergency repairs to county parks and the South Lake Worth Inlet jetties; the “Beaches” funds (funded by tourist bed taxes), state funding and federal appropriations.
“No FEMA money was available for the Sandy impacts. The federal money came through the Flood Control and Coastal Emergency appropriation by the Army Corps of Engineers,” Welch said.
Beach preservation groups popped up and commenced meetings, including Protect Our Beaches — which signed up 24,000 members within weeks — Save Our Seacoast, and the Florida Coalition for Preservation. The Delray Beach Property Owners Association attracted record attendance with discussions about solutions for beach erosion.
And Sandy raised a two-word specter that further horrified coastal residents — sea rise.
What would happen to the beaches if sea-level rise, caused by climate change, further depleted the beaches? Suddenly, symposiums and meetings on the subject, such as the Sea Level Rise Symposium in July at Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach, founded by Palm Beach billionaire Bill Koch, attracted standing-room-only crowds.
Coastal cities that had depended on federal and state money for beach replacement sand for hurricane-damaged beaches in the past found that money had dried up, particularly after the colossal damages from Sandy in New York and New Jersey. Now, small towns faced multimillion-dollar hurricane damage bills.
“There’s going be a big grab for federal money with the issues in the Northeast,” said Art Koski, the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District acting director, after Sandy. “The city is looking for FEMA money. But I don’t think we have the strength politically.”
Historically, the federal government had paid for about 70 percent of beach restoration, Koski said, which left 30 percent to be paid by state, county and local governments, but in the future the entire cost may fall on local governments.
This was particularly troubling to the district board, which reimbursed the city of Boca Raton $2 million, in addition to a partial reimbursement of $2 million already paid, for a beach restoration project that took place several years ago. The board didn’t anticipate paying for additional beach restoration projects for another five to 10 years. Yet, board members were faced with substantial costs for more beach destruction.
Sand running out
After Sandy, there was another shock besides the costs of beach restoration. Coastal residents found out their offshore sand wouldn’t last forever.
Dredging can only be done in a narrow ribbon of shallow water between shore and reefs. On the other side of the reefs, the water drops off too deeply for even the biggest dredges.
Florida municipalities were pitted against each other in what became bitter debates over sand. Miami Beach was running out of offshore sand after Sandy and Miami-Dade County officials looked longingly at the sand off the coast of Jupiter, whose residents and city officials loudly voiced their disinclination to share.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hosted public hearings in Martin and St. Lucie counties, which have a surplus of sand in federally designated waters, for a proposed renourishment project that would use Treasure Coast sand to repair Miami-Dade beaches.
“Miami has gone to great lengths to exploit its resources. Don’t solve Miami’s problems here,” said Martin County Commissioner Sarah Heard, whose irritation was echoed by legions of Martin County officials and residents.
“Miami decided over-development was good for business, and they exploited the environment, and they’ve used up all their sand,” Heard said.
Martin County on the other hand has been what Heard calls an “extraordinary steward” of its resources. “We have four-story height limits. We have setbacks that are great, and we protect our wetlands. Our resources are finite and we need to protect them for long sustainability.” She said commissioners have been told they have enough sand for about 50 years of traditional dredging.
This isn’t the first time Miami has gone after Martin County sand, Heard said. “Miami proposed this about six years ago, and Ken Pruitt (Florida state senator at the time) said ‘over my dead body’ and it went away.”
She had strong words for counties to the south: “If we allow Miami, Broward and Palm Beach County to steal our sand, we have less protection for our barrier islands.”
Farther south, cities including Delray Beach have been concerned Miami may look their way.
“We heard from the Corps that those folks to the south of us are not interested in the sand we have here,” said Paul Dorling, planning and zoning director for Delray Beach. “We don’t know why. Could be color or texture. But for whatever reason, we’re glad they’re not interested.”
“Miami doesn’t have our plentiful reserves of sand,” said Richard Spadoni, executive director of Coastal Planning and Engineering in Boca Raton, the company that administered the Delray Beach renourishment project.
“Miami may have to borrow from the Bahamas at some point. They are close to depletion.”
But Delray Beach’s sand reserves won’t last forever either, Spadoni said. “Sand does not come back into the borrow holes, and we are depleting the sand. But Delray will be OK for the next 40 or 50 years.”
That estimate relies on no more Sandys and that sand is dredged only at 10-year intervals.
At some point, experts agree, Palm Beach County’s offshore sand will run out. When that happens, officials say the available options will be to bring it in on barges from the Bahamas or truck it in from inland Florida mines, both highly expensive undertakings. And who will pay for it?