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Beach erosion puts homes, lives at risk

Mark Parker

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Kelli Levy, Pinellas County public works director, stands next to catastrophic beach erosion after Hurricane Idalia. Many coastal property owners refuse to allow emergency stabilization efforts. Photo: LinkedIn.

The extent of Hurricane Idalia’s effect on Pinellas County’s coastline is coming into focus, with Kelli Levy stating that “we literally do not have dry, sandy beach” in some locations.

Levy, the county’s public works director, illustrated her point to county commissioners through pictures at their Sept. 7 meeting. She noted that her department has worked with Dr. Ping Wang, geosciences professor at the University of South Florida, for over 20 years.

“And he said, ‘This is the worst erosion I’ve seen on Pinellas County beaches in my entire career,’” Levy added. “Way worse than what occurred with (Hurricane) Hermine.”

Severe erosion plagued over half of local beaches long before Idalia’s storm surge, combined with an astronomically high tide, and washed away expansive swaths of dunes and sand. County officials continue surveying the damage and brainstorming solutions.

Levy said a portion of Indian Rocks Beach was gone and showed that roots are all that remain from ecologically critical dunes. She is five feet tall and said the erosion line in Sunset Beach extended over her head.

Levy noted that property owners at 50 Gulfside Condominiums signed easement documents needed to renourish beaches and construct dunes. “They worked very hard at getting it vegetated, maintaining it and trying to get it to build,” she said. “And it’s gone.

“Their seawall is undermining, and they’ve got some major structural issues out here.”

The waterline now reaches many homes. Sept. 10 marked peak hurricane season. Screengrab.

An impasse between local officials, the Army Corps of Engineers and private property owners has exacerbated the problem. In 2017, the agency began requiring all beachfront owners to sign easement documents before it would continue funding renourishment projects.

Over 21 of the county’s 35 miles of beaches were in critical need of restoration before Idalia. Workers renourish about 12 miles periodically, and several projects that once totaled $80 million are now on hold indefinitely.

In addition, the county will not receive Federal Emergency Management Agency funding if it completes the work outside the Corps’ purview. Federal officials have also refused to amend document language that suggests homeowners would permanently relinquish their property rights.

“We’re trying to talk with folks about being more open to dunes,” Levy said. “Because there are some areas, especially on Sunshine Beach, where dunes did extraordinarily well.”

Levy said she approached property owners she knew refused to sign easements while assessing the damage. They remain undeterred despite the waterline now abutting their homes.

Levy highlighted a “heavily damaged” stretch of Indian Shores with several homes in disrepair. “How do you even put something like this back?” she asked. “And the bigger question is, should you?”

Despite extensive damage, many homeowners remain reluctant to sign easement documents. Screengrab.

Commissioner Chris Latvala noted that Idalia merely brushed the county’s coastline. Levy agreed that it wouldn’t “take much more” for affected homes “to be floating in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Sept. 10 marked the peak of hurricane season, and several commissioners said the erosion is now a public safety issue. Levy said winter storms can also cause significant damage, and Burton said there are no quick solutions.

“We’re really trying to strategize how to go about this,” he said. “Getting into a dogfight with the Corps is not working.”

Burton hopes that recently hired consultants will help affect policy change. However, he explained that county officials need exponentially more public easements in Idalia’s aftermath.

Levy said those documents would not allow people to violate local ordinances or state law. It would enable beachgoers to lay down towels and stake umbrellas on the property until the project is complete.

While previously scheduled renourishment projects topped $80 million, Levy declined to estimate the amount needed to mitigate storm damage to beaches, structures and adjacent property.

Burton doesn’t believe Congress will pass new legislation and said local leaders are now focusing on allowable emergency measures. Levy said their project manager lives in Pinellas and understands the sense of urgency.

Levy will utilize emergency purchasing processes for procurement. However, Burton said, “We don’t even know if we can get the material to do some of these temporary measures.”

Burton said he would complete damage assessments and present consultant recommendations to commissioners “very soon.” He will also continue working to navigate the Corps’ renourishment policy.

“But I thought it would be helpful just to see it (erosion),” Burton added. “A picture is worth a thousand words – and it’s significant.”

A before and after photo of what was once dunes on Indian Rocks Beach. Photo: LinkedIn.

 

 

 

 

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    richard stockton

    September 13, 2023at1:45 pm

    If it’s a private beach, they can pay for their own sand.

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