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Hurricane adds to beach erosion woes

Mark Parker



Hurricane Idalia's storm surge washed protective dunes into adjacent roadways. Photo: Pinellas County Government.

Severe erosion plagued over half of Pinellas County’s beaches long before Hurricane Idalia’s winds and storm surge lashed the coastline.

By Thursday morning, county workers removed about 85 dump truck loads of mud from roadways between Madeira Beach and Treasure Island. Crews continue assessing and mitigating the damage from a four-to-seven-foot storm surge that inundated the area’s barrier islands.

An impasse between local officials, the Army Corps of Engineers and private property owners has exacerbated the problem. In 2017, the Corps began requiring all beachfront owners to sign a permanent easement document before it would fund and assist with beach renourishment projects.

At a Thursday work session, administrator Barry Burton told county commissioners that the Corps applies the same stringent easement policy to emergency restoration efforts following a storm.

“The dunes are gone,” Burton said. “So, there’s significant damage.”

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 an expansive $57 million Sand Key project set for 2024 is on hold indefinitely.

In July, officials paused renourishment initiatives scheduled to start in the fall on Treasure Island, Long Key and Pass-a-Grille while the Corps reconfirms easement acquisitions. Kelli Levy, public works director, previously called those “storm damage reduction projects.”

While Levy was assessing storm impacts Thursday, Jill Silverboard, chief of staff, told commissioners that renourishment initiatives have now “ground to a full stop.”

“Having the hurricane, we hope, will be a helpful thing,” Silverboard added. “But it is severe. The erosion out there is bad.”

Burton explained that many areas where residents hesitated to provide easements received significant beach damage. Those impacts could help owners realize the need for more sand and entice them to sign the documents.

Cathie Perkins, emergency management director, said the storm washed away three feet of Indian Rocks Beach’s coastline. City officials later announced that they closed 14 public access points due to “heavy erosion.”

“Having this sand out there is important because that’s what helps protect us from storm surge,” Perkins said. “Heaven forbid, if another storm comes, now we’ve got less beach out there to protect us from the storm surge coming in.”

Public Works officials assess beach erosion Thursday morning.

Idalia’s inundation resulted in 800 emergency calls and over 60 rescue missions along the coast. Perkins said some of the rescues involved multiple families.

Silverboard said the county conducted a pre-storm beach survey, and follow-up efforts are underway. She noted that administrators recently hired a Washington, D.C.-based beach renourishment expert who will meet with Corps officials Friday.

Local officials also hope to partner with 10 other coastal counties to affect policy change. However, Silverboard said there is some trepidation among governments that have already acquired the necessary permits.

Silverboard relayed that Corps representatives will visit Pinellas beaches Saturday to assess storm impacts. “You can be certain we’ll be right there with them, as will many of our barrier island communities,” Silverboard added.

She said the Pass-a-Grille renourishment project is “easier” to move forward, as the City of St. Pete Beach owns the land. That eliminates the need for public easements.

Before Hurricane Idalia formed, Robin Miller, president of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, told the Catalyst that her organization wants Pinellas officials to increase beach nourishment funding. Those projects receive a half-cent of the county’s 6% bed tax.

Over 30 coastal business owners joined the Chamber’s letter campaign to raise that amount closer to a penny. However, Miller stressed that money would help fund initiatives outside the much costlier federal and state projects.

“We are held hostage to the fact that the Army Corps has placed a policy of perpetual easements in order to do a renourishment project,” Miller said. “That’s the problem we have.”

The project will not receive federal assistance if one owner refuses to sign the documents. “There is not a money issue here,” she added.

“Our county is doing a great job; they’re doing everything they can,” Miller said. “It’s unfortunate we can’t get anywhere with the federal government. There are beaches that are nearly unusable.”

Later Thursday afternoon, Treasure Island officials announced they had closed Sunset Beach parking lots. City crews, residents and business owners “are working to get the island back to normal.”

Treasure Island police officers will stop people entering the area and ask visitors to leave.

A City of Treasure Island video highlights storm impacts to Sunset Beach:






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