Emergency sand dune construction is nearing completion in coastal areas hit hardest by Hurricane Idalia’s storm surge, despite beachgoers trampling freshly planted vegetation critical to stabilizing the natural barriers.
Pinellas County’s public works department overcame bureaucratic challenges and implemented an emergency reconstruction plan in less than a week. Treasure Island’s $6 million Sunset Beach project began Sept. 20, and officials expect to reopen the area by Oct. 28.
Brian Lowack, president of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, told the Tourist Development Council (TDC) Oct. 18 that local stakeholders can thank visitors for the vital dunes. The county’s bed tax – a 1% surcharge on overnight stays – funds capital projects like museum expansions, Major League Baseball facilities and beach renourishments.
“We wanted to make sure that we capitalize on this situation,” Lowack said. “And we’re going to be installing ‘From Visitors, With Love’ signs at beach access points.”
He said tourism officials want beachgoers to realize people who visit and pay the county’s bed tax are footing the bill for area beaches that residents can enjoy year-round. They also hope tourists take pride in their contribution.
“I look forward to seeing those (signs) out there – they’re huge,” Lowack added. “I promise, if you go to a beach access point, you won’t be able to miss it.”
He also noted that beach renourishment is the top priority for tourism stakeholders. Lowack said he would provide the TDC with monthly updates indefinitely.
Fresh dunes and native vegetation – mostly sea oats – are in place at Sunset Beach. Projects in Pass-a-Grille, Belleair and Upham Beach are underway.
Lowack expects those to conclude Nov. 19, and workers will then move on to Indian Rocks Beach. However, he and other officials have stressed that people are trespassing through designated construction zones and “really messing up the dune system.”
TDC member Dave Gattis, mayor of Bellair Beach, called the emergency work “a huge blessing” for coastal communities. The dunes mitigate property and sometimes life-threatening storm surges.
He also credited Kelli Levy, public works director, for securing temporary county easements and beginning the work in record time. However, Gattis said the project’s haste also contributed to people trampling over the dunes.
“We didn’t have the opportunity to get the word out and explain what is going on,” Gattis said. “Now that the accesses are closed, we have trespassers crossing private property to get to the beach.”
He suggested increasing Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office beach patrols until the vegetation takes root. “Because they’re not going to stay off of those dunes,” Gattis added. “It’s nearly impossible to stop them.”
County officials held a media briefing at Sunset Beach after the TDC meeting. Lowack reiterated the importance of the local bed tax.
He said over 15 million people frequented Pinellas hotels last year. Those stays provided $95 million to county coffers, and Lowack expects to surpass that amount in 2023.
Local beaches need the money. Dr. John Bishop, coastal management coordinator, said Pinellas “was probably one of the worst hit counties for erosion from Idalia.”
He noted that Sunset Beach, like over half of the county’s coastal communities, was severely eroded before Idalia’s seven-foot storm surge. However, he said it recently received nearly 44 tons of new sand.
Environmental specialist Lauren Doing said county workers are now planting native grass in the Sunset Beach dunes. While predominantly sea oats, she said, three other species would also help stabilize the newly created dunes.
She said it would take several months for the plants to acclimate and grow roots. County workers will monitor their progress for 90 days.
“In order for the dunes to be able to protect from wave energy, winds and storm surges, it’s important that they remain intact and stable,” Doing added. “Having that biodiversity is not only good for the structural integrity of the dunes, but also for habitat opportunity for all the coastal animals we have.”