The damage to Pinellas County beaches wrought by Tropical Storm Debby could cost as much as $20 million to repair, county officials announced Wednesday.
Exactly how much sand was washed away remains to be tallied. But the visuals of eroded dunes and waves crashing where beachgoers used to plant their chairs suggest that reshaping the shoreline will be a costly endeavor.
However Sisyphean the task of constantly feeding new sand to eroding beaches may seem, county officials said it is one that must continue if Pinellas is to attract tourists and protect its residents from storms.
"People expect to see the beach when they come here on vacation and that's going to be a priority for us, it has to be," County Commissioner John Morroni said Wednesday during a Tourist Development Council meeting.
County officials hope federal and state governments will bear the majority of the renourishment costs, said Andy Squires, the coastal manager for Pinellas County.
"It could potentially be done this calendar year if we get federal and state funding," Squires said. "If not, renourishment could take months or years."
Most of the county's beach restoration projects are funded 60 percent by the federal government, 20 percent from the state, and 20 percent from the county. But the crackdown on congressional earmarks — traditionally the county has relied on U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young to bring home the sand — and the recession have made it more difficult to get aid.
Pinellas must compete for money against other counties, many of which also suffered from Debby. If the county does not get outside aid, it could dip into its reserve fund or use money that was allocated for beach repair before Debby's arrival.
Plans already were under way to restore certain beaches, such as Sand Key, where construction has begun, and Treasure Island's Sunset and Sunshine beaches, which were scheduled for repair in 2013.
But officials who previously doubted that beaches such as Pass-a-Grille required their immediate attention are now convinced it will need a sand infusion soon.
Mullet Key, a beach on Fort De Soto Park, also was significantly altered by the storm, Squires said. As was Upham beach on Long Key, where a "perfect storm" of wind, tides, and geography decimated the shoreline, he said.
Geologists at the University of South Florida currently are assessing the damage to discern how many cubic yards of sand were lost and what it would take to restore the beaches. Squires said he expects to receive those figures later this week and pass them on to the Army Corps of Engineers, which prioritizes which beaches to restore based on how essential they are for storm protection.
But some beaches that are popular with residents and tourists are unlikely candidates for outside funding.
The northern beach in Fort De Soto Park was "nailed" by the storm, Squires said, but it is not categorized as an engineered beach, meaning it is not considered part of the area's infrastructure. Shell Key Preserve and Caladesi Island, both of which are uninhabited, also fall into this category.
"Maybe we let them go, let nature take its course," Squires said of those beaches. "It may be now you've got a new reality to live with."
Where did all the sand go?
According to Squires, much of it is sitting just offshore, acting as a buffer and teasing beachgoers with water that is only ankle-deep for many feet out. Some of it will naturally wash back up on the beaches over the course of the summer, but much of it is out to sea.
"We have buoys out there that keep the boaters from getting too close," said Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, who lives near Sand Key.
"You can basically walk at low tide out to those buoys and it's not even up to your ankles," he said. "You know the sand is there."