On Tuesday morning, people in Pass-a-Grille woke up to a nauseating realization: The beach was gone, washed away by two days of pounding by Tropical Storm Debby.
"This was the fastest erosion we've ever seen," said Bert Savage, walking along the shoreline with his wife and kids. "There's usually about 60 or 70 feet of sand."
The surging waves destroyed some beach stairs and crept 10 feet beyond the base of the ones that remained. They even took a bite out of the big sand dunes. As the dunes collapsed, the force ripped sea oats from their roots.
"This storm is really something," said Ping Wang, a University of South Florida geology professor whose Coastal Research Laboratory has been documenting Debby's impact on the sandy shores. The storm "induced severe and widespread beach and dune erosion along the Pinellas County beaches."
Wang noted that while Debby lacked the punch of a full-fledged hurricane, it produced a storm surge of 2 to 3 feet and sustained winds of 23 mph for nearly 48 hours, thus creating the ideal conditions for major erosion.
At Sunset Beach on Treasure Island, for instance, Wang found that the edge of the dune retreated landward for about 10 to 15 feet. And at the northern end of Indian Shores, he noticed an 8-foot-high dune that had been sliced in half by Debby. Parts of Upham Beach had eroded 20 to 30 feet, and on its northern section there was no beach beyond the seawall.
The loss of Pinellas' most famous attraction has plenty of beach businesses fretting. The beaches were part of Tampa's pitch to woo the Republican National Convention to town in August, as well as the longtime basis for the region's tourism industry.
"That's one of the main reasons why people come down here, to use the beach," said Eddie Rodrigo, general manager of the Sabal Palms and Coconut Inns in Pass-a-Grille. "If they can't use the beach because it's so bad, that's going to hurt us. Word will get out eventually."
Rodrigo got called in at 3:30 a.m. Monday when a downstairs guest at the Sabal Palms woke up and found ankle-deep water in the room. Six rooms were flooded, and the guests in two rooms had to be moved out as the water rose.
Now, he said, "I've got a lot of people coming in this weekend and they're calling to find out if they should cancel. Based on the news I've seen the weather is supposed to improve. But how much of the beach is left? I'm not sure what it's actually going to be like."
The abbreviated beach drew curious local residents who wanted to see the damage for themselves. Mark Clouse, 54, used his phone to snap a few photos of the waves and then the shoreline on St. Pete Beach. What was left was littered with beach chairs blown back against the sand dunes, cabanas and broken wood.
"Won't be going to the beach for a while," he grumbled.
"I can't remember the last time we had a storm like this," said Rick Falkenstein, longtime manager of the Hurricane Seafood restaurant in Pass-a-Grille.
In Belleair Beach, Mayor Kathy Mortensen estimated half the beach had vanished, a disquieting sight.
She joked that it would be hard to sell such a view to visitors: "Here, stand on our seawall and look at the gulf!" Without the beach, she said, Pinellas would likely have few if any tourists: "They might as well go to Disney."
Fortunately, Mortenson said, taxpayers are already spending $31.5 million to put 1.25 million cubic yards of new sand on 8.7 miles of shoreline on Sand Key.
The dredging machines began work last month and are expected to get to Belleair Beach sometime next month, she said.
"Perfect timing," she said.
Pinellas' other damaged beaches will likely stage a slow, natural comeback over the next few months, Wang said.
When the waves become gentle again, they will start redepositing the sand that was washed away — although it may wind up in a different place than it used to be, and it will likely be a different looking beach.
"The problem with natural recovery is that the beach doesn't recover as high," he said. "A high and dry beach takes a longer time to recover."
The dunes that were destroyed will take even longer to rebuild naturally, said Hilary Stockdon, a U.S. Geological Survey oceanographer who led a study of beach erosion along the Gulf Coast.
"Dunes are built by wind," she explained. "It's a longer process to build up a dune — unless you have a bulldozer."
Times staff writers Michael Finch, John Woodrow Cox and Laura C. Morel contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]