Elizabeth Bertrand of Montreal sat along Madeira Beach on Monday afternoon and watched the waves crash on what was left of the shore after Tropical Storm Debby washed much of it away.
She has been vacationing in the Tampa Bay area since 1981 and said she has never seen beach erosion this bad.
"I love the ocean," she said, "but not like this."
Debby's winds and waves pounded Pinellas County's 35 miles of beaches, combining with high tides to send water gushing across dunes and parking lots. Officials were still assessing the damage late Monday.
"Until the tide goes out, we don't know what's gone," explained Gulfport City Manager Jim O'Reilly. However, a preliminary review by geologists from the University of South Florida found severe erosion at Pass-a-Grille Beach, Upham Beach and on Treasure Island, according to Andy Squires of the county's coastal zone management office.
At Sunset Beach on Treasure Island, Squires said, from Caddy's on the Beach southward "erosion has cut an additional 10-15 feet into the existing dune at some locations."
Meanwhile, people weren't being allowed into the waters off Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin, said Jennifer Diaz, press secretary for the state Department of Environmental Protection. Honeymoon Island has suffered visible beach erosion, she said, but the extent of the damage will not be known until the storm is over.
Seeing water lapping at the sea oats instead of down below the dunes did not make the tourists happy. Jessica Akins, visiting from Asheville, N.C., sat on the stairs leading to Madeira Beach. Normally the end of the stairs would have been several feet from where the beach began, but Monday wasn't normal. Instead, gray waves crashed against the stairs, forcing her and her 4-year-old, Taylor, to move.
"I've never seen anything like this before," she said.
But Pinellas beaches have been battered by storms before. In 2006, Tropical Storm Alberto cut 40 feet off Indian Rocks Beach. The No Name Storm of 1993 washed away as much as 70 feet of Upham Beach.
The beaches are the county's major tourist attraction and a major element of the real estate industry. The problem is, the 11 barrier islands where those beaches exist are not fixed in place. They move, waxing here, waning there, pushed and pulled as the waves wash their sand this way and that.
And as with all Florida beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, they are extremely vulnerable. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey, released last month, found that 70 percent of gulf beaches are vulnerable to erosion during even the weakest of hurricanes, and 27 percent are likely to be completely inundated.
The gulf beaches are more vulnerable than the Atlantic beaches for two reasons, according to USGS oceanographer Hilary Stockdon, lead author of the study. For one thing, she said, the dunes on the gulf side average 8 feet high, while Atlantic dunes average 15 feet. For another, on the gulf side there's a continental shelf offshore that "allows a storm surge to build higher and that makes for extensive erosion." Beaches are built by the calm waves on sunny days and clear nights, she explained. Those waves carry in sand from offshore. But when a storm hits, the waves become destructive.
"The waves carry energy," she explained. "As the waves are breaking, they lift up the sand and carry it forward, and then they carry it further offshore. Then where there's a tidal current, the waves mobilize the sand and suspend it in the water, and the current moves it down the beach. The sand is carried off and stored in a sandbar."
Engineers have been using new sand — dug up offshore and pumped to the land — to enhance beaches since 1922, when Coney Island needed a sandy boost.
Florida has reaped the greatest number of federally funded renourishment projects in the country. Thirty-five counties have used taxpayer money to artificially enhance beaches. Pinellas beaches have been renourished repeatedly since 1966 at a cost of millions of dollars.
Times staff writers Drew Harwell, Peter Jamison, Diedra Rodriguez and Will Hobson contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.