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Sand dunes do help during hurricanes

ST. PETERSBURG - Beach renourishment projects, though expensive, can help protect coastal buildings even in major hurricanes such as Hurricane Hugo last September. But large, natural sand dunes remain about the best safeguard against surging ocean water, experts told a national conference on beach preservation Wednesday. Although Hugo leveled parts of Pawleys Island, S.C., last September, "massive sand dunes did survive and were able to protect homes," said Don Stauble of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Meanwhile, Myrtle Beach, S.C., came through Hugo better than expected, partly because its famed Grand Strand beach had been filled in with 60,000 truckloads of sand in the four years before Hugo hit.

The $4.5-million project, paid for with a local tax, "helped somewhat deter damage" to beachfront property from Hugo's enormous storm surge, Stauble said.

Stauble was the lead speaker at a three-day conference on "Lessons of Hurricane Hugo," organized by the Army Corps of Engineers, the University of Florida and the non-profit Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Association. Dozens of delegates from throughout the eastern United States are attending the conference at the St. Petersburg Hilton and Towers.

Beach renourishment projects have become almost commonplace in Pinellas County, considered one of the most hurricane-prone areas of the country. The beaches at Pass-a-Grille, Treasure Island, North Redington Beach and Redington Shores have been artificially widened in the past few years, and major projects are planned over the next year for Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores and Honeymoon Island.

Among other findings reported Wednesday: Computer models generated by the National Hurricane Center as Hugo approached South Carolina Sept. 21 were highly accurate in predicting the height of the storm surge at various points along the coast. But in several places flood waters far exceeded Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) projections for a major hurricane. At Awendaw, north of Charleston, Hugo's storm surge was 19 to 20 feet, the second highest ever recorded in the United States and 5.5 feet higher than FEMA flood maps indicated it would be.

"That's a pretty significant difference," said Darryl Hatheway of Gee & Jensen engineering in West Palm Beach. FEMA projections are important because they are used to set flood insurance rates and determine the elevation of new homes built in flood-prone coastal areas.

Unlike most other hurricanes that have struck the United States, Hugo caused more property damage from water than wind. Much of the damage could have been avoided, though, if ocean-front homes had been better designed and built on sturdy pilings driven deep into the ground.