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Hurricane Idalia just made Pinellas’ beach erosion problem even worse

It was, in a way, a perfect storm to cause beach erosion, said a University of South Florida professor who has studied the coastline for decades.
 
Gary Gepfrey of Seminole walks down a path between eroded sand dunes along Indian Rocks Beach near the Seventh Street beach access point Thursday. Beach erosion can be seen along several Pinellas County beaches, an effect of Hurricane Idalia.
Gary Gepfrey of Seminole walks down a path between eroded sand dunes along Indian Rocks Beach near the Seventh Street beach access point Thursday. Beach erosion can be seen along several Pinellas County beaches, an effect of Hurricane Idalia. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Sept. 2, 2023

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — As Cookie Kennedy issued a plea for help from the federal government Friday morning, she stood in front of a sign of colorful, dangling wooden planks: “Please leave nothing but your footprints,” the last word represented by silhouettes.

But in many places on the miles of coastline that lay beyond that message, there was little room left to walk. Hurricane Idalia had wrecked Pinellas County’s already badly eroded beaches.

To the north of where Kennedy stood, the beach narrowed to near disappearance, and the city of 4,000 people where she is mayor had closed many of the access points. Escarpments — the cliffs that form as waters pull sand away from the beach — stood as high as 5 feet.

Officials reported even more dramatic erosion in some places to the south, such as Redington Shores and Sunset Beach. Kelli Hammer Levy, the county’s public works director, spent Thursday traversing every beach from Clearwater to Pass-a-Grille.

Escarpments reached 8 feet in some spots. Pieces of metal jutted out of the sand, and human-made structures — the Redington Shores breakwater, groins in Madeira Beach — were invisible, submerged or pulled offshore, creating hidden hazards for surfers and swimmers.

Idalia finished erasing the progress from the last time the county’s beaches were renourished, when tons of sand were pumped onto the beach in 2018.

“We probably — easily — lost every bit of sand we put out there in 2018, and probably more,” Levy said. “We’re probably in the negative.”

Ping Wang, a professor in the University of South Florida’s School of Geosciences, said the erosion caused by Idalia was the worst he’d seen in 20 years of studying the west-central Florida coastline. It was a perfect storm to cause beach erosion, he said, with the surge creating a heightened water level that in turn allowed waves to crash farther onto shore.

“This storm took out decades — 10, 20, maybe even 30 years — of dune growth along our coast,” Wang said.

Hurricane Idalia caused enough erosion in places such as Indian Rocks Beach to erase a 2018 beach renourishment project and decades of dune growth, experts said.
Hurricane Idalia caused enough erosion in places such as Indian Rocks Beach to erase a 2018 beach renourishment project and decades of dune growth, experts said. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

For local officials, the damage proved points they’ve been trying to make for years, about how a healthy beach can buffer storms, how a sick one can leave the county even more vulnerable and how they need to find a way past a yearslong impasse with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over its policies for beach renourishment.

“When I grew up here, there wasn’t any sand,” Kennedy said. “We know what it was like, and we don’t want to see that kind of devastation again.”

After a change a decade ago, the Corps now requires beachfront property owners to grant perpetual easements before it’ll do the work, despite more than 98% of the renourishment area being public land. More than half of the 461 property owners have declined, with many saying they fear the arrangement will lead to their private property being treated as public. Local officials have begged for the Corps, which foots two-thirds of the cost in renourishment projects, to reconsider its policy, but it has not budged.

The wreckage along the Pinellas coastline varied from beach to beach — and from beachfront property to beachfront property — in a contrast that illustrated sand’s role in turning back storm surge. Levy described one spot on Treasure Island’s Sunshine Beach where a huge dune kept an older, ground-level home untouched. She also saw places where weaker dune systems had yielded to seawater, such as the 50 Gulfside Condominiums in Indian Rocks Beach, where she encountered a resident standing on his balcony.

“He was up on his deck looking straight down at me,” she said, “and I was standing in the water.”

Before Idalia, North Redington Beach was already eroded down to a stretch of 30 to 40 feet of sand with little volume, Mayor Bill Queen said Thursday. He guessed there was about 10 feet of sand, pushed toward the sea wall, remaining at high tide.

“It took away the rest of our beach,” Queen said of Idalia. “We’re down to damn near nothing.”

At Sunset Beach on Treasure Island, the storm had spit the dunes into the streets, the sand obscuring the asphalt. Mike Hebert, 58, spent Thursday cleaning up the roughly 5 inches of water that seeped into the duplex he rents. On the living room wall was a wedding photo of him and his wife tying the knot on the sand just down the way.

“It’s sickening,” he said of the beach erosion and the heavy damage to the vegetation on the dunes. “If all the stubborn people who didn’t sign easements hadn’t prevented us … we would’ve had more sand on the beach.”

Erosion from Hurricane Idalia has damaged the dunes and shrunk the beach at Sunset Beach.
Erosion from Hurricane Idalia has damaged the dunes and shrunk the beach at Sunset Beach. [ EMILY L. MAHONEY | Times ]

On Sept. 8, the Corps will address Pinellas residents in person for the first time in nearly three years, with a briefing at Indian Shores Town Hall that was already scheduled before Idalia hit. But Levy said she does not expect the briefing to bring surprising, good news to Pinellas.

“My understanding is pretty much that they are coming down here to deliver the message that we already know,” she said.

With a renourishment scheduled for 2024 unlikely to happen amid the standoff with the Corps, Pinellas officials have ramped up their efforts. A coalition including Kennedy and County Commission Chairperson Janet Long visited the White House earlier this year to ask for help. The county has considered paying for renourishment by itself, a move that would take the Corps’ policy out of the equation but also burn through tourist tax dollars.

“This isn’t the cheap place to live anymore,” Long said Friday, “and with paradise comes responsibility.”

Pinellas needs to renourish its beaches, she said, but humans also need to recognize the folly of fighting against nature: “How long can we keep on denying that we have real serious issues as it relates to climate and the fact that we live in Florida and we continue to build on the water’s edge?”

After Friday’s news conference, Kennedy looked out over the beach. She thought of a few days earlier, during a break in the storm, when she and City Manager Gregg Mims went out to a beach access point and Kennedy, a lifelong Pinellas resident, saw something she’d never seen before: water bubbling over the elevated walkways that lead to the beach.

She was also thinking of 1996, the year her son was born. It was only a few years after the first nourishment effort had been finished. The beaches of her childhood had been narrow, the erosion severe; by the mid-’90s, they weren’t much bigger, but they were growing.

The beach she stood by looked Friday much as it looked then, she said. On perhaps 20 feet of sand, beachgoers lounged in chairs, and kids boogie-boarded in the shallows. But it was still low tide. The water would be coming up soon.

Times staff writers Tracey McManus and Emily Mahoney contributed to this report.

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