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Winter storm undid months of Pinellas beach restoration work, officials say

Despite the damaged dunes, many beach access spots will still be open for the holidays.
 
Erosion is visible near the edge of a beach dune in Indian Rocks Beach on Wednesday. Just as Pinellas County neared the end of its monthslong dune restoration project, the severe winter storm last weekend washed away nearly half of its progress on some beaches.
Erosion is visible near the edge of a beach dune in Indian Rocks Beach on Wednesday. Just as Pinellas County neared the end of its monthslong dune restoration project, the severe winter storm last weekend washed away nearly half of its progress on some beaches. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Dec. 21, 2023|Updated Dec. 23, 2023

Just as Pinellas County neared the end of its monthslong dune restoration project, the severe winter storm last weekend washed away nearly half of its progress on some beaches.

Since work on county beaches began in October, about 189,000 cubic yards of sand has been added to reinforce shoreline from Pass-a-Grille to Indian Shores — enough to fill 58 Olympic-size swimming pools. The project has cost about $26 million raised through the county’s tourism development tax, part of which comes from a tax on short-term vacation rentals and hotel rooms.

Survey teams are now assessing exactly how much sand was blown back into the Gulf of Mexico last weekend. Early estimates put that figure around 50% along places like Indian Rocks Beach and Belleair Beach, according to county officials. They believe Pass-a-Grille Beach and other shorelines to the south sustained less damage.

The county-led project got off the ground after Hurricane Idalia blew past the Tampa Bay area and sheared its already damaged beaches in August. While last weekend’s storm wasn’t as destructive as the hurricane, county public works director Kelli Hammer Levy said it was one of the worst instances of wintertime erosion she has witnessed in more than 20 years working for the county.

“It’s almost as if Idalia just scraped it completely down — it was just gone,” she said. “Now, there’s still dune out there, but it’s as if somebody took a knife and sliced it in half.”

The county has closed a handful of access points to beaches, and Levy urged beachgoers to steer clear of marked-off dunes that sustained damage.

“We do want to protect what’s left of them,” she said.

Much of the native vegetation planted to help hold the dunes together was also lost in the storm, she said. Only the sea oats planted higher up on beaches were safe from the 6-foot waves that pummeled the dunes.

Levy said because high tide coincided with the storm’s peak intensity along the county’s beaches north of Pass-a-Grille Beach, these shorelines bore the brunt of the surge.

“The dunes did their job,” she said. “If those dunes had not been there, a lot more properties would have been damaged. A lot of people would have woken up in the middle of the night with a different scenario than they did this time.”

Treasure Island Mayor Tyler Payne would have been one of them.

“I went to bed and woke up in the morning and there was a seaweed line like 3 feet up into my yard,” he said.

Payne said he was lucky. About 65 Treasure Island homes were damaged by surge in the weekend storm, according to the city manager. In August, Idalia’s floodwaters swept into 250 of the beach town’s houses.

“This one just snuck up on everyone,” Payne said. “You don’t think about your house getting flooded in just a winter storm.”

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Coastal resiliency was a cornerstone of Payne’s campaign for mayor, and he says the recent storm is a perfect example of why it should be on residents’ minds.

“If we’re going to start experiencing more storms like this — that are going to be flooding homes — that’s why we have strict building codes and that’s why we encourage people to elevate their homes,” he said.

Just two months after dune restoration efforts by Pinellas County on Treasure Island's beaches, a winter storm blew through the area and eroded the new sand dunes. County officials warn beachgoers to be careful around high dune ledges like this one at Sunset Beach.
Just two months after dune restoration efforts by Pinellas County on Treasure Island's beaches, a winter storm blew through the area and eroded the new sand dunes. County officials warn beachgoers to be careful around high dune ledges like this one at Sunset Beach. [ Courtesy of City of Treasure Island ]

Payne said his city’s beaches would benefit from another dune restoration project — something the county is now considering — but that it wasn’t a permanent fix.

“It’s a short-term solution for a long-term issue,” Payne said. “And short-term could be like we just saw: two months. Now, that’s a big investment to have made for two months.”

Pinellas County is still in talks with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to find a middle ground that would allow a full beach nourishment project to move forward. When the federal agency announced it would require permanent easement agreements, many homeowners spurned the contracts.

Without 100% participation among beachfront property owners to grant permanent public access to land they own within the project area, the Corps has refused to begin the project. For decades, the agency’s policy had only required temporary access while nourishment work was ongoing.

Levy said the county is building its own nourishment project plan in case negotiations with the Corps fall through. This county-led project would likely take two years to complete.

“We can’t just wait and hope,” she said. “We have to move a project forward ourselves. The challenge is it’s going to take us a long time because we don’t have the permits, and we don’t have the plans the Corps does.”

The dune restoration that was disrupted last weekend was supposed to provide a buffer period while the county worked on this long-term solution, she said. But now, the county will have to assess the state of the beach and whether some dunes will need another round of restoration before they can safely be reopened.

With the holidays approaching, Levy said the county will pause work on the dunes next week and open as many beach access points as they can.

While some access points were closed due to the storm, all Pinellas beaches excluding the north end of Indian Shores were open this week, according to county officials. Next week, the county plans to fully open Indian Shores for the holidays, which will close again on Jan. 2 when dune restoration efforts resume.

A sign in Indian Rocks Beach warns people to stay off dunes. Treasure Island city commissioner Beth Wetzel said she worries that increased foot traffic during the holidays could further damage dunes on beaches where problems with dune trampling have persisted despite signage and messages from public officials.
A sign in Indian Rocks Beach warns people to stay off dunes. Treasure Island city commissioner Beth Wetzel said she worries that increased foot traffic during the holidays could further damage dunes on beaches where problems with dune trampling have persisted despite signage and messages from public officials. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Treasure Island city commissioner Beth Wetzel said she worries that increased foot traffic during the holidays could further damage dunes on beaches where problems with dune trampling have persisted despite signage and messages from public officials.

“There’s that fine line between having the (tourists) come and the residents getting through this stressful time when they’re trying to put their lives back together,” Wetzel said.

Wetzel, who represents Sunset Beach, said many people in her district were still dealing with Idalia’s damage when the weekend storm hit.

“So many of them had just gotten their place fixed up, thinking that they were safe, more or less, because hurricane season was over,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”