Repeat Storms Compounding Florida's Beach Erosion Problems
PENSACOLA, Fla. The Gulf of Mexico's blue-green water and frothy white waves are only about 50 yards from what remains of the boardwalk behind Dr. Edward Planz's beach house on the Florida Panhandle. That's nearly 35 yards closer than a year ago.
Two hurricanes and a pair of tropical storms later, the Dothan, Ala., heart surgeon admits to being "very nervous about the situation."
So are other beachfront property owners across Florida, where few beaches have escaped a relentless line of storms over the past 12 months. Gov. Jeb Bush said erosion was the top issue raised by local officials when he toured the Panhandle a day after Hurricane Dennis struck the region on July 10.
Federal, state and local governments already are spending millions across Florida to widen and build up eroding beaches and repair damage from Ivan and three others powerful hurricanes that hit last year.
"If it's appropriate -- it probably will be -- to up the ante a bit, we'll do it," Bush said during a recent visit to the storm-stricken area.
Planz's house at Seagrove Beach, about 45 miles east of Dennis' eye, was spared from structural damage but left more vulnerable to the next storm.
The hurricane came ashore about 20 miles east of Pensacola, but beaches along some 200 miles of Panhandle coastline were battered to varying degrees. Many of the same beaches took a pounding from Hurricane Ivan last year, Tropical Storm Arlene in June and Tropical Storm Cindy just days before Dennis.
The Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing about $160 million worth of restoration work, including $120 million from federal coffers, on 15 major restoration projects in Florida. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent about $33 million so far on smaller projects to repair storm-damaged beaches and the figure was expected to grow.
Although beaches and dunes can recover from storm damage on their own, that could be too late for Planz and other coastal property owners.
Gregory Stone, director of the Coastal Studies Institute at Louisiana State University, noted that a common technique of transporting sand to the affected areas is just "a Band-Aid on a cut" because the beaches will erode again, requiring more periodic restoration.
Critics such as Orrin Pilkey, director of Duke University's Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, also said such tactics -- called beach nourishment -- is the wrong answer.
"Why should we, the taxpaying public, be responsible for this really, really arrogant act of lining up buildings on a shoreline that's well-known to be eroding and at a time that the sea level is rising?" Pilkey asked.
"If they think it's worth saving, then let them save it themselves with their money," he said, suggesting instead that development be moved a safe distance from the shoreline.
Florida officials, however, say it is money well spent. They cite a 2003 study by Florida Atlantic University that showed the state gets a return of $6 to $8 in taxes paid by tourists for every dollar spent on beach restoration.
Destin and Walton county officials encountered an unusual obstacle when a handful of beachfront property owners challenged their joint nourishment project, contending it was a ploy to grab private shoreline for public use.
A state administrative judge rejected their argument and recommended that the Environmental Protection Department approve the project just days before Dennis struck.
"It critically eroded an already critically eroded beach," said Lindey Chabot, Destin's grants and projects manager. "We feel confident that when people see the benefits of a beach restoration we won't have nearly the fight a second time."
Source: Associated Press