Navarre Beach lost an estimated 100 million cubic yards of sand during Hurricane Sally, and officials are racing to tally the full extent of the damage to secure as much funding as possible to restore the beach.
The sand loss is the worst at the easternmost and westernmost points of the beach, officials said. There, at high tide, there's only about 30 feet of beach in between the mean high water line and the dunes; the sand is gray and hard, and the dunes are clearly eroded.
"There's a lot of damage on the west and east end, but if you walk in the middle of the beach, it looks like it was untouched," said District 4 Santa Rosa County Commissioner Dave Piech, who represents Navarre and Navarre Beach. "One beach walkover is missing 5 feet of sand and then the next beach walkover is fine."
County officials were walking the beach Wednesday to survey damage with Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel and to assess the full extent of the erosion. Early estimates of 100 million cubic yards lost could ebb up or down depending on the final assessments.
For context, during the county's most recent beach restoration project in 2016, engineers dumped 2 million cubic yards of sand on the beach.
Rain and wind totals: Hurricane Sally by the numbers: 2 feet of rain, 92 mph winds and 5 foot storm surge
"We've yet to quantify an exact amount, but there is significant beach erosion," said county engineer Roger Blaylock. "It happens every storm, especially at the west and and the east end."
The county is hoping to secure funding from FEMA and the federal and state government to rectify the beach erosion and possibly do another restoration project, sooner than the next scheduled restoration in 2026. Piech said a typical beach restoration costs anywhere from $10 to $12 million — but this is not a typical storm.
"The county sets aside funds every 10 years, so we plan for beach restoration on a normal cycle," he said. "This is not a normal cycle."
Where did the sand go, and how will it impact the environment and tourism?
So where exactly did all of that sand go?
Dr. Wade Jeffrey, a professor at University of West Florida and director of the Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation, said beach erosion is a large-scale version of what happens all the time on the beach. For example, when you go into the Gulf to swim or play on a typical day, it’s easy to end up 100 yards down the beach in a matter of time, due to something called longshore currents.
“In a storm, the same process is happening. There are big waves and more energy, and all that energy crashes into the beach, picks up the sand and moves it left or right, so that’s what causes the beach erosion,” he said. “The sand can go down the beach and deposit in a variety of places, usually until it finds something that will stop the flow of the sand. It can also get carried offshore. Sometimes it just depends on the nature of the storm and the kind of wave activity.”
Sally in Santa Rosa: Where the hardest hit areas of Santa Rosa County are, and how much it could all cost
It’s too soon to tell what impact the erosion may have had on the animals that live on the beach, like the turtles that nest in the sand or the critters and birds that make homes in the dunes or shoreline.
“Anything that makes its living in the dunes or on the shorelines, like coquina clams, starfish, sand dollars and things like that, even the fish that swim up and down the shoreline looking for food, any time there’s a change in the shoreline it’s going to have some kind of effect on the animals,” he said.
Thousands of starfish washed ashore on Navarre Beach in the days following Hurricane Sally, a direct effect of changes in the tides and currents, local scientists said.
Beach erosion happens often with storms, and Hurricane Sally — which packed 78-mile per hour wind gusts on Navarre Beach during her 12-hour onslaught of the Gulf Coast on Sept. 16 — was no exception.
The beach looks normal in the middle sections and around the pier, and Piech hopes to have at least a small-scale restoration project in play before next spring and summer to repair damage to the east and west ends of the beach and not hurt tourism.
"The beach is still here," he said. "We're doing everything we can to let folks know we're still open, and to come out and enjoy the beach. The restaurants are open, Juana's Pagodas is hoping to open by this Friday, the pier is open, we're lucky the pier didn't sustain much damage. All in all, it could have been much worse."
Parts of U.S. 399, the Gulf Island National Seashore road connecting Navarre Beach to Pensacola Beach, are under 4 feet of sand. National Park Service rangers were standing guard at the Navarre Beach entrance to U.S. 399 on Wednesday, keeping out cars, bicyclists and walkers due to heavy machinery doing work to clear the sand.
Around 130 residences on Navarre Beach reported being affected by the storm, according to recently publicized GIS damage data.
Annie Blanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8632.
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