Town struggles to rebuild beach after storms
Battered by storms in back-to-back years, Edisto Beach struggles to find funds to fix berms
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Less than a year after Edisto Beach dug out from Hurricane Matthew, Irma leveled dunes that had been rebuilt 15 feet high, flooding the barrier island anew and filling its roadways with sand.
So now, following a nearly $19 million project that pumped more than 900,000 cubic yards of sand onto the beach, the town is hoping to rebuild the berms with what it can scrape off the streets, since it's unclear when more replenishment money might come.
“Obviously, it's a costly fix, and it's not even a fix. It's just prolonging the inevitable. You're dumping sand in the ocean, that's what you're doing,” said state Sen. Harvey Peeler, a longtime opponent of beach replenishment.
Peeler, whose district is 200 miles from the shore, said his colleagues have convinced him that South Carolina's coastline needs protecting, “but as a taxpayer, I just wonder if there's a better way.”
Unfortunately, costs are only expected to rise. Better building codes are reducing property damage, but increasing coastal development means there's more to protect. And potential accelerations in sea level rise and the frequency of destructive storms create expensive uncertainties, said Paul Gayes, who directs Coastal Carolina University's School of Coastal and Marine Systems.
The sea already has risen about a foot in the last 80 years off South Carolina, causing regular flooding in downtown Charleston.
“Think about just one more foot in areas where there's no more room to give,” Gayes said.
A database tracking sand replenishments since 1923 shows 2,092 projects at a total cost of nearly $9 billion in today's dollars. Florida has had the most projects at 495, then California with 343, New Jersey at 325, North Carolina 251 and New York with 118.
South Carolina has done this 78 times before, starting in Edisto Beach, in 1954. Its beach was replenished again in 1995, 1999 and 2006 — a project designed to last 10 years. Matthew's tough punch last October added $5 million to the cost of a planned renewal that started in January.
Storms have battered South Carolina's coastline for three straight years, starting with Hurricane Joaquin, which stayed offshore in October 2015 but caused historic flooding while dumping up to 2 feet of rain over several days. Irma's 10-foot-high tide surpassed Matthew's to become the thirdhighest on state record, covering Edisto's main road for a mile in 2.5 feet of sand.
Since 2015, legislators have designated $35 million toward the state's share of repairing beaches along the entire coastline, or $8 million less than the state's tourism agency requested. That was before Irma.
“We have got to protect the goose that lays the golden egg. Beach renourishment is part of that protection,” Republican Sen. Greg Hembree of North Myrtle Beach said Wednesday. “If you get a major hurricane or a big storm, it's going to tear it up, but on balance, it's worthwhile.
Because sand is essential to the state's $19 billion tourism industry, lawmakers should find a way to fund ongoing coastal maintenance, Hembree said.
“We wait until it's all torn up and have big-ticket projects every 10 years,” he said. “It's kinda like highways. If you do a little bit along and along, you don't have major expenses.”
Between 1985 and 2015, more than $285 million was spent on 43 replenishing projects in South Carolina, with state taxes paying about $48 million of that and federal taxes $122 million. Local and private funds provided the rest, according to the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
Sand dredging and pumping begins next month in North Myrtle Beach as part of a $26 million “emergency” replenishing project approved by the federal government following Matthew's damage. Irma temporarily halted pumping on two other Grand Strand beaches included in that contract. Bids for Myrtle Beach go out this winter. Whether any of these beaches get more sand because of Irma will depend partly on congressional funding, according the Army Corps of Engineers.
Of South Carolina's beaches, Edisto lost the most sand to Irma by far. But it could have been much worse if the replenished beach, supported by dune fencing and plants, hadn't been finished in June. There was no serious property damage, and Matthew washed far more sand into town, burying most of a 3-mile stretch five feet deep.
“It's disheartening,” Mayor Jane Darby said. “But it did what it was supposed to do.”
“It looks like a large waste, but that's what it's there for — to mitigate against damage,” Gayes agreed.
Still, he calls sand replenishing a “mid-term solution to a long-term problem.”
“We simply can't do this everywhere. It's too expensive.”