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Florida beaches were already running low on sand. Then Ian and Nicole hit.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/25/2022 Lori Rozsa
Oceanfront homes, condominiums and hotels in the Daytona Beach area sustained damage from beach erosion after Hurricane Nicole. © Octavio Jones for The Washington Post Oceanfront homes, condominiums and hotels in the Daytona Beach area sustained damage from beach erosion after Hurricane Nicole.

WILBUR-BY-THE-SEA, Fla. — In the days since Hurricane Nicole lashed this stretch of Florida coast with punishing winds and a powerful storm surge, contractor A.J. Rockwell has found himself on an urgent mission. He has to find sand — tons of it — and fast.

Property owners in a picturesque beachside community just south of Daytona Beach hired him to buttress their homes with new sand after the Category 1 storm — the second cyclone to hit the state in the span of six weeks. Swimming pools, porches and even entire houses crashed into the ocean below when the sand beneath them eroded.

But these days the usual sources for sand — nearby underwater mounds and healthy beaches in other parts of the Sunshine State — are running low. What can be found is pricey. Rockwell estimates each house needs at least 275 dump truckloads pushed underneath to be saved — which at the current price of $1,200 a load comes out to $330,000 per home.

His phone lights up constantly with messages from sources offering tips on where he can try to score some of the scarce good.

“Right now, it’s not even available, or it’s available in very limited quantities,” Rockwell said as he directed his crew working at a house standing precariously near a cliff.

Two weeks after Nicole, officials in hard-hit communities along Florida’s Atlantic coast say the dearth of sand has become an emergency. Nicole and Ian, which slammed into the western coast of Florida in late September, collectively snatched millions of cubic yards of sand from the coastline. In this section of Northeast Florida, local officials and residents are struggling to find sand to support oceanfront buildings and rebuild beaches.

The predicament underscores a vital problem for Florida: the state draws millions of visitors each year to its famous beaches, but successive storms, climate change, rising sea levels and a diminishing supply of sand means they are steadily dwindling in size.

A state report published over the summer — before the two hurricanes hit — found that more than half of Florida’s sandy beaches are critically eroded.

“I think we’re starting to discover that, despite our best efforts and wanting to throw as much money at this as possible, it has become very difficult to keep these beaches as wide as we would like to keep them,” Robert S. Young, a geology professor at Western Carolina University and director of the Program for Developed Shorelines, which helps identify long-term solutions for imperiled coastlines. “We simply don’t have the capacity to hold all of these beaches in place.”

‘Running out of sand’

Plinio Medina works to restore his patio, which collapsed during Hurricane Nicole, in Wilbur-By-The-Sea, Fla. © Octavio Jones for The Washington Post Plinio Medina works to restore his patio, which collapsed during Hurricane Nicole, in Wilbur-By-The-Sea, Fla.

Environmentalists, beach residents, surfers and fishermen have been sounding the alarm about Florida’s eroding beaches for decades. Development is partly to blame. Sought-after oceanfront buildings take up space that might otherwise be home to protective sand dunes. Rising sea levels and stronger and more frequent hurricanes are also a factor. When a powerful storm hits, it can move sand inland, offshore or further up or down a coast.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection began compiling reports on critically eroded beaches in 1989. That year, the agency found a quarter of the state’s 825 miles of sandy shoreline was in danger. By 2022, that number had doubled.

To help remedy the issue, coastal Florida communities have spent millions dredging sand from the ocean or nearby inlets and using it to fill in eroded beaches. Yet that solution is increasingly difficult to employ as storms become more frequent and sand harder to find.

Flagler County officials spent $2 million to replace sand after hurricanes Matthew and Irma devastated Northeast Florida a half-decade ago. Then Hurricane Dorian struck in 2019 and pulled the sand they’d brought in back out to sea — undoing their work to preserve the beach.

“Florida’s east coast has really struggled over the last decade,” Young said. “There have been so many hurricanes, and even when the hurricanes don’t hit, they sort of zoom by and just take a lot of sand off the beaches of Northeast Florida.”

Sand is usually dredged from the bottom of the ocean, but engineers and other experts say that source is close to being tapped out in many areas typically used off Florida. Decades of using offshore sand dug up from the Atlantic Ocean have deteriorated the supply. Much of what remains off the coast is too deep for dredges to reach — or could damage coral reefs.

Miami-Dade County is already using sand trucked in from inland sand mines to add to the coast, and Palm Beach County is considering bringing in sand on barges from the Bahamas. Importing sand would take an act of Congress, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), along with Congresswoman Lois Frankel (D) from West Palm Beach, have proposed doing just that.

“For counties in Florida … this could provide a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to trucking in sand,” Rubio’s office said in announcing the legislation, which is dubbed the SAND Act and remains stalled in Congress. “It could also alleviate demand and extend the useful life of some offshore domestic sand sources, including those off the Treasure Coast.”

For Young, it comes down to this: “They’re completely running out of sand to easily replenish these beaches.”

Undeterred homeowners

Plinio Medina works to bring in sand to restore his oceanfront home, which was damaged when two hurricanes within six weeks swiped tons of sand away from the beach. © Octavio Jones for The Washington Post Plinio Medina works to bring in sand to restore his oceanfront home, which was damaged when two hurricanes within six weeks swiped tons of sand away from the beach.

Hurricane Ian made landfall in Southwest Florida on Sept. 28, bursting on shore with 150 mph winds, flooding streets and resulting in more than 100 deaths. It then barreled across the state — bringing heavy rains and obliterating beach restoration projects 300 miles away in Northeast Florida that were nearly complete.

The span of coast along the Atlantic famous for NASA shuttle launches and Daytona Beach — where historically there has been so much sand drivers are invited to ride on the shore — was still recovering from Ian when Nicole hit in November. It was only the second time in recorded history that Florida was hit with a November cyclone.

In a message to the public after the storm, Volusia County coastal division director Jessica Fentress called the impact to the northeast shoreline “nothing short of devastating.”

“Right now, we do not have the beach that you remember from this summer,” she said.

The state and federal government approved temporary permits to allow property owners in Volusia and other counties hit by the two storms to bring in sand to shore up their homes. Gov. Ron DeSantis toured the area and promised local officials $20 million in emergency funding to move sand to damaged beaches.

Special permits to truck in sand restrict what type can be brought in to ensure it is environmentally compatible — an approval process that can take months. Some of those constraints were waived for emergency work to save homes and beaches, making it easier to bring in sand — if it can be found.

Workers try to restore the patio area of a home on that sustained damage during Hurricane Nicole in Daytona Beach Shores, Fla. © Octavio Jones for The Washington Post Workers try to restore the patio area of a home on that sustained damage during Hurricane Nicole in Daytona Beach Shores, Fla.

Within days of Nicole, Plinio Medina and his son were hard at work with contractors, including Rockwell, to find sand and push it under the house he owns in Wilbur-By-The-Sea. It was expensive, but like many here, the home isn’t just a place to live; it is also an investment. He usually rents the concrete block house with an ocean view to tourists for $499 a night.

Now the yard is gone and there is no way to get to the beach below other than sliding down 30 feet.

“It used to be a beautiful beachfront property,” Medina said. “It had a nice yard facing the ocean. People enjoyed it so much.”

Flagler Beach town manager William Whitson said municipalities like his are in a similar conundrum — sand is costlier and harder to locate, but there is no choice but to rebuild.

His town of 5,300 residents just north of Daytona Beach depends on the nearly 1 million tourists who visit each year expecting wide, sandy beaches. Officials there located a sand deposit about 10 miles offshore that they planned to mine in a joint project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He said the price was high but that they’d have to pay.

“Mother Nature is unforgiving,” he said. “But we have a lot of smart coastal engineers, and if they’re listened to and the right recommendations are presented, then we’ll do much better.”

No easy solutions

Oceanfront homes, condominiums and hotels in the Daytona Beach Shores community sustained damage from beach erosion from Tropical Storm Nicole. © Octavio Jones for The Washington Post Oceanfront homes, condominiums and hotels in the Daytona Beach Shores community sustained damage from beach erosion from Tropical Storm Nicole.

Whitson and other local leaders in Northeast Florida say they need to devise ways to keep the beaches intact for the next 50 years, not just until the next hurricane. But experts say climate change and sea level rise make long-term solutions an almost impossible task.

Lindsay Cross, the director of water and land policy for Florida Conservation Voters, said Florida’s beaches have historically been dynamic — losing and gaining sand over time through natural causes. But development on beaches requires stable ground that doesn’t shift.

Cross, who was recently elected to the Florida House of Representatives from St. Petersburg, said “a larger conversation” about how to protect beaches needs to happen, and that could involve “looking at managed relocation” for commercial and residential development in hazardous coastal areas.

“As a state, we’re used to investing in beach renourishment. Whether it’s the best investment in the long term is something to think about,” Cross (D) said. “It’s harder to find high-quality sand, you have fewer sources for it. There can be contaminated sand, or sand that isn’t the suitable grain size for Florida’s world class beaches.”

DeSantis established the state’s first Office of Resilience and Coastal Protection in 2019, soon after he was elected. The office studies and funds projects that protect shores and inland waterways. Environmentalists said it was a welcome change from his predecessor, former governor and now U.S. Sen. Rick Scott (R), whose administration prohibited researchers from using the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in documents and reports.

“We had a decade of missed opportunity with a governor and administration that didn’t consider climate change a threat, or even recognize climate change at all,” said Dawn Shirreffs, Florida Director for the Environmental Defense Fund.

The agency hasn’t completed a comprehensive state plan yet, however, and some environmentalists have criticized the office for focusing more on fixing issues like erosion than trying to prevent them.

The state went from spending almost nothing on resilience projects in 2013 to spending more than $500 million in 2021. But most of that money came from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, according to the Florida Conservation Voters budget tracker. This year, Florida is kicking in more money, budgeting $270 million for flooding and sea level resilience projects.

One immediate solution for the depleted sand supply is to dig for more of it in inlets and on land. But environmentalists have expressed concern that such mining could threaten the state’s underground aquifers, which provide drinking water for millions of Floridians.

Jackson Miller carries portions of temporary sea wall materials for installation at an oceanfront condominium in Daytona Shores, Fla. © Octavio Jones for The Washington Post Jackson Miller carries portions of temporary sea wall materials for installation at an oceanfront condominium in Daytona Shores, Fla.

Experts with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers say there is an ample supply of inland sand that is helping fill the need — but drawing from those sources is expensive. It’s also time-consuming to truck sand to the coast, and the dump trucks damage roads and communities they travel through.

The Army Corps is involved in greenlighting beach restoration projects and helping out once they get underway. Most projects require a new supply of sand every five to 10 years. Some engineers say that timeline is steadily speeding up as climate change alters weather patterns and the oceans.

“With sea level change, we might need to renourish those projects a little more often,” said Jason Engle, an engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville.

In Wilbur-By-The-Sea, Medina watched as his son Andy drove a bulldozer on a recent afternoon and scooped up piles of sand Rockwell trucked in for them. He then deposited it under the house.

The father and son are hopeful Volusia County beaches will be wide and welcoming once again, with the help of some human intervention.

“Sometimes, he wins,” Medina said, sweeping his arm toward the ocean. “And sometimes, I win.”

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