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Flagler County’s Holmberg Problem: Beach Erosion Guru Dredges Up Skepticism

| July 31, 2012

Dick Holmberg during his appearance before a joint panel of three Flagler government agencies today. (© FlaglerLive)

Dick Holmberg during his appearance before a joint panel of three Flagler government agencies today. (© FlaglerLive)

There’s something about Dick Holmberg and information. Three local government agencies have been asking him (or his proxies) for details about what he does, how he does it, how he ensures that what he does works. The agencies have a right to ask: Holmberg proposes to conduct an analysis as a pre-requisite for an erosion control system for Flagler Beach, but at a cost of $50,000. Flagler County taxpayers would be billed.

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So the Flagler County Commission, the Flagler County Tourist Development Council, and the Flagler Beach City Commission have been asking questions about making Holmberg’s proposal accountable. He’s not been forthcoming with answers. (Holmberg technologies would use what Holmberg calls underground “stabilizers” along the shore that would, over time, rebuild the shore’s sands.)

Flagler Beach City Manager Bruce Campbell has been at the forefront of trying to get the questions answered, with little success, even though the Flagler Beach City Commission agreed on April 23 to have Holmberg do the analysis. But Flagler Beach wants the county’s tourism council to put up the money.

When Campbell was ready to appear—without Holmberg—before the tourist council a few months ago, the council pulled the item from the agenda, and instead sent Campbell (and Holmberg) a list of 13 questions that revealed Holmberg’s dearth of transparency. The council and the county don’t award grants absent rigorous measures that take in account the scope of the work, timelines, insurance, examples of previous works, and so on.

Flagler Beach City Commissioner Steve Settle, the city’s representative on the tourism council, took issue with the item’s withdrawal, and got into a bit of a tussle with Milissa Holland, the county commissioner and chairman of the tourism council. She explained that before Holmberg’s proposal could even be considered by the council, it had to meet minimum requirements of disclosure. And she said the tourism council, the county and the Flagler Beach commission could meet together to hear Holmberg present. Settle was satisfied.

That joint meeting took place today. It was not entirely reassuring to the members of the three panels sitting around a set of tables, as Holmberg alternately lectured, hectored, cajoled and even reprimanded them for asking certain questions or bringing up some of his history, such as his technology’s removal from a beach in Florida in the 1980s. “I don’t know what your problems are, but they’re not my problems,” Holmberg said, disputing a series of questions asked of him.

That got a rebuke from Holland, who reminded Holmberg that all the panel were asking for is reliable information about budgets and other essentials of any contract. Alan Peterson, the county commissioner, was seeking peer-reviewed studies showing that Holmberg Technologies’ product works. Holmberg referred him to Save Flagler Beach, the web site set up by his advocates locally.

“I’m not really looking for a website covered with pictures, I’m looking for actual studies,” Frank Meeker, the Palm Coast City Council member who represents the city on the tourism council, said. Meeker is also running for the county commission. (Both of his opponents, Dennis MacDonald, whose wife is part of the Save Flagler Beach movement, and Abby Romaine, were in the audience.)

And when Holmberg passed off questions to Campbell, Jane Mealy, who chairs the Flagler Beach City Commission, said: “Bruce is no more able to answer these questions than I am or Kim [Carney, another city commissioner] is or anyone else is. Mr. Holmberg is able to answer these questions.” That was toward the end of the meeting, by which time there was no more clarity about the panels’ questions than at the beginning. In the interim.

Holmberg had made a presentation about his works, and was frequently and visibly annoyed by interruptions—common at such workshops, being designed to enable questions and understanding—for various explanations, causing him to rebuke panelists for “getting off track.” Barbara Revels, the county commissioner and chairman, also attempted to keep him focused on answering questions, but with little success.

Holmberg several times referred to the innumerable projects he’d worked on. “I’ve done a lot of this work, thousands,” he said, noting that he’d worked with senators and congressmen and knew his way around “getting these projects placed.” On his website, two projects are used to illustrate his company’s success: in an area of the Great Lakes, and along a private section of the Saudi Arabian shore, where he says he developed a project for Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest company (by wealth value), but also one of its most secretive.

A check of Holmberg Technologies through NewsBank, a database of several thousand worldwide newspapers, newswires, business journals, government documents and other sources going back a few decades, reveals just 58 mentions of Holmberg Technologies since 1998, most of them related to his attempt, for the past seven years, to win converts and a contract in Flagler Beach. He has converts. He almost has a contract. But he is still far from having the sort of long-term contract that would see his technology in seawater locally.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among other agencies, would have to permit the project. Holmberg does not have a good track record with the federal agency, his recurrent bête noire over the years. Holmberg has long claimed that the corps has a vested interest in dredging, which is why it opposes Holmberg’s own, allegedly simpler, less expensive and more effective alternative.

Corps representatives at another meeting in Flagler Beach on the issue, back in September, at which Holmberg was present, said that Holmberg was not forthcoming with information they’d required, and so were not likely to permit his project. Holmberg disputed the claim. But today’s meeting brought out the same refrain, itself a repeat opf what several Flagler Beach city commissioners had complained of at a meeting of their own a few weeks ago—after granting Holmberg the potential $50,000 analysis go-ahead.

“I can’t make much sense out of it whatsoever,” Flagler Beach City Commissioner Joy McGrew had said then. “If we decided to give the $50,000 or put the $50,000, he’s going to have to earn it.” Mealy had compared Holmberg’s proposal to “two pieces of paper with child-like drawings on it.”

Gov. Rick Scott’s administration is not keen on Holmberg, either. “The Holmberg Undercurrent Stabilizers have not been thoroughly tested or evaluated by appropriate scientific methods to demonstrate the product’s potential for success,” Andrew Grayson, a policy coordinator in the governor’s policy and budget office, wrote Patricia Brown of Save Flagler Beach in October. “Nor has the product been evaluated for potential adverse impacts associated with deployment along an open coast shoreline such as Florida’s Atlantic coast.” Grayson said it was local government’s responsibility to pursue design alternatives, but then noted Holmberg’s one Florida project that did not end well. “That project was constructed in violation of the issued permit and was eventually ordered to be removed by the governor and cabinet,” Grayson wrote.

Holmberg wasn’t without friends, then or today. Settle, the Flagler Beach city commissioner, has been his staunchest advocate. His supporter on the county commission is Nate McLaughlin, who at one point went so far as to suggest that the coast was nearly clear for Holmberg, if a few questions were answered. “If you bring that clear picture back, you may end up with a go-forward here,” he told Campbell, the Flagler Beach city manager. “If this is what you’ve chosen, you have my support. It’s out of the box.” McLaughlin’s point: “Either we do nothing or we do something. If we do something, maybe we’re wrong, but if we do nothing we’ll never know,” McLaughlin says.

What today’s meeting achieved wasn’t entirely clear, other than to repeat a request to Holmberg to be more forthcoming with information and to report that information to Campbell, who would again attempt to win the tourism council grant by presenting what he has. So far, Campbell is himself not convinced he has much to work with. “There’s not a lot of meat around the bone in my mind,” Campbell said.

13 Responses for “Flagler County’s Holmberg Problem: Beach Erosion Guru Dredges Up Skepticism”

  1. question says:

    What is this, a segment of ‘Candid Camera’ or ‘What Would You Do?’… run, do not walk away from the slightly nicer word than ‘scams’ currently on the table. Please, save yourselves & vast amounts of $$ we don’t have.

    We’re entering Brooklyn Bridge territory here :(

  2. tulip says:

    If I were on one of those boards I would tell the Holmberg guy “see ya later we have no more interest in trying to work with you.” then I would find some one else who might have some good ideas. I;m sure Holmberg isn’t the only person who has knowledge of beach erosion problems and ideas of solving them.

    Holmberg reminds me of speaker of the house Pelosi. Holmberg wants the money first then he’ll give the info Pelosi wanted the healthcare bill passed and then she’d read it to find out what’s in it.

    I could understand Holmberg not wanting to give info out if he thought that he wouldn’t get paid, and someone else would use the free info, but that’s not the case. He could at least give enough intelligent info to show that he indeed does know what he’s doing, or not. Pay him a small amount of money for his time and then decide whether to hire him.

  3. Deep South says:

    I respect Mr. Holmberg concern, but I ask where is his field of expertise ? Is he a environmental engineer, who specializes in beach erosion ? Where are his studies, his data, his knowledge, his education background. As a lifelong resident of Flagler County, and being a retired civil engineer, and knowing a lot of people with the Corp of Engineer out of Jax, I can’t recall this gentleman, or his expertise.

  4. From the Outside says:

    Let’s quickly recap: the sucess stories mentioned in the above article are in Saudia Arabia and Lake Michigan. The links below from Western Carolina University specifically mention beware of sucess stories on distant beaches and on the Great Lakes because of varying Lake levels. Link also references Holmberg as well as other Alternative methods and their potential negative effects. The only project in Florida by Holmberg was ordered removed years ago for permitting violation reasons. He failed to answer 13 questions adequately submitted by the TDC. Wants $50K of taxpayer money up front, but won’t disclose exactly what we are getting for our $50K. No assurance of even getting a permit from the Corp. of Engineers.

    I see the Red Flags raised on the Lifeguard towers for this one.


    • Coralee Leon says:

      These comments only go to show the success of Holmberg followers, who continue to portray Holmberg and his invention as negatively as possible, even to the point of misrepresenting and lying about his history. For instance, the Florida project that restored the beach in Captiva Island had no permitting violations, but only a lawsuit by the state, supported by the dredging industry, alleging such. Holmberg, facing a table full of attorneys, won the suit and the beach was proved a success by several studies. Nevertheless the state ordered the system removed in favor of an expensive dredge-and-fill project, the results of which quickly washed back into the sea.

      Those who want to see actual studies of various Holmberg projects should go to his own website, Several experts express surprise that his sytems work, and work without causing downdrift erosion, as so many other systems do.

      Dick Holmberg is right to be wary of explaining too much. Apart from the lies and denouncements, thers have tried and failed to imitate his patented system, which has never failed to rebuild even the most totally destroyed of beaches. It would be very silly not to give this system a chance in Flagler Beach. For a fraction of the expense of repeated dredging projects, the success of a single Undercurrent Stabilizer system could change the face of the entire American coastline, and save our shorelines, our natural habitats, and a great deal of real estate from the waters, which are most assuredly rising.

  5. Elaygee says:

    Since when does Gov. Skeletor require scientific evidence of anything for his approval?

  6. anon says:

    The county took tourism development funds to build docks on the intercoastal. And the majority of them are for private use. Public funds for private enterprise.

    The city of Palm Coast is wasting/ throwing out the window 10 grand a month on the tennis center.
    (Where are the teabaggers protesting wasteful spending?)

    Of course the corp of engineers and their friends who own the dregging companies don’t like this technology.
    The dredgers would rather be paid to pump sand over and over again.

  7. Jerry Berne says:

    Outsider’s links to Western Carolina University are interesting in that WCU removed the “evaluation” of Holmberg’s methods after these were challenged and found to be disingenuous at best and blatantly false in some instances. This “evaluation” was orchestrated by Orren Pilkey, a Duke professor and ardent Holmberg opponent who decries doing anything to halt erosion which, contrary to the facts, he says is natural. Most coastal erosion is now manmade. Coastal navigational dredging and offshore sand mining have weakened our natural defenses to this making our coastlines are the more vulnerable to sea level rise and increased storm intensities from climate change.

    Equally contrary to this reporter’s article and Mr. Grayson’s statements, Holmberg has significant university research, numerous independent professional monitoring reports and over 30 years of empirical evidence to support his claims of success (the county having copies of these) . Mr. Grayson’s statements were decidedly incorrect and should be give us caution in believing anyone connected with Florida’s current dredge-loving coastal officials. The required independent monitoring of the project showed beach width and elevation gain and a new proliferation of sealife without any erosion to adjacent shorelines. Further, Holmberg won his case against the administration, though Florida loss by losing the opportunity to implement such environmentally sound and sustainable technology.

    As a retired architect, any project requires data collection prior to beginning design which is what Holmberg is attempting to do. The retainer for this work may as agreed by the professional and client. Given the County has coughed up hundreds of thousands to the Corps without anything significant to show for it, providing a small percentage of this to Holmberg to actually do something seems a reasonable action. Of course, those coastal engineers who have been bleeding Florida of sand and public funds for years never accept any money for their work and would prefer Holmberg not do any work at all.

  8. Frank Meeker says:

    It’s so foolish of me to come out and make any kind of statement on this issue with an election going on, but as a guy with a science background (my masters was in coastal systems management) I’d like to interject a couple of observations and comments on this subject. First, there are a number of competing uses for Flagler’s beaches from recreational use to upland structure defense (buildings, A1A) to sea turtle nesting. Everyone agrees all of Flagler’s beaches are a treasure that we must make the right decisions to protect. That is a fact. However, it is a mistake to point to the cure without understanding the cause. If you do not understand the cause of the problem, we’ll be right back here having more discussions later having spent millions of dollars on a failed attempt, and neither the cities, or the county, or the state, or the feds have money to burn on any process that will fail and I’m not talking about or picking on Mr. Holmberg’s process here, I’m speaking of an entire collection of restoration ideas in general.

    A number of factors control Flagler’s beaches and the shoreline and they are basically, current conditions off the shore, the type of waves, and the sand supply. Wave types and current conditions determine the kind of distribution you can have from the sand supply along and across the beach. The critical component of sand supply determines if you are going to have erosional problems, or accretion trends. There are a number of “givens” on the sand supply subject. 1) the sand supply must be available within the system. There are really only three sources of sand for any beach renourishment effort, longshore (aka “alongshore”) drift (which is the steady movement of sand typically from north to south, but at times, due to environmental factors can be reversed), upland sources typically from a well established dune system, and deep water or other offshore storage areas. In short, without any kind of adequate sand supply to replenish lost material in the zone where waves strike the shore, erosion will occur, regardless of what kind of structure is placed there. 2) Following along that thought, structures, and I mean any structure, does not generate sand. A structure can only affect the distribution of whatever material is available within the system. Again, no material (sand) available, there will be no accretion. This is another very important consideration in coming up with the fix. 3) In every case I know of, if you trap sand in one location, you deprive another area of sand in the downdrift area. This is important for three reasons. First, because it is probably the underlying result of whatever is causing the problem. Two, we only have speculation as to why the transport of sand is being interupted, and three, it is important because even if we do successfully intercept a source of sand moving downdrift, we will be depriving another area below it. That may well have impacts to sea turtle nesting just as a proposed placement of any structure might. Reduce sea turtle nesting success and you have a significant issue to overcome in permitting effort. 4) Not really an issue here, but in those areas where they remove the offshore sand bars, the inner shoreline is exposed to higher energy waves and erosional stress. We already have a high wave energy beach (which is why the pier is no longer 1000 ft. long) which makes structural applications very difficult to retain as even a modest nor’easter can tear out many installations. 5) the laws of physics operate the same on our beaches as they do on anybody else’s beaches and cannot be denied. Mass and Energy basically work like an equation. If you reduce the energy, the available amount of mass can increase and if you increase the energy, the available mass can be reduced.

    That is in essence what Mr. Holmberg’s process relies on. Using the undercurrent stabilzer to lower the energy of the wave thereby allowing the sand held in suspension to drop out and replenish the beach. It is a sound idea that works well if there is a source of sand suspended in the wave, and if the wave is a low energy wave. Once the under current stabilizer is covered with sand, it is hoped that the balance of energy and mass equals out, and the system stays stabile. If you increase the energy as would happen in a nor’easter or hurricane, there is a tendency to lose mass, and the undercurrent stabilizers will have to be anchored and constructed in such a way to withstand such an assault plus hold up to potential erosional scour from underneath the stabilizer (as sand is pulled out from underneath during the storm) that might cause the stabilizer to twist or break. That is a critical issue to apply to our thought process while considering the approval of any method, not just Mr. Holmberg’s method, but any method. How does it hold up under a high energy attack? We make the same studies with the pier when we consider adding pilings or cross members. We don’t just nail up some boards and hope for the best. It has been that way forever. So go back to the cause. If the cause is the pier, or if the cause is the Matanzas Inlet, or if the cause if the new breach up by Summerhaven or whatever, if sand is not being transported downdrift, then we’ve got a real problem trying to restore anything. We need to be careful about adopting any method before we know the cause, “thinking first” about what is causing the problem, and “acting second” to fix it. Not the other way around. I’m really advising an abundance of caution here because just like the amount of sand available to replenish the beach is not inexhaustable, neither is our ability to pay for a mistake regardless of what method we chose.

    Frank J. Meeker, C.E.P.
    Palm Coast City Council, District 2

  9. palmcoaster says:

    @Frank Meeker: Thank you so much for you very clear explanation…
    After reading your words I am inclined to believe that the forces of nature are untamable (hurricanes in this case) and what mother earth and nature takes away momentarily, will bring back with time. Repairing our water front infrastructure after a major storm damage is a forever work that our taxes should afford, if were not wasted in local frivolous show off palaces benefiting developers, before they are really needed, or in useless wars policing the world. A1A caves in after a major cane…? rebuild it, sand is gone in some sections…? backfill it. All these repairs will also provide numerous local jobs and help preserve the local turtles and wildlife sanctuaries as they were before the storm.

    I visited pristine beaches in Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean islands that are affected by these hurricanes all the time and guess what …they don’t do a thing after a storm damage except maybe clean up and some sand backfill as they can’t afford it and what nature takes away brings back with time…Regarding sea turtles in those beaches you see the largest concentrations, in spite the fact that some locals consume some of their eggs and meat. The best fishing caught is around those beaches as well. Go to Flamingo Beach in Costa Rica:
    and you’ll see the concentration of American Sport fishing guys catching the largest Marlins and Tuna off their boats. Go to Venezuela’s secluded Choroni Beach: where a village fisherman in his tiny canoe right off shore caught the biggest most delicious grouper/bass that was so big that we had to share between two families. Why? because the big cruiser lines do not pollute their waters as they do not sail anywhere nearby and those governments can’t afford or waste money in preventing normal erosion after a hurricane hit. Maybe we have something to learn from those modest countries and their citizens South and East of us.

  10. curious says:

    A few years ago, Holmberg was turned down for the same exact reasons. Karney and Settle managed to get on the Commission and in the past two years have managed to puppet Campbell into reversing progress and rehashing issues. The same with Mirror Lake….. When is the City going to learn? Get rid of Campbell and vote Settle an Karney out!!!!

  11. Jerry Berne says:

    I second many of Mr. Meeker’s comments. There are several issues he raised that need to be addressed.

    1. Holmberg’s methods have been proven effective even in areas thought “sand starved” as in the Saudi project where a long oil terminal jetty deflected sand away from the site. When these areas are low energy shorelines as was the Saudi site, it takes more time to accumulate sediment to build the shoreline. Even so, the shoreline added 20 meters of width and 2 meters of depth within the first few weeks.

    2. While longshore drift does provide sand, Holmberg’s assertion about offshore sand moving shoreward providing a critical amount for its systems is now shown to be correct.

    3. As Mr. Meeker and Holmberg says, it is all about reducing wave/current energies to force sediment suspended in these to precipitate out and replenish the shoreline. Holmberg’s stabilizers are ultimately virtually “transparent to longshore drift” with only a miniscule amount of sediment being “trapped” allowing downcurrent shorelines to continue to receive sediment; thus the research showing no erosion to downcurrent beaches.

    4. Anyone who has lived on the Great Lakes –where many of Holmberg installations have been building beaches for years– knows that storms of hurricane intensity (remember the Edmond Fitzgerald) can last days there. A typical Florida hurricane usually last only hours. Further, winter ice can literally bulldoze the shoreline scouring away sand and traditional structures. Holmberg’s remain and continue to preserve –even build–the beaches and bluffs.

    5. Thank you Mr. Meeker for stating that the laws of physics apply for both the oceans and Great Lakes. The PSDS paper removed from the WCU website seemed to state something different in its attempts to discredit Holmberg’s success. Holmberg contends that such high energy shorelines actually increases the effectiveness of his installations as these produce more offshore sediments to build these shorelines.

    Finally, we know what is causing the problem, man’s interventions on our coastlines as Mr. Meeker states: the dredging of inlets and harbors, offshore mining of shoals, traditionally engineered structures, etc. In almost every Holmberg project, his work mitigates that damage done by these. To be successful at this, Holmberg analyses specific site conditions both on and off shore, land and sea, to address these directly.

    Now, giving the overwhelming knowledge that the “solutions” the Corps and its close associates in the dredging and coastal consultant industries propose are temporary at best, environmentally disastrous and enormously costly, isn’t it time to implement a true solution with substantial proof as to its success, environmental soundness and sustainability?

    Jerry Berne

    Sustainable Shorelines is dedicated to documenting current environmental events on our shorelines, identifying and seeking to change those coastal policies and practices which are harmful and advocating protecting our coastal habitats and the ecosystems these support with methods proven to be environmentally sound and sustainable.

  12. Guy Picard says:

    I will do my best to shed some light here, first Mr Holmbergs system is based on the problem, not the solution I am intimately familiar with his system as I studied it for over five years, it is based on fixing the bottoms and changing the dumping angles on the near shore. I know he is not very forthcoming with his info and only because he has trust issues. I can not give you the secret sauce however I know he believes before and after pic should be all you need (maybe in the 70’s 80’s) however we all know not now.
    I will say this, there is not another system that I am aware of that returns the sand to the shore one grain at a time using natural compaction and gradular placement for long term results. to my knowledge unless a government agency made a cross lateral decision to remove all shoreline structures, I know of no system that has been installed that has ever needed to be replaced or removed ( there are well over 50 systems in the ground still working like the day they got installed)
    Good luck flaggler beach

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