A 90-minute emergency meeting of the Flagler Beach City Commission this morning resulted in more confusion, disagreement and speculation than direction on how to address what City Manager William Whitson described as “disturbing” and relatively sudden erosion of a massive portion of beach at the pier and just north of it. Others–including surfers and a city commissioner–said the sand has merely migrated, and will return of its own.
The erosion carved out the dune system much as Hurricane Matthew did along miles of beach north of the city in 2016, leaving behind 6 to 8-foot sand cliffs that make it nearly impossible for people to lounge at high tide, or to amble up and down the beach, since there is not much beach left. The area affected stretches from the pier north about two to three blocks, and in the area of 13th Street South.
Some people who have observed the beach for the past two and a half decades, including mayor Suzie Johnston and business owner and A1A resident Carla Cline, say the erosion is unprecedented. others who have also lived in town just as long, including Dennis Bayer, the attorney who’s surfed in Flagler Beach since 1979, say sands are always shifting according to seasons. “We’ve definitely seen the carveouts before,” Bayer said, adding as a caveat that he had not eyeballed the current carveout.
And Barbara Revels, the former county commissioner and Flagler Beach resident on whose testimony, because of its historicity, the county relied when it crafted a precedent-setting policy protecting public use of private beaches in 2018, said today that what she’s seeing is not common. “It is unusual on the north side,” Revels said. “In my lifetime here 67 years I can’t recall this happening.” Still, Revels said, the shifting of sands is common, and she expects the beach to repair itself to some degree in weeks ahead.
“I think this is a wake-up call for the city and the county and all of us that our dunes are at risk in the future,” Revels said. “However the yin and yang of the ocean has always deposited and removed sand over the years, but each time it seems to get closer to the main dunes holding the highway and things like that.” Timing, however, could be problematic. “Now, if we were to have a hurricane on our shore in the next couple of months, which could entirely happen, that could potentially change the landscape.”
The suddenness of the erosion among the city’s highest-used parts of the beach may have compelled an emergency meeting from commissioners looking to show concern and resoluteness. But it also underscored to what extent a local government’s abilities to respond to a potential disaster is sharply limited to more than cosmetic and possibly wasteful responses, as the cogs of more deliberate and effective responses move with painful slowness, and at prodigious costs–costs neither the city nor possibly the county could afford at the moment. That leaves the emergency exclusively in the hands of state agencies to address–in this case, the transportation department, since the asset most threatened (aside from the city’s pier and its restaurant) is State Road A1A.
Drone video taken at high tide at 5 p.m. Tuesday by county staff of the area affected suggests that the erosion is pronounced enough to have washed out and exposed usually buried pilings beneath the Funky Pelican restaurant on the pier, and to have sheared off colossal portions of the dune structures north of the pier, up to and in parts including the vegetation line:
Whitson was proposing to commissioners to adopt a “coastal erosion action plan” that would entail hiring Moffat and Nichol, a Tampa-based coastal engineering firm, for $15,000 to “organize an effective intergovernmental response to the conditions that we have witnessed over the last few weeks.” The proposal did not take, and the commission, sharply split on the issue (Commissioners Jane Mealy and Ken Bryan, the chair, would have hired the firm, the others–Eric Cooley, Deborah Phillips, James Sherman–would not), opted to wait until it meets next week before deciding what to do.
Whitson made his proposal in a room well attended by residents, but empty of the officials directly involved in the matter: the county engineer who is leading the local effort to renourish miles of beach north and south of the pier, for example, was (inexplicably) not invited. Jason Harrah, the project manager for the long-awaited U.S. Army Corps of Engineer project slated to dump a million cubic yards of sand on 2.6 miles of beach south of the pier, was not in the room. Nor were officials from the state Department of Transportation, who are directly responsible for protecting State Road A1A. Whitson said he’d spoken with a DOT official before the meeting.
Disbelieving county officials were watching the meeting live on YouTube–and getting Harrah on the phone, urging him to call in to the commissioners. He did. And he cautioned them, politely but firmly.
“The only thing I will caution you guys is something to think about,” Harrah said. “Moffat Nichol are a phenomenal firm. I would trust them with any Corps projects just like I would Olson. What sometimes happens is you have a tendency to have eight firms working on top of firms without clear direction of what each is supposed to be doing. So as long as you have a clear direction of where you want Moffat to be looking at that Olson is not already looking at, we just need to be able to clearly define those roles and responsibilities.”
The beach north of the pier at low tide on Tuesday:
Even the Moffat Nichol consultant who spoke to the commission by phone seemed unconvincing when asked by Phillips why the city should hire the firm, as opposed to “going directly back to the Army Corps of Engineers.”
Jeff Helms, a senior project manager with Moffatt, offered more of a general pitch, and noted that his firm was hired to work on the reconstruction of the Flagler Beach pier “anyway,” before noting his alarm at the loss of sand.
“I don’t think my question was not using you and using somebody else,” Phillips said. “I think it was just: should the commission go back to the Army Corps of Engineers, people that have been on the ground for years, to see what their thoughts are before we hire a coastal engineer.”
“It’s your prerogative,” Helms said. The Corps would have recommendations, but Moffat could come up with “a fast-paced, emergency top solution that’s both palatable to both the DEP and the Corps.” The DEP is the state Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s up to y’all on how you approach it but our goal would be to put an emergency mitigation plan working with the Corps and the DEP and FDPOT and all of that.”
But Helms had essentially just described a $15,000 contract as filling the role of a middle person in an operation that’s already in place, as Harrah made clear shortly.
The county, the Corps, the transportation department all meet monthly, Harrah said–they’d met Tuesday–and DOT “is aware of the situation, and based on discussions with [DOT] they are looking at potentially putting in some rock or some band aid type of feature. It’s obviously what their interest is, to protect A1A. I will tell you that going out and dumping a couple of truckloads of sand that may wash away in two or three weeks, I do not believe would be favorable.”
Put another way: if there are emergency measures needed, the transportation department alone would take them, and would be able to afford them.
As for the Corps and its 2.6-mile project, which is to extend from South 6th to South 28th Street, that’s poised to start next June. But that’s predicated on the county securing two remaining easements that a property owner so far has refused to sign, despite threats–yet to be carried out–of being taken to court on eminent domain proceedings. (See: “Flagler Beach’s Tardy Dunes Project Is Down to a Single Holdout As Another Property Owner Signs Easement.”)
Harrah also confirmed that since the Corps project was permitted two years ago, and funded four years ago, the erosion in the target area has been such that the project will require double the initial estimate of 500,000 cubic yards of sand to be dredged from offshore. That will change the cost of the project, both to the federal government and to the county. The project had been appropriated based on initial, not updated, costs. Those updated costs are unclear. But County Attorney Al Hadeed said on Monday that they would be higher.
Either way, the Corps project does not affect the area struck by recent erosion. But a parallel project by the county to extent the dune rebuilding north and south of the Corps project does. That’s why the absence of the county at today’s discussion was startling. County Commissioner Dave Sullivan was in the audience and spoke briefly–to say that the county has at its disposal $25,000 it can use to protect dunes with fencing or signs, and to say that on Monday, the county commission is holding a workshop to hear the results of its own beach-management study.
Mealy is dubious about the results of the county study. “It’s all based on data that is fairly old,” Mealy said. “We have some recent changes. I know the sand might be out there. I’m not as concerned about the beach itself, I’m concerned about the dunes, I’m concerned about the road, about houses and the businesses that are along the road.”
Between that pending workshop and Harrah’s statements about the transportation department, the city commission was not going to have the votes to contract with Moffat and Nichol, as even Bryan, the commission chairman, acknowledged. “I think those are the critical questions that we’re looking at today because we wanted to know whether or not we need to move forward with any emergency type of things to do,” Bryan said. “But it seems that you’re addressing those particular concerns that are right now.”
Meanwhile, Cooley, the commissioner, said the sand will return. “That sand is coming back, it’s got pushed out, you can see it, it’s all documented and there’s going to be a squall that’s going to come in it’s going to shove it back,” he said.
Whitson has concerns. “As you’ve seen, the conditions out there change quickly and having someone who knows how the ocean behaves and who knows what’s going on with the other agencies and can collaborate and put together an action plan for us, if there’s something we can do in advance instead of sitting here waiting for a year,” he said, pushing for the consultants. “I think I would like to see that happen, but at the end of the day, that decision is up to you.”
But even after 90 minutes, the meeting’s accomplishments were unclear. “City manager you have direction? You understand where you’re supposed to be going at this point? Are you still looking for some direction?” Bryan asked Whitson.
“I’m not sure, what direction did did we give him?” Mealy asked.
The commission will revisit the matter when it meets on Aug. 18.