Along Flagler County’s 18 miles of shorelines, the dunes are all but gone.
Inland, Flagler County and its cities fared relatively very well compared to feared flooding and other damage from Hurricane Ian, and especially compared to the devastation and loss of life counties in its path suffered. Twenty-seven people were killed as a direct result of the storm in the state at last count, none in Flagler, where the storm’s effects were limited to 14 to 20 inches of rain and tropical storm-force winds. Roughly 100 homes were flooded in Flagler Beach, a quarter the number during Hurricane Irma.
Demands on emergency services in Flagler and Palm Coast were not as steep and recovery will not be as difficult as in the aftermath of Hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Irma in 2017.
Along the county’s shoreline, it’s a different story. That’s where the heaviest damage was sustained, much of it out of view of the public but for those who see it for themselves.
It’s also a double-edged story. there was no structural damage to roads or property, because what dune and rock protection was in place did its job, sacrificing itself along the way. The sacrifice in effect masked the foundational damage that did take place. That foundational protection is now gone, leaving the shoreline exposed and extremely vulnerable to the next severe storm.
“We’re down to the last line of defense,” Flagler Beach City Manager William Whitson said.
“There is a lot of danger not only to the people there but also to the environment within our area,” County Engineer Faithal-Khatib said. Sands may go and come back, if not in the same proportions, she said. “But right now I believe we are in very critical situation.”
“Even within the city of Flagler Beach it’s getting much worse,” says al-Khatib, who met with Whitson about the damage Friday. “Some locations are very dangerous to the public even to be standing there next to the sidewalk on A1A.”
It also leaves local officials no time to dither toward protective reconstruction. There are emergency plans afoot, but al-Khatib is not looking for another band-aid.
From the Volusia-Flagler county line to Marineland, Hurricane Ian mercilessly cleaved a new shoreline that obliterated what remained of the 1 million tons of sand the county’s $18 million repairs dropped on 11.4 miles of shore north of Flagler Beach Beach in 2018 and 2019.
A mile-by-mile survey FlaglerLive documented in pictures on Friday, from the Volusia county line to the St. Johns county line, revealed the catastrophic loss of dune protection. Again and again sheer cliffs have replaced dunes and the ocean has advanced on properties and on State Road A1A.
It’s a replica of what took place during Hurricane Matthew, with two differences: first the cleaving is deeper and more uniform along all 18 miles, leaving no area less vulnerable than others except where sea walls were built. That furthers narrows the window of opportunity for repairs and widens costs ahead.
Second, the ocean’s advance now means that in many places, there is little or no high-tide beach left. Though that was the case in some areas previously, as a recently completed beach management study noted–in Marineland and in areas of Flagler Beach–this week’s erosion suggests the no-beach zones are expanding significantly. The damaging economic effects radiate from there: Beach erosion means economic erosion. It means less space and less time for beachgoers to lounge on the sands. It means fewer beachgoers. It means less tourist and business activity along A1A.
In places, the carve-out left businesses like High Tides at Snack Jack toward the south end of the county wrapped in yellow caution tape, its beachside valet drop-off ending in a cliff and the ocean lapping at them below. “That’s another bad situation,” Whitson said of Snack Jack, though he said it’s one of several like it.
The dunes around the Funky Pelican, the former Pier Restaurant in Flagler Beach, were similarly reduced to cliffs only weeks after they had been carved out by unusual tides. The pier will be closed until further notice. While the city manager says the restaurant is “will be safe to reopen,” the Funky Pelican is also closed for now–it lost its product due to power cuts–with a structural engineer due to look at the pier structure next week.
Of equal concern, potentially dangerously so: There are no dunes left along the Flagler Beach boardwalk north of the pier, only a sliver of land and remaining vegetation. Any Nor’easter, let alone another tropical storm or hurricane, would almost certainly backhoe into the boardwalk and State Road A1A.
Compare the image above to the image below, taken on August 14, by which time a very large portion of the dunes had already been lost. But about eight to 10 feet’s worth of dunes remained between the ocean and the boardwalk. Those dunes have now vanished:
“That was our concern and it’s just getting closer and closer,” said Tom Gillin, Flagler Beach’s recreations director. “It hasn’t infiltrated A1A. But it got a little bit closer there.” Gillin and Whitson have despaired over sightseers crowding the boardwalk since Friday, and beachgoers and surfers going into the surf despite the hazards on the beach.
“I did see some critical safety issues there,” al-Khatib said.
“I’m having real trouble with all these sightseers that want to come out here act like nothing has happened and go down on the beach. It’s a real challenge, and I wish people would use common sense, but I guess common sense isn’t that real common,” Whitson said. Every public access point to the beach has been closed in Flagler Beach, but still, people go through. “What’s hard to understand about the fact that there’s nails, sharp objects, all kinds of other hazards in the water. Until it gets cleared and cleaned up, people need to stay away from those things, and give us a chance to assess and clean up.”
The rock revetment protecting A1A south of the pier did its job, as did the new French drain system running through the middle of the rebuilt portion of A1A south of the pier. But a huge portion of the rocks have washed out, weakening the remaining structure and looking nothing like the way it did when DOT built the stretch of revetment in 2017 and strengthened it again in 2021.
Rock revetments have both slipped down what used to be the dune slope, now sandless, and lost much of their volume, thus leaving critical portions of the edge of A1A exposed and vulnerable to carve-outs even with a mass of rocks further below, as illustrated here. Again, there is no high-tide beach left:
The long sea wall the Florida Department of Transportation built in 2018 from North 18th Street in Flagler Beach to Osprey Drive in Beverly Beach also did its job.
But the rock revetments and massive dunes covering up the wall and sloping down to the beach are gone. The wall’s pilings, 36 inches in diameter each, drilled down to a depth of 36 feet, are now in full view for their topmost 10 feet. The fat concrete cap lining the top of the pilings along A1A remains covered by a thin line of sand and vegetation, but with nothing much to hang on to. There is no longer a high-tide beach between the ocean and the wall:
Here’s what the wall had looked like when it was nearing completion, and beach sands extended for more than a dozen feet toward the ocean. The picture was taken in August 2019, when U.S. Rep. Mike Waltz was visiting the project area:
Up and down A1A it’s the same story. Where there was no rock protection, Ian carved out more dunes, and where there were rocks, the ocean took out a large portion.
The loss is dramatically illustrated at Varn Park, north of Beverly Beach, just south of the Hammock, with time-lapsed pictures. The house with a cupola provides a point of reference. Here’s a picture taken in April 2011, when the dunes paralleled a concrete sea wall, all covered in thick vegetation:
The 160-foot sea wall was damaged by Hurricanes Matthew. It was demolished by Hurricane Irma. Its concrete remnants stood like tombstones until this week. This picture was taken on Aug. 14. While the beach was already diminished by previous storms. The dune reconstruction of 2018 had provided some protection, as had the vegetation that grew since. There was still some definition between beach sands and the ocean, though the volume of the dunes was noticeably smaller:
Here’s the same view on Friday, after Ian. The concrete remnants are now hazardous rubble. Any hint of the 2018-19 dune rebuilding with white sand has vanished. More alarmingly, larger parts of the dunes have been carved out as the ocean advanced further on properties than it had after Hurricane Matthew. There is no definition between ocean and dune cliffs. There is no high-tide beach:
At Jungle Hut Road, the loss of dunes is told in several ways. There is the length of walkovers that now walk over a void. There is no hint of the white sands dropped during the 2018-19 rebuilding project, when the original dune wall, even after Matthew, was closer to the surf line:
The Jungle Hut Road entrance to the beach in 2017, after Hurricane Matthew, just before Hurricane Irma:
Ahead of Hurricane Ian, the county had dumped truckloads of new red sand to block a potential breach at Jungle Hut Road. The day after the storm passed, visitors were navigating the small cliff.
Here’s a brief video of the damage of the dunes around Jungle Hut Road:
The beach at Old Salt Park in front of the Hammock Beach Club was also reshaped. Here it is in July 2011:
Here it is Friday:
Further north, the small community of hardy ocean-defiers north of Sea Colony lives along a half dozen dirt roads–Bay, Surf, Rollins, Flagler, Atlantic, drives Moody. Many homes are elevated on concrete stilts in deference to the expected flooding there. Several roads were flooded in parts on Friday, as were a few yards, but not as much as in the aftermath of Ian.
By the ocean, however, the once protective dunes were diminished to nothing in parts, to the point that, in the case of the house at 66 Moody Drive–a 3,000 square-foot house built in 2000 and currently valued at more than $1 million, according to the Flagler County Property Appraiser’s estimate–there is no difference anymore between beach, dunes and house property. The house’s front porch is the beach. The dunes are entirely gone but for tufts of vegetation, presenting no barrier to tidal waves:
The final heartbreak is in Marineland, whose park had once afforded county residents and tourists one of the more expansive, rustic red-sand beaches in the county. That beach is gone, its undergirding coquina rocks now fully exposed.
Here’s what the beach in front of the Marineland boardwalk looked like in 2010. It’s dunes were healthy, thickened with vegetation. Beach sands sloped far toward the sea. beachgoers had plenty of room to spread out and lounge on fine, soft white sand. Note, too, the expanses of undulating, vegetation-covered dunes to the right:
Here is the beach at low tide on Friday afternoon. The dunes, which had severely eroded over the years anyway, are entirely gone, as is the covering beach sand. But for its color, the shore looks more like Maine than Florida:
Marineland since 1935 has been protected with a 1,350-foot-long rock revetment north of today’s boardwalk, plus five jetty-like coquina groins spaced at 400-foot intervals. Hurricane Floyd in 1999 destroyed the Marineland boardwalk and much of the revetment. The storm also took out portions of State Road A1A. (Floyd also sheared off the 48-foot T-shaped section of the Flagler Beach pier’s eastern end and damaged another 100 feet of what at the time was an 848-foot structure only three years after a mere storm had taken out 125 feet of the pier.) The town has had its challenges, and continuously met them with state help, if at growing expense. As late as last November 9, marineland’s shore along the boardwalk had looked more protected by a ridge of dunes:
So while Flagler County was spared the brunt of Ian’s fury, it’s on the shoreline that the heaviest cost will have to be tallied and paid, if the county, Flagler Beach and Marineland intend to protect properties, roads and the mainstay of the county’s tourism industry, which depends on broadly accessible beaches.
That’s where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Flagler County, who were poised to begin a dunes-reconstruction project next June on 2.6 miles of beach south of the Flagler Beach pier, will have to yet again re-calculate the amount of sand volume they will need to do do the job, upping the volume by huge amounts, and with it the cost. That needed sand volume had been more than doubled doubled to 1.2 million cubic yards before Hurricane Ian, because the project has been delayed since it was funded in 2017, and much erosion has taken place since. That sand volume may have to double yet again.
“That’s why the Corps of Engineers called me and we’re going out there to the field to inspect the Corps of Engineer project location,” al-Khatib said. “The volume has to increase. How much? A lot. A lot has to be increased. Exact cubic yards, we have to do some surveying and to compare that with previous existing surveys.”
That’s the case not just for the 2.6-mile Army Corps project, but also for the more lengthy project the county secured, with money from the state Department of Transportation, to cover the dunes from south of the Army Corps limit to the Volusia-Flagler County line, and north of the project, from 6th Street South in Flagler Beach to near Beverly Beach.
With any increases in needed sand with come huge increases in costs. The U.S. Army Corps project is funded by the federal government at 65 percent. The rest is Flagler County’s responsibility. It has secured that 35 percent portion previously by securing state grants. It had done likewise with the DOT project. Now it has to go back to begging for money, which takes time and political clout. It has the clout, now that Paul Renner, Flagler’s representative in the Legislature, is the speaker of the Florida House. It does not have the luxury of time.
And al-Khatib is not interested in half measures: the $18 million effort to rebuild the dunes in 2018 and 2019 was impressive, but it has not vanished. “It doesn’t make sense to go and do also a band aid project there,” the county engineer said.
“This is very serious. We need to team up and work together, us with the private sector, to take care of our dunes and beaches,” al-Khatib said. But it’s all about the funding, she said. The county has a beach management plan in place. It even has projects set to go. “In Flagler County they have to decide how they want to do it. Design, permitting, the whole process, us as engineers, we know how to get these things done. But again, the money. Is the money available? Can we get it in a timely manner? After this event I got some emails and some pictures from people and everybody in the private sector. They will tell me like, oh, look what happened, what can we do? But I advise anybody who lives right here in the dunes and they own the property to do whatever they need to do right now to protect their property during this emergency situation.”
That includes no longer holding out on signing the sort of easement document that will allow the Corps of Engineers to move forward with its project in June, rather than face yet more delays. It includes the signing of similar easements in other segments of shoreline the county plans to rebuild. It includes no longer talking about the beach management study submitted to the county in August, as the County Commission has done for months and years, but defining a plan and finding new ways to pay for it, including with local dollars.
Jim Hinton and his wife Ann have been residents of Surfside estates, the manufactured home community in Beverly Beach, on and off since 2011, and permanently since 2015. They weathered the devastation of Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, both of which did significant damage at Surfside. Hurricane Ian was not as damaging, its effects limited to some roof damage–including to Hinton’s home–and some water rising at the west end of the community, but not dangerously.
Originally from Douglasville, Ga., Hinton was working around his property Friday, just back from two nights on the mainland. “I’m staying here until my daughter comes and get us,” Hinton said, thinking he’d be here for many more years. But after a pause, he said: “Sometimes I think it’s time.”