|Hurricane Nicole coverage: Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Thursday | Damage assessment, Part I | Damage assessment, Part II | A1A Reopens|
A FlaglerLive Special Report
There’s a palm tree somehow still standing on a dune at the south end of the county, near the Volusia County line. From the road, it looks as if it’s standing on air, with nothing behind it but ocean. And in fact it mostly is. That it was still standing early this afternoon was inexplicable. Three quarters of its formerly root-splayed trunk base was exposed and rootless, the leeward side of bulge barely holding on to what’s left of a threadbare shelf of sand. It used to be a dune. Now it looks like something a child built to to look like the ramparts of a sandcastle, enjoying its brief moment in the sun before it’s washed away.
The tree isn’t going to be there long. It’ll be buried by a truckload of sand or felled by the next gale, the next high-tide wave. That tree summarizes the shock of Tropical Storm Nicole on Flagler County’s shoreline. It symbolizes how much was lost, and how much what remains is clinging by threads.
As in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, the effects of Tropical Storm, Nicole on Flagler County are a tale of two storms. There was no loss of life. There were no injuries. But for two dozen rescues from flooded homes in Flagler Beach on Thursday, there were limited human impacts. In Palm Coast and Bunnell, the storm might as well have been an extended summer storm. Measured by direct property damages, the county is estimating countywide costs to private property owners of $23.7 million, a relatively modest sum that risks downplaying the true effects of the storm. (Insured losses from Hurricane Ian range between $53 and $74 billion statewide).
Public losses, not including beach and pier costs, amount to $5.6 million, according to Jonathan Lord, the county’s emergency management director.
But as with Ian, the most severe damage was along the coast, below and mostly out of eyesight. It was along State Road A1A, which was severely chopped up in numerous places. It was below A1A, where there’s little left to prop up the road. It was on beaches whose sands in massive amounts have encroached on homes and entombed some of them, as in northern Flagler County, where back porches are now part of the beach. It was in how a long lines of homes at the south end of the Hammock are now teetering on cliffs of sand, much like that palm tree, with nothing so much as a dune remnant protecting them or holding them up.
It was how the storm so radically remade the beach that for the first time in memory, the beach in front of Hammock Dunes Club and as far as the eye could see north and south of it, was studded today with the return of coquina rocks ripped from resting places elsewhere along the coast. None of this is normal.
None of it is minor. It signals far more momentous consequences to the viability of Flagler’s shoreline, the nerve center of the county’s tourist economy, and heightens the urgency for action by the county on its beach management plan–action that has so far been woefully wanting beyond the words and promises of slumbering elected officials as staffers plead for action. Flagler Beach and Flagler County officials knew how vulnerable the shoreline was even before Ian, the county’s $18 million dune rebuilding project of 2018 having mostly evaporated by then. They knew how more vulnerable the shoreline became after Ian. But for DOT’s vain effort to dump sand at the south end of the county, they did nothing.
Nicole’s catastrophic effects on the beach are not a surprise. They were predicted by the same officials and their staffers.
FlaglerLive surveyed the Flagler coastline from north to south in the aftermath of Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. It did so again today, including walks the length of beach and (closed) road from the Flagler Beach water tower to the Volusia County line, a mile-and-a-half length of beach south of Varn Park in the Hammock, shorter lengths around Hammock Dunes–an anachronistic name anymore–and between Moody Drive and Rollins Drive at the northern end of the county. The following, in pictures and video, is the result.
Residents quickly became familiar with the numerous gaping carve-outs of State Road A1A in Flagler Beach proper, including those near 13th Street South and 17th Street South, which cut out the entirety of the northbound lane up to the median and its French drain system. Since Thursday, even as the storm was still raging, the Department of Transportation contracted with paving and trucking companies to fill in the carveouts “using thousands of [cubic] yards of granular fill being hauled in by dozens of dump trucks,” according to a DOT spokesperson, “so that S.R. A1A can be reopened to traffic as quickly as possible.”
Dump trucks took to South Central Avenue all day, rumbling north and south in what may have been an aggravation to residents but was more like music to those more aware of the trucks’ immediate benefits. Those carveouts looked all, or almost all, filled in today in all three areas severely impacted:
- A1A from South 28th Street to South 7th Street in Flagler Beach.
- A1A from Highbridge Road in Volusia County to South Flagler Beach in Flagler County.
- A1A from Wisteria Drive to Sunny Beach Drive in Ormond by the Sea.
State Road A1A from the Volusia County line north to the Flagler Beach tower, and again from South 20th Street to South 5th, is now a roadbed without a bedframe. It has lost its bracing of coquina rock or vegetation, or both (as in the area at the south end of the county), on its east side in many spots. While the carve-outs have been patched with remarkable speed, the durability of the fix is questionable. Even today, some of the new sand was being eroded.
Flagler County and Flagler Beach officials have been almost boasting about how the Department of Transportation’s sea wall held up at the north end of town, and how limited to nonexistent the damage was north of 5th or 6th Street North and into Beverly Beach. Perhaps they haven’t looked closely enough. The sea wall held. That’s beyond question. But north and south of it, there is hardly any vegetation or dune definition to speak of anymore. The beach slopes up to the A1A roadbed, with nothing impeding the next unusual high tide coupled with stormy seas to wash over A1A and keep going west.In those areas, the almost non-existent barrier between the beach and the road is similar, if slightly more sloped and still more verdant, than south of the water tower, where all definition has disappeared. Here’s a series of pictures illustrating the damage and vanished dunes at the south end of the county:
Here’s a sequence of three pictures–before, during and after the storm. The first picture was taken on Nov. 4, as DOT was still dumping thousands of cubic yards of white sand on that same stretch of road:
Today, DOT trucks were back to dumping sand in the same areas, but mostly to patch up carve-outs.
Here’s a video of that stretch of beach and Nicole’s damages:
Going north past the damaged section of A1A in Flagler Beach and into the heart of town, the most striking damages are an accentuation of what had already been taking place even before Ian, rather than a radical change: the dunes north of the pier have not only vanished. The remaining sands and vegetation that had clung on to the ramparts of A1A are gone, leaving nothing between the beach and the road but crumbling concrete and a boardwalk that somehow manages to remain anchored even as its piles are bare. This is a picture of the beach after the city was stunned by a massive loss of dunes in late summer, but when there still were a substantial dune structure protecting A1A:
Here’s that stretch of beach today:
At the north end of Flagler Beach, the erosion is less eye-catching because it hasn’t caused any carveouts, and because the sea wall has protected the road. But the same massive loss of dune sand evident in the center of town is just as evident at the north end of town, with fewer landmarks to delineate the loss. Instead, the beach is now a direct slope from State Road A1A down to the beach, with straggly vegetation instead of the lush greens and palmettos of old:
Get past Beverly Beach and into the Hammock, and it is nothing short of a disaster zone on a time clock. Almost every house south of Varn Park for about a mile and a half stretch is as if on a cliffside of sand.
Brian Walsh built the multi-level house at 3461 North Oceanshore Boulevard two years ago. The house is valued at $1.1 million. There was a 35-foot stretch of dunes and vegetation between the house and the ocean when he built it, he said. Today, it is all gone. He knows of the property owners further south who got the county to build a seawall in front of their properties, with the owners themselves footing the bill. Walsh wonders why there’s been no similar initiative by the county to protect his and neighboring properties. He says it’s shortsighted, because the loss of those properties would hurt the tax base and the county’s tourism.
here’s a video of the damage south of Varn Park:
Over the years, and since before Hurricane Matthew, FlaglerLive has taken photographs of the dunes at Varn Park to document the loss of sands. Here’s a sequence showing the loss over the years, from 2011, to Matthew in 2016, to Ian this year to today:
There are now three breaches in what remains of the dunes at Varn Park itself, through which any storm surge would flow. A worker on a backhoe was plugging a similar breach further south today, between built-up homes.
At the beach in front of Hammock Dunes Club, a similar loss of dunes has reduced the demarcation between the club’s most ocean-side buildings and the beach. Only months ago it was impossible to stand on the beach and see more than the upper floors of the building. Today, between an onslaught of sand (and those coquina rocks) and the leveling of what had been protective dunes, there is almost no demarcation, and barely a drop off between the club’s grounds and the beach, where proles of Old Salt park and Hammock Beach guests have much less separating them.
Further north between Bay Drive and Oceanside Drive, it’s a similar remaking of the landscape. Al Hadeed, the county attorney, on Thursday had described the transformation of Oceanside Drive into a river of oceanwater as the Atlantic flowed freely inland and down the small subdivision of hardy residents who like the area’s frontier feel, who–many of them–build homes high on piles, and who know they’ll have to contend with the occasional flood. But it’s been progressively worse since Ian, with crippling floods, and now, a literal invasion of the shore onto homes.
At the end of Moody Drive, Atlantic Drive, Flagler Drive, on the oceanside, those streets have been entombed in up to three feet of beach sand for about 30 to 40 yards inland after massive waves washed onshore and beyond. Instead of getting buried in a snowstorm, houses got buried in a wet sandstorm, like the house at the end of Moody Drive.
A few houses down, Peter Hopfe’s family and friends were busy digging out of the storm, sand having encircled the house and blocked the garage, with floodwater adding to the burdens. A long hose piped floodwater to the ocean as Hopfe’s son worked on the oceanside of the house, attempting to rediscover some definition between shore and property. Hopfe built the house three decades ago and envisioned it as his retirement home, his son said. But storm after storm since Matthew has been challenge after challenge, even for an athlete. Hopfe, a long-distance runner, coaches cross-country at Embry Riddle. The last few years have been a different kind of marathon.
There had once been a concrete sea wall or retention wall at Varn Park, of about 100 feet in length. It was demolished after Hurricane Matthew, and further broken apart in subsequent storms. Today, all that remains is a broken slab that looks like the monolith at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” after a very bad time. But it also seemed to stand as an echo of the tree at the south end of the county. Trees and walls can grow oceanside. Sooner or later, the ocean gets other ideas.