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The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. The line is usually mis-attributed to Albert Einstein. Monday evening, it could justly be attributed to John Tyler–maybe not in so many words, but strikingly close for the man who leads the Florida Department of Transportation’s district that includes Flagler County.
“Putting back what was out there before the storm, we did that after Hurricane Matthew,” Tyler told a special meeting of the Flagler Beach City Commission this evening as he referred to yet again fixing heavily damaged State Road A1A in the wake of Hurricane Nicole. “Yes, we could do that again. But I don’t think we will achieve a different result if we do that again.”
Commissioner Eric Cooley had moments ago stood up from the dais and led a standing ovation for Tyler and his team, many of whom were in the room. The transportation department had secured emergency contractors even as Nicole was attacking the coast last Thursday and started to dump what by today amounted to 1,000 truckloads of sand by today, enabling the agency to reopen A1A Saturday evening, after it was shut down for four days.
But Tyler, a civil engineer by trade–he’s been rising the ranks of DOT since he started as an operations engineer 15 years ago–wasn’t here to get applause, but to caution, to make a suggestion about what’s ahead, and openly to speak words that haven’t been spoken as bluntly before: simply rebuilding the road and moving on to the next storm won’t do.
“This isn’t replenishment. This isn’t restoration,” Tyler said of the sand-dumping operation that’s looked so impressive for the last few days. “This is just what’s necessary to reinforce the shoulders, reinforce the pavement and keep the shoulder from washing away.” In addition to the 1,000 truckloads of sand, 100 truckloads of coquina and granite rock have followed. For all that, the road is “obviously very vulnerable, very fragile.”
He’s all for keeping the community connected with the road, but, he told the commission, “we need to come up with a different plan, in my opinion,” he said. “That’s why I’m here tonight to ask if Flagler Beach, the city of Flagler Beach as well as Flagler County, would like to join with the department to look for a solution that will be much more resilient than what we had before the storms came through.”
The transportation department is leading a task force that had its first brainstorming session last Saturday. It aims to gather around the table federal, state and local regulatory agencies, environmental agencies and organizations, and representatives of the public, to devise a different way of protecting A1A–or moving it. Nothing is off the table, Tyler said afterward in an interview. “I wouldn’t ant to limit the strike team from ruling anything out,” he said. (He was using the oddly pejorative word Flagler Beach City Manager William Whitson said should be included in the task force’s name: “A1A Resiliency Strike Team.”)
The department’s approach in 2016 wasn’t really that different: “Let’s find a long term solution!” blared one of its proposals–a 5-mile sea wall south of Flagler Beach. In the immediate aftermath of storms, local and state officials are typically bullish on permanent solutions, until political realities–splintered public opinion, differing philosophies among elected officials, money constraints–reshape proposals no less brutally than the sea can reshape a shoreline.
The invitation to all “regulatory partners,” even the language Tyler used, is a not quite departure for DOT: all those regulatory agencies’ emblems have appeared on past presentations for A1A improvements. But the approach may be somewhat different now. Some walls have been breaking down, Flagler County Engineer Faith al-Khatib said, with more cooperation between agencies than she’s seen in years. After all, DOT’s contractors were on the job this time even as the storm raged. After Matthew, it took more than two months to reopen the road after makeshift repairs.
That’s the cooperation al-Khatib was referring to. It’ll have to be that way if a more durable solution is to be found, because on paper, certain approaches are still at cross-purposes: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is ready to start a beach renourishment program on the 2.6 miles of beach south of the Flagler Beach pier, the parts so often ravaged by storms. But it would not do so if DOT were to build sea walls there, as it has at the north end of Flagler Beach. “I’m hopeful that we can really do work together,” Tyler said, though that may mean DOT dropping more rock revetments below the Corps’ dune reconstruction rather than something like a combination of renourishment and sea walls.
It’s not yet clear whether the task force will meet in public or whether it’ll meet behind closed doors, allowing for public input by a different method. Tyler was non-committal on that score, saying only that public input will be sought. Local officials, like al-Khatib and County Attorney Al Hadeed, see the need for public involvement.
“Yes, it has to be transparent, in the public. They need to be involved in it. They need to know what we’re doing,” al-Khatib said. “We need the elected officials’ support and the public’s support. FDOT in past years, they never forced anything on the community and I’m sure that’s still their attitude–collaboration, working together to do the best thing for the community. And when we met Saturday, that’s their approach to it.”
The alternative won’t benefit DOT anymore than it did five years ago. Al-Khatib recalled how initially, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, DOT proposed, among other ideas, moving A1A to South Central Avenue and building a sea wall longer than 5 miles. The department unveiled those proposals at an open house, without prior involvement by the public or other agencies. The city staunchly opposed both plans. DOT retreated, and eventually returned to what amounted to the definition of insanity: it rebuilt A1A as it was before, with a divider this time, but the same old rock revetments, the same old sand in places, and no meaningful dune reconstruction. The beach kept eroding.
Hadeed projected what he thought would happen: “They’ll form the task force. The stakeholders will get together. They will decide that they need transparency. I believe that they will want to have public input, but they will think about how they will do that so it will be most productive and least least interfering with the achievement of the final product.”
But it’s not as if DOT can reinvent the wheels driving on A1A. It has few options, and they’re the same as those presented in the wake of Matthew: build a seawall. Move one or both lanes of A1A a block over. Leave things as they are (still an option, Tyler said). Renourish the beach. Beyond that, options are likelier to enter fairyland than stay in the doable.
Resistance to sea walls may be waning, providing an opening to DOT’s favored approach. “during Matthew, there was a lot of pushback about what potentially do we do with the road,” Cooley, the city commissioner, said. “Now the citizens said we’re going to do whatever. They’re not concerned about the things that they were holding on to in the past. Now it’s ‘when we’re done with this, we don’t want to have any more problems.’ And so the solutions can be much more dynamic. Because I think a lot of folks that have reservations about potential suggestions, it’s literally eroded away with a beach.”
It’s not clear where Cooley was getting his data on public opinion, other than the temperamental and short-attention gauges of social media. The city commission hasn’t met in regular session to hear public voices since the storm, nor has the county commission, nor, for that matter, has the task force heard the first public reaction to yet-to-be-debated ideas. All that will be ahead. But Cooley is right regarding the sea wall at the north end of town: DOT built it as a “covered” sea wall, with an ample mass of sand forming a dune with vegetation on top.
All of that is gone now (and DOT has no obligation to replace it, exposing the ugly cylinders below) but the wall held, and the road was protected. It may well be the sharpest-standing illustration of what’s ahead for the south end of the city, if residents can bear that better than they can the numbered days of A1A.