Tuesday, December 20, 2016

St. Johns County dithers on coastal erosion damage after Hurricane Matthew

Notice: not a word from County officials on support for St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore -- why? County Administrator MICHAEL DAVID WANCHICK is a developer tool. It's time for him to go.

Posted December 19, 2016 02:21 am
By JAKE MARTIN jake.martin@staugustine.com

AFTER MATTHEW: St. Johns County continues long-time efforts to protect beaches while pursuing new projects

CHRISTINA.KELSO@STAUGUSTINE.COM The North Beach dunes were severely damaged by Hurricane Matthew.

St. Johns County beaches, already facing challenges before Hurricane Matthew swept the coast on Oct. 7, are poised to be a focal point of the county’s discussions with state and federal agencies throughout the recovery process.

Officials say all 42 miles of the county’s coastline experienced erosion with sand loss estimates north of 3 million cubic yards as a result of the Category 3 storm.

Neal Shinkre, public works director for the county, said many options are now in play and that things are moving fast and slow at the same time. (For an outline of the county’s existing efforts along the beaches to the south and to the north of the St. Augustine Inlet, many of which have seen changes since Matthew, see Part I of this report in Sunday’s edition of The Record.)

In terms of post-storm efforts, Shinkre said the county is pursuing assistance for sand dune replacement through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The agency’s “6-cubic-yards-per-foot program,” as he refers to it, can help residents put that much sand behind their houses. Up to 75 percent of the activity is reimbursed by FEMA for eligible properties. Shinkre stressed the program was not for nourishment but for establishing some dunes immediately after homes for protection.

The county is also trying to get a survey and assessment done that will provide some hard data on beach erosion and sand losses along the entire coastline. Shinkre said that would help the county negotiate with FEMA on the 6-cubic-yards-per-foot program as well as other projects for which the county is seeking reimbursements.

The county, which suffered an estimated $151 million in damage to assets including beaches, facilities, roadways and drainage infrastructure, has a kickoff meeting with FEMA scheduled for Jan. 9, marking the beginning of the reimbursement process.

Shinkre said the county continues to work with legislators and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, whose staff is putting a Hurricane Recovery Plan together, to get more support from the state level.

He said FDEP’s plan (for which only areas deemed critically eroded by FDEP would be eligible) is not to bring back all the sand lost, but to bring some sort of dune replacement or protection. He said the county is looking for something between what FDEP has proposed (20-25 cubic yards per foot) and what a fully renourished beach would call for (60-70 cubic yards sand per foot). The county’s pursuit of about 30-40 cubic yards per foot would come with a $60 million-$70 million price tag.

Shinkre said the only critically eroded area in St. Johns County determined by FDEP extends from just south of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve to about a mile north of the inlet but because of the hurricane, the area could be extended a few miles north. He acknowledged many homes farther to the north, toward Mickler’s Landing Beach, also lost significant amounts of sand.

County commissioners recently approved entering into an agreement with contractors working on beach restoration efforts for oceanfront residents near Mickler’s that will allow them to use the county’s parking lot there as a staging area. The agreement includes a 50-50 split of the costs to eventually repave the parking lot.

Shinkre said there are 30 to 60 residents in the area looking to put sand behind their homes by private means. He said FDEP has not declared the area critically eroded, and, thus, the funding would not available, but residents are asking if they could be reimbursed after the fact. He said it was “difficult” considering eligibility is in FDEP’s hands and that the county has not yet heard an answer.

“Because this is a hurricane event, we’re going to try and push them as much as possible,” he said, adding he wants the erosion assessment and study done as soon as possible to get a better idea of the volumes of sand lost and so the county can make a stronger case for people who need it.

There’s a long way to go and many challenges ahead, accessing sources for nourishment-quality sand not being the least of them.

“We need to work with coastal engineers because it’s not like it’s sands galore out there,” Shinkre said.

He said another challenge is that most of state grants are 50-50 splits but that the county is pushing for a 75-25 arrangement.

Meanwhile, almost everything being discussed post-storm is just a one-time deal.

“We’re always thinking about long-time nourishment,” he said. “This is a time to act, and we’re certainly, at least, going to tee off that conversation.”

Shinkre said he believed success in the near-term hinges on securing FEMA support for the 6-cubic-yards-per-foot program and the one-time Hurricane Recovery Plan monies.

“Even if we get those monies, there’s still a lot of local funding we need,” he said, adding the county is starting to look at the viability of financing mechanisms such as Municipal Service Benefit Units and Municipal Service Taxing Units .

“I know the community is very anxious on that, but it’s a fast-evolving thing, and we don’t know how the legislative bill will come out, or how gracious the state is going to be.”

Shinkre said seawalls have been discussed, but not as an everyday item, and the county has not taken a lead on that.

“We have not done anything to propagate that venture from the county’s standpoint,” he said. “I’m trying to get sand. I’m trying to protect the homes. I’m trying to do dune replacement.”

Shinkre said there are several more immediate challenges the county is focused on for the time being than figuring out what a solution involving seawalls may look like.

“But we are looking with the end in mind,” he added.

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