This story is part of an ongoing anniversary series on Hurricane Florence, which struck in September 2018, and the storm’s lingering effects on Carteret County and its residents.
EMERALD ISLE — This time last year, one week after Hurricane Florence flexed its muscles, Bogue Banks’ battered beaches were figuratively licking their wounds.
Immediately officials knew the beaches had lost sand, both from the dunes and along the flat part of the strand.
On Sept. 16, 2018, two days after a preliminary, cursory assessment of damage Carteret County Shore Protection Office Manager Greg Rudolph sounded alarmed, but grateful.
There had, he said, been “significant beach and incipient (new) dune erosion (and) limited frontal dune erosion.”
But, he added, “There was no flood damage to oceanfront structures, nor any breaches of the frontal dune. Structural damage was limited to walkways only.”
He credited that to past beach nourishment projects over a span of nearly two decades.
By mid-October, however, when the county’s beach surveying firm Moffatt & Nichol had completed its analysis, things were clearer.
Emerald Isle had lost about 2.2 million cubic yards of sand. Indian Beach/Salter Path lost about 445,000 cubic yards, Pine Knoll Shores lost 576,000 and Atlantic Beach lost more than 400,000.
Emerald Isle also saw the most shoreline retreat during the storm, 48 feet toward land around Bogue Inlet, 26 feet in western Emerald Isle, 35 feet in central Emerald Isle and 28 feet in eastern Emerald Isle.
The average shoreline retreat along all of Bogue Banks, according to the survey, was 21 feet.
The lowest numbers were 21 feet in Atlantic Beach and 11 feet at Fort Macon State Park. Indian Beach/Salter Path lost 25 feet, while the anomaly was Pine Knoll Shores, which gained an average of 6 feet but still lost dune footage.
The losses dwarfed any past erosion event on record, Mr. Rudolph said then, and Thursday, he said that’s still true.
In an email to the News-Times, county officials and members of the Carteret County Beach Commission in September 2018, he said, “I hope you are sitting down and nothing is wrong with your reading glasses. These are really big numbers.”
The loss, he said at the time, came to about $59 million worth of sand, calculated using estimated replacement cost figures.
Now, the county, state and the towns of Emerald Isle and Indian Beach have spent $20.1 million to nourish beaches in a project that included those towns and unincorporated Salter Path.
It ended this spring, and a second project is planned to begin in February. It’s twice as large as the last one in terms of sand volume – 9.5 miles of beach and about 1.86 million cubic yards of sand – and includes all of Pine Knoll Shores, western Atlantic Beach and western Emerald Isle.
Monday the commission voted unanimously to accept a $28.2 million bid for the second effort. Mr. Rudolph said that came in below the estimated cost of $30 million.
That’s nearly $50 million to repair the damage Florence wrought on the beaches that generate most of the tourism and tax dollars that keep the Carteret County economy humming. Last year, the estimated value of ocean front property in Emerald Isle alone was $700 million.
But, Mr. Rudolph said last week, if all goes as planned, Bogue Banks beaches by spring will be back to about the same condition they were before Florence.
“If you recall, mostly what Florence did was wipe out those incipient ‘baby’ dunes” that built up over the years as the result of other nourishment projects and towns and oceanfront property owners putting up sand fences and planting vegetation to trap blowing sand, the first line of defense against storm surge, he said.
Rebuilding those dunes and widening the recreational beach are what the projects are all about, Mr. Rudolph noted.
But how many times can the county and the towns and state do this? There are tropical systems lurking in the Atlantic Ocean each year, including now.
Hurricane Dorian passed by earlier this month and left virtually no beach damage along Bogue Banks. Meanwhile, it cut more than 50 new inlets in Core Banks, east of Bogue Banks.
In answer to the question, “How many times?” Mr. Rudolph was blunt.
“Not many,” he said. “In fact, until last week, this one (next project) was a bit complicated.”
That’s because most of the money comes from the county’s beach nourishment fund, which receives half of the revenue from the county’s occupancy tax. The county spent millions of dollars of that money for the first nourishment project in eastern Emerald Isle, Indian Beach and Salter Path.
It would have been even harder, if not impossible, to plan the next project without a stroke of good fortune, almost as lucky as Dorian passing by without causing significant erosion along Bogue Banks.
The good fortune for this project was twofold. First, after Florence, the General Assembly last year allocated $18 million to help local governments pay for Florence-related beach projects. Of that, Carteret County got more than $15 million.
Then, just last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced it had approved $18 million in federal and state sand replacement funds for the island. Pine Knoll Shores is to receive about $10 million from FEMA and the state, and Salter Path/Indian Beach is to get about $7.7 million. It’s 75% federal money, 25% state, all funneled to the county and then to the towns.
That is key, Mr. Rudolph said, because, while the nourishment fund generally builds up pretty fast as tourists flood the island and county each June and July – the two biggest months of the year – this year was more complicated. So the FEMA money is essential.
“For the fiscal year (2018-19), which ended on June 30, our occupancy tax was actually up by 1.5 percent,” he said Thursday. “But some of that was because after Florence, some of our rentals were occupied by workers who came in to do repairs. In fact, revenue for December (2018) and January and February (2019), our slowest months, was actually up 30 to 40 percent.”
Revenues in June and July of this year were down some, largely because fewer units were available for rent, many still being repaired from damage inflicted by Florence.
Mr. Rudolph said without the boost in the winter months, the revenue picture might have been different and it’s doubtful the same thing will happen this winter since many Florence repairs have been completed and the need for the construction workers is declining.
Mr. Rudolph said he’s hopeful Emerald Isle will get all or most of the $43 million it requested in FEMA sand-loss reimbursement funds.
He’s also hopeful that by the time the tourism season begins next spring, the units that weren’t available for rent this summer will again be available. That way, the occupancy tax revenue will rebuild the nourishment fund faster.
He said he also hopes future storms don’t cause such widespread erosion.
“Our annual erosion rate along Bogue Banks is about 2 to 3 cubic yards per linear foot,” he said. “In Hurricane Irene (2011), it was 12 cubic yards. In Florence it was 40.”
So just what was it about Florence? Although a Category 1 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale with peak winds of about 90 mph when it made landfall to the south at Wrightsville Beach, Florence became the “storm of record” in Beaufort in terms of high tide levels, breaking the old record set by Hurricane Hazel in 1954.
The highest tide was measured at 3.75 feet above the average high tide mark, exceeding Hazel’s record of 3.4 feet. Hazel was a Category 4 hurricane and made landfall near Myrtle Beach, S.C., with peak winds about 130 mph.
Beaufort also recorded a storm surge of 5.1 feet above sea level during Florence. Emerald Isle recorded a peak surge of 10.1 feet.
All of this was made possible, according to Dr. Jeff Masters, founder of Weather Underground, by the uniqueness of Florence.
Last September he cited the hurricane’s “massive wind field” and the slow speed at which the storm traveled, pushing water ahead of it for a long period of time.
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.