Jacksonville, Florida (Oct. 13, 2022) – U.S. Army Corps of Engineers leaders undertook a boots-on-the-sand tour of northeast Florida beaches Oct. 9 for a firsthand view of Hurricane Ian impacts.
USACE South Atlantic Division Commander, Brig. Gen. Daniel Hibner, and Jacksonville District Commander, Col. James Booth, met with county and city leaders to observe erosion and flooding impacts firsthand, be briefed on current and future federal shore protection projects, and discuss ongoing collaboration with local sponsors to strengthen and preserve the coastlines of Flagler and St. Johns Counties.
In Flagler Beach, officials described the storm surge that struck the evening Ian passed over, severely eroding beach and dunes along the coast, flooding homes and businesses, and damaging the city’s drainage systems. The erosion also created vulnerable sections along State Road A1A, the area’s major hurricane evacuation route and a nationally historic byway.
Mayor Suzie Johnston, a native and lifelong resident, told the USACE team she had been watching the city’s coastal dunes deteriorate for years. “Now we are running out of dunes,” she said.
USACE and the county are presently collaborating to initiate a federal shore protection project that would see the construction of dunes and beach berm, and lay the foundation of a 50-year partnership of shoreline restoration and stabilization.
USACE Jacksonville District senior project manager Jason Harrah provided an in-depth briefing of the proposed coastal storm risk management project and the group walked stretches of the coast to observe current conditions and discuss options for preserving the seaside community, its infrastructure and its way of life.
An initial construction contract is scheduled for advertisement in February 2023, followed by award that April pending receipt of all required lands, easements and rights of way by Flagler County, the USACE non-federal sponsor, said Harrah.
“We are not losing sight of what happened here in Flagler County,” said Hibner, who had spent the past week taking stock of post-hurricane conditions and emergency response efforts along Florida’s Gulf Coast.
“Thank you very much for coming,” said Flagler County engineer Faith Alkhatib. “We are a small town, but a small town with 18 miles of coastline.”
The USACE team then traveled north to St. Johns County, where they were met by county officials to observe the existing federal beach projects at St. Augustine Beach and Vilano Beach as well as coastal damages along the Summer Haven shoreline.
An ATV ride along that vulnerable coastline brought home the extent of erosion and a ground-zero perspective for assessing the present and potential future threat to the beach and the infrastructure it protects.
The party paused at Summer Haven to observe how the effects of many cycles of storm impact had most recently breached the coastal barrier. The ocean here has reached the Summer Haven River, threatening further intrusion and damage to infrastructure and the local economy.
“The next breach would reach the Intracoastal Waterway, it would impact the IWW,” said Dr. Joseph Giammanco, the county’s director of emergency management.
“I think I had a good, on paper overview of the situation, but it has been extremely helpful, and important, to see this firsthand to understand the totality of issues you are facing,” Hibner told his hosts.
Contracts for emergency beach renourishments of St. Augustine Beach and Vilano Beach are scheduled for award in May 2023. Both emergency projects will be constructed with 100 percent federal funding.
The USACE team wrapped up their post-storm investigations in the City of St. Augustine, where officials described the threat storm activity and sea level rise pose to the historical and economic base of the nation’s oldest, European-settled urban center.
Mayor-Elect Nancy Sikes-Kline elaborated on the wealth of historical structures, archaeological zones and nationally registered landmarks that underpin the city’s tourism-based economy, and the threat that chronic and potentially escalating future flooding pose to the city’s well-being and sustainability.
The USACE team and their hosts toured the South Davis Shores neighborhood, the city’s lowest lying elevation, the Lake Maria Sanchez neighborhood, and several others to gain an informed understanding of the complex of vulnerabilities and possible solutions with which today’s officials must contend.
And contend they shall. The city and USACE Jacksonville District are presently in discussions to initiate a major feasibility study to analyze and best design a coherent plan of action to address St. Augustine’s present threats and potential solutions.
The next step forward for this three-year study would be the signing of a feasibility cost share agreement between USACE and the City of St. Augustine, which both sides are working toward accomplishing by the end of December, said Booth, the Jacksonville District commander.
“It is a part of our mission to provide effective, responsive technical service to the nation, and our partners in St. Augustine, and St. Johns and Flagler Counties can count on us to be there for them,” he said.