County Engineer Faith Alkhatib sees evidence that the dunes are doing their job.
The prevailing assessment of Hurricane Dorian on Sept. 4 was that we had been spared. That was certainly true in Palm Coast neighborhoods, but I asked Flagler County for a tour to see the area that was most vulnerable to the wind and waves: the recently rebuilt dunes.
I arrived at the Emergency Operations Center at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 4, and I was met by the county’s public information officer, Julie Murphy, who once again worked long hours behind the scenes to keep the media and the community informed during the storm. She joked that she was glad I had asked for at tour because that gave her a reason to finally leave the EOC for a few minutes.
Our driver was Richard Gordon, assistant county engineer; he has worked for Flagler County for 31 years.
In the front passenger seat was Faith Alkhatib, county engineer, the face of the dune restoration project in the county. I asked her what went through her mind when she learned that Dorian was heading our way.
“I was very worried,” she said, wearing a black ball cap and a rain jacket. She joked that she wanted to go out and protect the new dunes herself.
An unprecedented effort
Many other coastal communities in Florida are on renourishment schedules, having sand added to the shore on a regular basis. But in the past century, very little has been done to improve the health of the dunes in Flagler County, Alkhatib said.
Then, three years ago, the dunes took a fatal hit. Hurricane Matthew gobbled them up and then flooded a dozen streets in north Flagler County. After Matthew, the coastline was unprotected: Without a dune, any strong storm could flood the homes on those streets — it wouldn’t take another hurricane.
The county administration responded by coming up with a plan to restore the dunes. But when the bids for the project came back, they were double the expected cost. The county staff discussed it and, with the County Commission’s blessing, decided that they could move sand on their own for a fraction of the cost.
Led by Alkhatib, they made it happen, at a pace of a mile a month. In March 2019, the last of the sand loads was put in place. It was such a success that, since then, other communities have inquired about how it was done.
The Florida Department of Transportation has also been hard at work, creating a one-mile seawall to strengthen State Road A1A. Concrete poles — 1,800 of them — were punched into the sand at alternating intervals of 18 and 36 feet deep to create a seawall, and then 85,000 tons of sand were piled on top to create dunes. You can tell where the project was completed by the sight of neatly planted vegetation along the side of the road beginning at 18th Road North in Flagler Beach and extending north toward Beverly Beach.
That project was finished even more recently.
“Believe it or not, we sent the final invoice to DEP last week,” Alkhatib said as we drove on the tour.
Tale of two dunes
Although the lack of a dune caused anxiety for many, not everyone was worried enough to accept the county’s help. In fact, 11 property owners declined to have a dune in front of their lots.
Alkhatib brought me to one such lot, which featured beautiful rock formations at the shoreline. The lot was empty: No house had been built there yet. And, unlike at the neighboring lots, there was no dune here.
Alkhatib showed me a video of this very lot earlier in the day, with water rushing across it.
She had no ill will toward the property owner, but seeing that video was evidence to her that the dune project was doing its job elsewhere in the county: See what can happen without a dune?
Wherever there was a dune, she reported, there were no breaches.
On the way back from north Flagler County, we stopped at a second dune. This one was at 18th Road North, the southern edge of FDOT’s project, with the Flagler Beach Pier in the distance to the south. And although this seawall-and-dune combo had done its job and had protected A1A, I was surprised by how much sand had been carved out by Dorian. With Alkhatib’s permission (normally, of course, we Dodge the Dunes), I walked up the dune and was faced with a 10-foot drop to the beach below. Before Dorian, she said, this had sloped about 20 feet farther out.
Would they be adding more sand to replace what was lost?
She didn’t think FDOT would be adding more sand. Rather, the remaining sand would be reshaped.
It was sobering to think what one storm can do, even with a dune to block the waves.
The FDOT project cost a staggering $40 million. The next phase, which is currently being designed and will begin next spring, will cost another staggering $35 million, as the remaining 5.6 miles south to the Volusia County line are strengthened.
Fortunately, the vast majority of that $75 million is paid for with federal and state grants. And 2.6 miles of the remaining 5.6 will be done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But the tour made it clear that this is not the end but only the beginning of the conversation about what we are willing to do — and pay — to protect our roads and beaches in the long term.