Friday, April 19, 2024

Surf City lost 350,000 cubic yards of sand from Florence: “At the mercy of FEMA,” says mayor

Mayor Doug Medlin recently posted a letter to the town's website telling residents that the delayed beach renourishment project was caused by FEMA not assigning an agent to the project. He said the town now hopes to have it completed by February.

Damage along the Surf City beach, Thursday, September 27, 2018. (Port City Daily/File photo)
Damage along the Surf City beach two weeks after Hurricane Florence made landfall. (Port City Daily/File photo)

SURF CITY — Eleven weeks after Hurricane Florence caused significant erosion to the beaches of Topsail Island, the residents of Surf City are wondering when the sand will be replaced — a crucial question for a town dependent on beach tourism dollars in warmer months.

“We are at the mercy of FEMA is the real answer,” Mayor Doug Medlin recently wrote in a letter posted to the town’s website. “Our engineered beach replacement drawings call for 350,000 cubic yards of sand, just to replace what we lost.”

At an estimated cost between $11 and $14 million, Medlin said the town “can not even begin to recover without FEMA.”

“We are two months post-storm and we still have not been assigned our FEMA agent,” Medlin wrote.

On Thursday Medlin said that after a trip to Washington in late October, a FEMA representative told him that although the sand replacement project had been approved, assignment of an agent to monitor the project was still required before it went forward.

“Supposedly they are short of people to be assigned to the projects … They said, ‘Yep, we’ve got the money for it. We can do it. But right now we just need a person assigned to that project.’ I think they started dividing everybody up between here and the Gulf [after Hurricane Michael],” Medlin said.

The mayor also said he discussed the issue earlier this week with U.S. Representative David Rouzer and Senator Thom Tillis, who both committed to pressuring FEMA in assigning an agent to the project.

“Like Rouzer said, they sort of go at their own pace,” Medlin said.

The mayor also said the town originally hoped to have the beach renourishment project completed by December.

“But now we’re probably looking at a January-February timeframe, assuming everything goes well [with FEMA], and assuming they don’t decide to cut the money out,” Medlin said.

FEMA responds

In response, John Mills of FEMA’s Externals Affairs Office said, “the discussion of a project does not guarantee eligibility for FEMA funding.”

And according to Mills, an agent had already been assigned to Surf City — a Program Delivery Manager (PDMG) who will reach out to the city to “arrange a meeting.”

He said certain conditions are necessary for a town to be eligible for reimbursement on the replacement of beach sand: the beach cannot be under the authority of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE); imported sand of proper grain size must be used to a designed elevation, width, and slope; and the town must have “established and adhered to a maintenance program involving periodic renourishment with imported sand to preserve the original design.”

FEMA spokesman John Mills talks with a television reporter in southwestern Georgia after severe storms affected the region in January 2017. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy FEMA)
FEMA spokesman John Mills talks with a television reporter in southwestern Georgia after severe storms affected the region in January 2017. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy FEMA)

According to Lisa Parker, USACE spokesperson for the Wilmington District, USACE has the authority to maintain four beaches in the Cape Fear region; “Surf City is not one of them.”

Addressing FEMA’s requirement that imported sand must match the beach’s original sand, Medlin said TI Coastal Services, a coastal engineering firm in Wilmington contracted by Surf City, will be hauling in sand approved by the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA).

And according to a 2016 update report to the state’s Beach and Inlet Management Plan (BIMP), between 2005 and 2015, Topsail Island experienced 13 beach nourishments involving a total volume of 4.9 million cubic yards of sand. The total costs for these projects exceeded $5 million.

A diminishing pot of money

Tracy Skrabal, a coastal scientist for the North Carolina Coastal Federation, said that with the rising number of hurricanes along U.S. coastlines in the past decade, funding for beach renourishment has shifted from federal to local obligations.

“It’s a matter of everyone competing for a diminishing pot of money,” Skrabal said. “The federal government only has so much to give. So the lion’s share of federal money becomes more scarce based on needs. The money to renourish these beaches will continue to fall more on state and local governments.”

She said that when beaches are nourished, it’s a state, local and federal partnership.

“And the feds are saying they have very little money, and everyone’s competing for those funds,” Skrabal said.

According to Mills, FEMA does not reimburse local governments directly.

“For eligible work with all required documentation, FEMA provides reimbursement of not less than 75 percent of the eligible costs to the State, which does a final review of all documentation before reimbursing the local government,” Mill said.

Mark Darrough can be reached at

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