SURF CITY — As the wait for FEMA funding drags on, town officials are calling for discarded Christmas trees to help restore its sand dunes washed out by Hurricane Florence.
According to Surf City Parks and Recreation Director Chad Merritt, an estimated 350,000 cubic yards of sand are needed to restore the dunes along the town’s 6-mile stretch of beaches “to the condition they were in before Hurricane Florence,” at an estimated cost of $14 million.
“A lot of beach communities do this, and it’s not the first time we’ve done it,” Merritt said. “It’s very effective.”
Related: Surf City lost 350,000 cubic yards of sand from Florence: “At the mercy of FEMA,” says mayor
The trees are used to catch the sand as it blows across the dunes, Merritt said. Over time, mounds form around each tree while sand is caught between mounds, building up a natural dune. He compared the process to sand build-up that occurs around the structural pillars of a pier.
“With any kind of structure like that, typically the sand will hit and catch and naturally build itself up,” Merritt said.
But placing Christmas trees on a beach is no simple process. Merritt said the town had to first wait for FEMA contractor DRC Emergency Services to remove storm debris from its beaches, which was finished last week.
The town also had to obtain a “right of entry” from each resident whose property encompassed a section of the beach’s sand dunes; only then could they sift the sand of debris and return it, according to Merritt.
Now, to place trees on sand dunes within residents’ property lines, the town must obtain certification from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, then receive permission from each property owner.
“But people who live on the oceanfront won’t be opposed to this: they know what it does and they’re all about trying to build it up,” Merritt said.
The number of trees Merritt expects the town to receive depends on how many people will deliver trees from nearby cities, because many Topsail Beach residents aren’t currently living in their homes due to damages sustained by Hurricane Florence. It will also depend on how many people from further inland — those who routinely visit Surf City’s beaches in warmer months — will make the effort to contribute.
FEMA funding could be months away
Meanwhile, 106 days after Florence struck the state’s southeastern coast, town officials are still waiting for approval for beach recovery funding at the federal level.
According to Chris Gibson, president of TI Coastal Services — a coastal engineering firm contracted by Surf City for its beach nourishment work — the entire scope of Surf City’s beach nourishment work is set in three phases.
The first is a Coastal Storm Risk Management project for Surf City and North Topsail Beach. Although authorized by the U.S. Congress in 2014, Gibson said it still waits for appropriations.
“We understand it was number one on the bill last year, but Congress did not authorize,” Gibson said, adding that the two beach towns now hope to get funding for 2020.
The second phase, according to Gibson, is a project funded by the town itself. After assessments are completed, the town aims to obtain a permit at the state level by January 2020.
But it is the third phase — recovering from dune losses after Florence — that is now subjected to FEMA’s timeline of when funds become available. According to Gibson, the necessary paperwork will be put into processing in the coming weeks, but approval could take two months or longer.
“It all boils down to how to get the money and when,” Gibson said. “The city has done a good job on financial management – they have about $10 million in reserve for beach restoration … If FEMA’s going to reimburse it that’s great, but if not that’s a high risk for the town.”
If the town paid to rebuild the dune system without prior commitment to receive FEMA reimbursement, and didn’t qualify later, he said it would “take up all the money [the town] saved for overall beach restoration.”
In total, Gibson said two million cubic yards of sand are needed to “get the beach into a healthy state, including what was needed before Florence.”
FEMA has slowed its funding process since Hurricane Matthew
“Prior to Hurricane Matthew, FEMA funding happened very rapidly – 18 months was expected to finish a recovery project. Since Matthew, we’re seeing anywhere from 14 to 18 months just to get the commitment to do the restorations,” Gibson said.
This lengthened funding process has been a result of FEMA cracking down on “folks over-utilizing the system,” according to Gibson. In terms of beach restoration, he found that some communities would encounter relatively minor losses from a storm, but since its county was declared a disaster area, they would design large-scale projects to milk the system.
“They were using a very small amount of erosion to qualify for FEMA restoration to justify things like bringing in a large machine to the beach,” Gibson said.
He said that such beach communities were manipulating FEMA at the financial planning level.
“People were taking that too far and using it as an excuse to get FEMA to pay for what they shouldn’t be paying for,” Gibson said. “They were being advantageous, using FEMA on their actual financial planning model. And that’s not what it’s supposed to be about. FEMA is there for unexpected emergencies.”
Beach communities should be storing up cash reserves for a certain amount of erosion each year, not depending on FEMA’s emergency funds — something Surf City has done well on, according to Gibson.
But in the devastating aftermath of Florence, where “there’s a solid mile-and-a-half with no dune at all anymore,” Gibson expected Surf City to qualify for the roughly $14 to $15 million it needs to restore its sand dunes.
Until that day comes, however, the town is looking for Christmas trees to help.
Further details on Christmas tree drop-offs
Town officials ask residents of Surf City and nearby cities to drop off trees “clear of lights and ornaments” and neatly stacked at 214 N. New River Drive, in the rear parking lot of the old Town Hall. Call 910-328-4131 for more information.
Property owners along the beach are asked to contact the number above if interested in giving the town permission to lay trees on sand dunes that are within their property.