Thursday, April 18, 2024

Topsail Island beach nourishment projects move forward with no assurances of federal funding

Both Surf City and Topsail Beach plan to begin more than $10 million worth of post-Florence recovery projects beginning in March.

Damage along the Surf City beach two weeks after Hurricane Florence. (Port City Daily/File photo)
Damage along the Surf City beach two weeks after Hurricane Florence. (Port City Daily/File photo)

SURF CITY — On Tuesday morning officials from Topsail Beach and Surf City announced plans to push forward with more than $10 million in beach renourishment projects, even as they continue to await any financial commitment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

For both island towns the scope of work is divided into immediate post-Florence recovery projects which officials are now looking to FEMA for future reimbursement, matched by a portion of local funds — and more costly long-term storm mitigation plans.

“These two towns are being proactive,” beach engineer Chris Gibson said. “They’re not going to wait on others in D.C. or elsewhere to put [the beaches] back in place.”

RELATED: Will new ‘megadecks’ be harmful to Surf City’s fragile dune system?

Gibson is the president of TI Coastal Services, a Wilmington-based coastal engineering firm contracted by both towns for channel dredging, sand-hauling, and beach and dune re-building projects.

Officials from both towns said they were in the process of filing for FEMA reimbursement.

Topsail Beach: dredging and rebuilding

Gibson said he began his work for Topsail Beach in 2009, and at the time was hopeful for a possible U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to nourish the beaches and reduce storm damage.

“That has not come through in the last decade, so the town stepped up and decided to do a project on their own to hold the line,” Gibson said.

It is this “hold the line attitude,” he said, that has weakened the impact from four hurricanes spanning Irene in 2011 to Florence in 2018. Even after Florence, the dune system and beach are now at or above levels seen before the program began, according to Gibson.

Last week Topsail Beach Town Manager Michael Rose said the town’s beaches lost a considerable amount of sand, but its dune system was largely intact, suffering two small breaches.

He said a $5.5-million bid from TI Coastal will go before the town’s Board of Commissioners on February 13 and he expects a two-phase project to rebuild the dune systems to begin in early March.

First, engineers will dredge shallow areas of Topsail Creek and Banks Channel to re-open navigation routes for commercial and recreation vessels between the Intracoastal Waterway and Topsail Inlet, which opens to the Atlantic Ocean.

“That area has shoaled up to the point where the Coast Guard had even removed buoys out of the area for navigation purposes,” Rose said. “Then we will take that sand and rebuild the dunes, get them back to the pre-Florence shape they were in.”

He said this was crucial for the protection of oceanfront properties, and expects the work to be finished in time for the summer tourism season that fuels the island’s economy.

In the fall, Gibson plans to begin a “full-fledged storm reduction project” that will add an additional row of dunes and widen the beach by roughly 175 feet.

According to Rose, the project will fall within the town’s 30-year storm damage reduction plan that uses a mix of local and state funds; he expects costs to approach $20 million “because of the magnitude of what will be done there.”

He said the goal of the project is two-fold: to further open navigation channels by dredging Topsail Inlet and deeper into Bank’s Channel, then use the sand to continue establishing a “FEMA-engineered beach”. Such a status places the town in a better position for post-storm FEMA funds, including any future reimbursement for damages incurred by Florence.

“There will likely be some level of local funding match, but a lot should come from FEMA,” Rose said.

Surf City: ‘No movement in Washington’

Surf City Mayor Doug Medlin discusses the town's plans to rebuild the sand dunes Monday morning. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Surf City Mayor Doug Medlin discusses the town’s plans to rebuild the sand dunes Monday morning. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Further north on the island, Mayor Doug Medlin expects the town to spend approximately $5 million from earmarked beach nourishment funds to haul in sand to rebuild the dunes. He said $1.1 million has already been spent on post-Florence recovery efforts, including debris clean-up, which has come out of the town’s general fund balance.

Once the $5 million is approved by the Surf City Council in March, he said the sand will begin coming in soon after. According to the town’s website, the work will begin no later than mid-March.

Town Manager Ashley Loftis said Surf City has maintained a healthy balance for the primary purpose of supporting the town during and after a hurricane. Like Medlin, she is hopeful FEMA reimbursement will eventually make its way through federal and state bureaucracy channels.

“Once FEMA decides this is what they’re going to do for us, then they channel that money through the state — state emergency,” Loftis said. “Then state emergency turns that money over to us.”

“We’ve talked with them and talked with them and talked with them, and there’s just no movement in Washington,” Medlin said. “They said the other day, that if we got this money, it would be July of 2020.”

Councilman William Fowler likened the waiting process to a piece of pie.

“The pie’s being cut, you just have to wait your turn to get your slice,” Fowler said.

Dune erosion and houses ‘on the precipice’

In Surf City, Gibson said he has identified critical areas where complete breaches occurred at the north end of the island. Further south, higher elevations did not prevent the dunes from eroding “so far that the houses were on the precipice.”

“With money allocated by the town, we are taking that and hitting those areas that are critically in danger – either houses that would fall off the precipice with another [storm], or filling out the dune that was completely breached in the north end to protect the road and other infrastructure,” Gibson said.

He said TI Coastal will continue to fill out the dune until it is fully replenished.

Properties marked as “imminent critical lots” were published online Monday, identifying areas where sand will be delivered as part of the town’s contract with TI Coastal. For those whose properties are not marked as critical, according to the website, homeowners will be able to purchase sand for $28,000 for a lot size of 50 feet, $42,000 for a lot size of 75 feet, and $56,000 for a lot size of 100 feet.

Mayor Medlin also said that a long-term beach nourishment project will begin in the spring of 2020, which he expects an additional $11 to 12 million of funding to come from the town’s beach nourishment funds.

Pender County spokesperson Tammy Proctor, who helped arrange the conference, said visitors to the county spent $97 million in 2017, a majority of which occurred at the beaches of Topsail Island.

Realtors and business owners also talked about how the island was “open for business,” but it was Gibson who summed up the crucial need to restore the beaches so that the island’s economy is ready come summer.

“Without the beach we have no business,” Gibson said.

Mark Darrough can be reached at

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