Saturday, July 13, 2024

Sorting out beach renourishment miscommunication between FEMA, Surf City, and private contractor

Earlier this month town officials said "imminent critical areas" marked for the upcoming sand-haul and dune construction project were determined by FEMA, and that FEMA "was not protecting our citizens’ best interest.” TI Coastal's Chris Gibson said he made the determinations without FEMA involvement.

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 — An apparent communication gap exists between Surf City town officials, FEMA, and the engineering firm leading the town’s post-Florence beach restoration work.

The confusion goes back to February 8, when the town announced on its website and social media that it would fund a sand push — where bulldozers plow sand from low tide areas to high tide areas of the beach to build temporary dunes — because a report provided by FEMA failed to protect oceanfront properties not deemed “imminent critical areas.”

Properties marked in these areas were chosen to receive hauled-in sand as part of a $5 million project to begin rebuilding the town’s dune system most heavily damaged by Hurricane Florence.

RELATED: Surf City approves beach push on top of $5 million sand haul, councilman argues for all-out push to preserve funds

“Based on the results that the Town received on the imminent critical areas provided by FEMA, the Town has decided to push sand in all areas that are not included on the imminent critical map,” the town’s statement read. “The results we received did not meet the Town’s expectations and we feel that FEMA is not protecting our citizens’ best interest.”

Five days later Mayor Doug Medlin said a representative from FEMA rode the beaches with Chris Gibson — the president of TI Coastal Services who is in charge of the town’s beach restoration projects — and together they mapped areas to receive sand.

“They came up with the map, then it was turned into FEMA,” Medlin said at the time. When asked if Gibson marked imminent critical areas under FEMA’s guidance, Medlin responded, “Yeah. It’s all under FEMA. FEMA decides what you get.”

FEMA’s role in marking “imminent critical areas” disputed

But FEMA’s role in the assessment was later disputed. On Friday, February 15, Surf City’s director of tourism and public information Allan Libby wrote to Port City Daily that “FEMA does not designate areas as ‘imminent critical areas’. This designation was made by TI Coastal.”

Then last Friday, Gibson confirmed that FEMA did not play any role in determining areas allocated for the first sand-haul, nor were they involved in any designation or construction activities.

“I did the designation on where the sand went,” Gibson said. “FEMA has not made any determination … FEMA is strictly an insurance agency. When a town does something eligible for FEMA reimbursement because of a storm, FEMA looks at it, determines if it’s eligible, then pays the town back. That’s all they do.”

The original February 8 post is no longer visible on the town’s website. Town Manager Ashley Loftis did not respond Tuesday when asked if the announcement was removed from the website for any specific reason. Libby said he was unaware of who wrote the announcement, but said miscommunication often occurs during and after a storm.

According to FEMA spokesperson John Mills, the conflicting information was “a basic misunderstanding.”

“FEMA continues to work with Surf City to help the town get reimbursement through the state for its eligible projects,” Mills said.

According to Mills, FEMA funds will eventually be funneled through the North Carolina Emergency Management office to the town for reimbursement of its beach renourishment work.

Last Friday the town announced that it had hired C.M. Mitchell Construction in Sneads Ferry to begin pushing sand on “non-imminent critical areas” this week.

Overall scope of beach renourishment work

Gibson said his team at TI Coastal is looking to rebuild the entire dune system of the town’s 6.4-mile beach at a total cost of $15 to $18 million — and he expects FEMA to reimburse the full amount, which will include spending on 400,000 cubic yards of sand hauled in from a sand mine off U.S. 421.

He said the town was willing to use $5 million of its total $11 million of beach nourishment funds to allocate towards the first phase of restoration work before the sea turtle nesting season, which begins May 1.

“So the town, at the stage we’re at now, said ‘We need to see something before our environmental window ends — we do not see FEMA getting the process for eligibility completed in that time,’” Gibson said of the town’s mindset to “risk” the $5 million before FEMA committed to reimbursement.

TI Coastal President Chris Gibson discusses progress on Topsail Island's beach renourishment work at the town's Welcome Center earlier in the month. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
TI Coastal President Chris Gibson discusses progress on Topsail Island’s beach renourishment work at the town’s Welcome Center earlier in the month. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Gibson said his team at TI Coastal then analyzed data and aerial photographs to identify “hypercritical areas” — properties with homes that could “potentially fall into the ocean” with additional erosion or areas with exposed water and sewer infrastructure.

“These are the places where if we had a bad Northeasterly, or had another small hurricane, the odds are we would lose structures or infrastructure,” Gibson said. “So these [other areas] need to go on the back burner to ensure everybody has a reasonable chance to get through the next storm season. This isn’t a one-and-done. You got shot in the leg and you got shot in the jugular — which one are you going to put pressure on?”

He estimated the second phase of sand-hauling and dune construction — for those areas not addressed this spring — to cost $10 to $13 million, beginning sometime in the fall and lasting through February or March of 2020.

Beach push an “emotional benefit”

Gibson said the beach push approved by the town earlier this month for an additional $300,000, which will not be reimbursed by FEMA, is a “stop-the-bleeding approach” that provides an emotional benefit to property owners but does nothing to eliminate the problem or make it more manageable in the long-term.

“With a beach scrape you feel better because you have some dune up front,” Gibson said. “But at the same time, you lowered the beach profile so more energy is able to get on that dune.”

According to Gibson, a beach push steepens the slope without adding any sand to the dune system, and the profile of the pushed sand is a courser grain than sand found on the dune system.

“It doesn’t like to hold water as well as some of the regular dune material that’s developed through wind-blown transport, so it’s not conducive to plants being able to thrive and grow,” Gibson said. “At the same time, if your house is right on the edge, you want something to make sure that you at least feel like your house isn’t going to go over the edge. That’s where it is: there’s a limited amount of scientific benefit. There’s a lot of emotional benefit that goes along with a beach scrape.”

Gibson said the beach push will have virtually no positive or negative impact on his work planned for the fall.

Clearing the air: FEMA is on the ground

Gibson also wanted to address frustrations that residents in beach communities often have with FEMA after storms like Florence.

“FEMA is here. These guys are on the ground; they’re working with us,” Gibson said. “There is a process — whether here in Surf City, whether it’s post-Sandy, whether it’s Irma and Michael down in Florida — all of these things have a process and they take time to go through the process.”

He said it takes considerable time for local, state, and federal officials to coordinate beach renourishment projects, and to his knowledge Surf City and Topsail Beach are the only beach communities in North Carolina following through on any kind of beach construction work approved after Florence.

Compared to communities like Wrightsville Beach, Bald Head Island, Oak Island, and Holden Beach — where Gibson said no post-Florence recovery projects are yet scheduled — Surf City and Topsail Beach are ahead of schedule.

“These two towns up here are moving. These are the only two that said, ‘Okay we got hit by Florence, let’s do something. And they’re actually getting it done this year. They’re ahead of everybody else by eight months,” Gibson said.

Mark Darrough can be reached at

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