Thursday, April 18, 2024

Topsail Island updates: Dorian didn’t add sand, beach vehicle permits, and nourishment projects at $28 million

The undeveloped south end of Topsail Island several weeks after Hurricane Dorian passed just offshore North Carolina's coast. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
The undeveloped south end of Topsail Island several weeks after Hurricane Dorian passed just offshore of North Carolina’s coast. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

The end of sea turtle nesting season marks the resumption of beach restoration projects in Topsail Island, where it was found that Hurricane Dorian did not actually add sand to the island as initially thought. Two projects estimated at $28 million are scheduled to start mid-November.

PENDER COUNTY — After Hurricane Dorian skirted past North Carolina’s southeastern coast last month, reports circulated on social media and local news outlets that Topsail Island actually gained sand during Hurricane Dorian.

Pictures showed the bottom steps of beach accesses rebuilt after Florence covered by sand.

“We actually gained some sand,” Surf City Mayor Doug Medlin told the Star News.

RELATED: Sand-haul dune work in Surf City stopped by DEQ’s discovery of 18 pebbles in sand

It turns out the sand simply shifted, nature’s way of reshaping beaches during large storms with strong winds and currents. Chris Gibson, president of beach engineering firm T.I Coastal Services, made measurements and collected data last week that showed uniform erosion along the island.

“Overall the initial evaluation shows there is a mild but consistent sand loss along the island,” Gibson said, but noted the amount of erosion was far less than what is typical of a storm Dorian’s size and direction of approach.

The gains people have been seeing, he said, are due to the reshaping of the beach.

“Dorian tended to push the sandbar back up on the beach and toe of the dune. Ultimately the beach and dune system protected the structures on the island very well,” Gibson said.

He said there were no beach crossovers lost in Surf City or Topsail Beach and very little damage in North Topsail Beach.

Beach-driving permits?

On Tuesday, the Surf City Police Department announced it would not be issuing beach vehicle permits for the 2019-2020 season due to the resumption of a dune rebuilding project in mid-November.

Work was scheduled to stop before the start of sea turtle nesting season in May; however, the town received a cease-and-desist from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in mid-March as a result of one oceanfront homeowner’s complaint of pebbles found in the sand near his home, according to Town Manager Ashley Loftis.

“And they did find a few pebbles,” Loftis said at the time. “When I say a few pebbles — there were 15 feet of sand that they dug and they found 18 pebbles. We got a cease-and-desist order because they found those 18 pebbles.”

Further south on the island, Topsail Beach will continue issuing beach-driving permits beginning October 1 through the end of March 2020. Permits were canceled last year after extensive damages to the beach from Florence.

Although town commissioners discussed doing so again this year because of large-scale beach restoration work slated to begin in November, according to Town Clerk Christina Burke, they decided to continue selling permits with the caveat that there will be times during the season that the beach will be closed to all vehicles.

“Imminent critical” properties in Surf City

Dredging and beach restoration projects in Surf City and Topsail Beach, totaling $28 million, are scheduled to begin mid-November.

Loftis said Surf City’s dune restoration work will begin November 15 and is a continuation of the project that was shut down in March — delivering sand to properties identified as “imminent critical” due to their vulnerability to future storms.

“Screened sand will be hauled in, placed, and shaped to form an emergency berm within the imminent critical areas that did not receive sand prior to the sea turtle moratorium,” Loftis said. “This is approximately 80,000 cubic yards of sand and work should be completed by spring of 2020.”

The total cost of completing the project is projected at $3 million, which will cover the mobilization, screening, and placement of the emergency berm, according to Loftis. She said the work is part of a Category B Emergency Berm Restoration project that was submitted to FEMA for reimbursement.

Gibson, who is overseeing the projects for both towns, said the project may be expanded to repair all dunes in Surf City damaged by Florence, dependent on the approval of a FEMA grant.

The town has also submitted an application to NCDEQ to dredge approximately 1.6 million cubic yards from Banks Channel and dispose of it by placing approximately 120 feet of dry sand beach in front of the repaired dune,” Gibson said.

Dredging, dune construction, beach widening in Topsail Beach

Meanwhile, Topsail Beach is set to begin one of its largest dredging and beach restoration project in recent years, totaling an estimated $25 million.

Gibson said the work will consist of dredging 2.2 million cubic yards of sand from New Topsail Inlet and building a six-foot-high, 25-foot-wide frontal dune and approximately 125 feet of dry sand beach. Bids for the project will be received on September 24, according to Gibson, with options for completion in either April 2020 or April 2021.

Town Manager Mike Rose said he expects a majority of the work to be completed in 2020. In addition to building a new layer of dunes on the ocean-side of the old dunes, the work will also include finishing repairs of those damaged by Florence.

“That new dune will certainly help mitigate a lot of the storm damage that could occur in future storms, whether nor’easters or hurricanes,” Rose said. “Let’s hope not anytime soon.”

In addition to the protection provided by the new layer of dunes and added beach width, Rose said the dredging project will not only provide sand for that work but also open New Topsail Inlet and Banks Channel to more safe boat navigation.

A US Army Corps of Engineers map from a survey of New Topsail Inlet performed in late June, early July. Water depth levels range from areas marked in blue (15 feet or deeper) and red (4 to 6 feet deep). (Graphic courtesy US Army Corps of Engineers)
A US Army Corps of Engineers map from a survey of New Topsail Inlet performed in late June, early July. Water depth levels range from areas marked in blue (15 feet or deeper) and red (4 to 6 feet deep). (Graphic courtesy US Army Corps of Engineers)

Although he expects much of the dredging work to be completed by spring of 2020, the most serious work in the inlet going out toward the ocean — where a sand bar has blocked safe boat passage — requires ocean-certified dredge companies, of which few exist and are spread thin along a coastline heavily impacted by numerous hurricanes in recent years.

“It’s a bull market for the dredgers right now,” Rose said.

That same area is where the US Army Corps of Engineers recently performed a side-caster dredge, a short-term fix that blows sand away from the shallow water. Before, the inlet at this location was approximately 8 feet deep and 100 feet wide, according to Rose. He said Gibson’s project will aim to dredge the same area to 18 feet deep and 500 feet wide.

“Mostly from our end, what we’re looking for is first and foremost safe, navigable waters, particularly for the recreational boaters that will come through there,” Rose said. “But it also opens it up a lot for commercial fishermen to get in and out of the inlet safely.”

Rose said the town is still in the process of filing paperwork through a FEMA portal but anticipates full reimbursement of the estimated $25 million to be approved in the near future.

On the opposite end of the island, Gibson said his company is currently performing work on a Hurricane Matthew project, placing approximately 180,000 cubic yards of sand for dune restoration in the southern four miles of North Topsail Beach. The sand is now being harvested and screened, with work to commence November 16. He said other projects in the town are in the works, but he is not directly involved.

Mark Darrough can be reached at or (970) 413-3815

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