Saturday, July 13, 2024

Recap: Surf City’s fight with FEMA, state regulations to repair sand dunes

A pile of sand delivered just south of the Surf City Ocean Pier from the S.T. Wooten sand mine last month. Behind it, a man fishes during high tide as a northeaster moves out of the region. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A pile of sand delivered just south of the Surf City Ocean Pier from the S.T. Wooten sand mine last month. In the distance, a man fishes during high tide as a northeaster moves out of the region. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

SURF CITY — Since Hurricane Florence washed away much of Topsail Island’s beach dunes — the first line of defense for the island’s homes and infrastructure — the town of Surf City and its contracted beach engineer have fought for federal funds while their emergency dune reconstruction project was slowed by state regulations.

In a presentation to Council early this month, coastal geologist Jamie Pratt summarized the town’s post-Florence beach renourishment agenda, one challenged by a lack of funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a cease-and-desist from the state due to pebbles found in truck-delivered sand, and a large downscaling of the project’s scope.

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

Pratt, a vice president for the coastal engineering firm TI Coastal, also filled in key pieces of information Port City Daily has not yet reported. According to Pratt:

  • FEMA committed roughly a quarter of the funds that were applied for. “The funding mechanism from FEMA came back less than desirable,” Pratt said. “We had to truncate the project down to a much, much smaller area than what we initially wanted to do.”
  • Less-then-expected funding led to the designation of “imminent critical areas,” those where significantly damaged dunes existed in front of at least four adjacent homes.
  • TI Coastal designated 11 imminent critical areas.
  • Roughly 60 percent of the FEMA funds went toward protecting the town’s infrastructure — roads, plumbing, buried electrical lines, water sources — at Area 11, the northern end of the town’s beach. “If we were to have breaches in that area that destroyed the road and infrastructure, the cost to rebuild that was going to be significant,” Pratt said.

“So, given the small amount from FEMA, then taking 60 percent of that to protect the town’s infrastructure at the very northern end of beach, we were left with an even smaller budget to perform the sand haul to 10 other areas,” Pratt told councilmembers.

Clean sand

In mid-March, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued a cease-and-desist after the discovery of pebbles in sand hauled from the S.T. Wooten sand mine off Highway 421 in northern Wilmington.

The town spent an additional $1.3 million — on top of the $5 million set aside for the dune reconstruction project — to sift more than 80,000 cubic yards of already-delivered sand, according to Town Manager Ashley Loftis. (Last December, Mayor Doug Medlin said the town lost an estimated 350,000 cubic yards from Hurricane Florence.)

The company hired to haul in the sand, C.M. Mitchell out of Snead’s Ferry, had been using two separate locations to make its primary deliveries. But the on-site sifting of the sand forced them to deliver to only one location, cutting the company’s operations in half, according to Pratt.

“Having to screen everything significantly slowed our progress,” Pratt said, and when the turtle nesting moratorium began on April 30, only Areas 9, 10, and 11 in the north were completed.

Moving on, waiting for funding

Over the summer lull, TI Coastal received a new permit to place sand along the town’s entire stretch of beach and filed an appeal with FEMA to receive the remainder of the requested funding.

In late October, Pratt said they received word that the appeal had gone back to FEMA scientists for a reevaluation of the project.

“So, for six months there was not really any word [from FEMA],” Pratt said. “Finally it gets sent back for reevaluation on October 28, and we haven’t heard anything from that since.”

Although the state permitted a truck-haul of sand along Surf City’s entire beach, the funding to carry out the entirety of the work is still not in place, according to Pratt.

Work resumed on November 18, three days after the sea turtle moratorium ended, and Pratt said Areas 1, 2, and 3 on the south end had been completed as of December 3. Sand already sifted at the S.T. Wooten site is now being stockpiled at Kinston Street, “working trucks from both the north and south end, hauling and placing it, and working toward each other,” Pratt said.

When asked for an update on current progress — and for the total amount of FEMA funding they were still seeking — TI Coastal President Chris Gibson said town officials no longer allowed him to discuss projects with the media. Loftis could not be reached in time for publication of this article.

Pratt expected to finish reconstructing the dunes and berms — the flat areas in front of the dunes that slope down to the high tide line — of the imminent critical areas by early January.

“The hope is we have the FEMA money released by then and can finish the entire beach, and repair some of the areas in Area 11 that were scarped pretty badly,” Pratt said. “A lot of the dunes we placed [earlier this year] are already gone from Hurricane Dorian and from the Northeaster a couple weeks ago, which hit the area pretty badly.” 

Approximately 19,000 cubic yards had been moved before Thanksgiving, according to Pratt, of a total 69,000 cubic yards expected for this phase of dune reconstruction.

Catching up

Read the following to get caught up on Surf City’s beach renourishment work since Hurricane Florence:

Dec. 1, 2018: Surf City lost 350,000 cubic yards of sand from Florence: “At the mercy of FEMA,” says mayor

Feb. 6, 2019: Topsail Island beach nourishment projects move forward with no assurances of federal funding

Feb. 15: Surf City approves beach push on top of $5 million sand haul, councilman argues for all-out push to preserve funds

Feb. 28: Sorting out beach renourishment miscommunication between FEMA, Surf City, and private contractor

March 29: Recent full-moon tide and northeaster eroded some of Surf City’s recently restored dunes

April 24: Surf City acknowledges recent beach push exposes temporary dunes to erosion

May 5: Surf City beach restoration halted until fall, extension into sea turtle nesting season denied

May 9: Sand-haul dune work in Surf City stopped by DEQ’s discovery of 18 pebbles in sand

Sep. 19: Dorian didn’t add sand, beach vehicle permits, and nourishment projects at $28 million

Nov. 19: Surf City hit with strong high tides, erosion as Nor’easter moves south

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

Related Articles