OAK ISLAND — On nearly every side street connecting Oak Island’s beachfront roads, truckloads of sand sit waiting, blocking vehicles from passing, performing no useful function.
Meanwhile, the island is even more vulnerable to storm surge than it was before Hurricane Isaias made landfall, amid the busiest predicted storm season on record.
Two weeks ago, the sand made up the island’s dunes and uplands before more than six feet of storm surge thrust by 18-foot waves wiped them out.
In the aftermath, bulldozers scraped the roads, collecting the displaced dunes into stockpiles. Now, the first few oceanfront blocks of homes are left with very little — if any — protection from future storm surges.
In theory, it’d be convenient for the town to simply dump the overwash material back onto the barren dunes. But regulatory and environmental concerns render the sand essentially useless to the town, at least for the time being.
At the forefront, it’s turtle season. From April 1 through November 15, state law prevents and limits land-disturbing activities where endangered loggerhead sea turtles are known to lay eggs.
Before Isaias, turtles had established 83 nests along Oak Island’s nine miles of beachfront. Twenty nests have been identified since, with 60 or so nests possibly destroyed or still undiscovered, according to the town.
Town manager David Kelly told Council at a meeting last week that in every recent communication with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about how to work around the issue, the representatives end each email with a reminder: if an egg is damaged as a result of the town’s land-disturbing activity, the agency could turn over violations of the Endangered Species Act to federal prosecutors.
“Worst case scenario, it leads up to prison time. So, there is a real risk here to try to work around this issue,” Kelly said.
Town attorney Brian Edes told Council he assumed the agency would weigh a number of contributing factors in the event a turtle nest or egg was compromised.
“A flat beach with no protection may very well be one of those factors,” he said.
Limited options until November
Town leaders are anxiously searching for a solution to their sand problem. As Councilwoman Sheila Bell aptly put it: “We have sand. It’s just not in the right place.”
The town has a few immediate options while hurricane season is ongoing, but each seems to be a long shot. Oak Island currently has a permit for oceanside beach pushing that prohibits activity inside the designated turtle window. The town could attempt to obtain a minor modification to its permit to start pushing sand already on the beaches around in the most vulnerable areas where officials don’t believe nests are hiding but this move would be risky.
Environmental agencies have informed the town that the beachfront as it is may still be suitable for new nests. According to the Oak Island Sea Turtle Protection Program, turtles laid new nests on the island on Aug. 8 and 9, just days after the storm.
Alternatively, the town could attempt to use the overwash material that’s blocking side streets to fill the dunes. Using it would save the town money, but the material is likely contaminated — the island’s piles of sand contain bits of debris and other unwanted pollutants collected during and after the surge.
Before the Division of Coastal Management (DCM) allows material to be placed onto the beachfront to build up dunes, it has to be screened. Last year, DCM issued the Town of Surf City a cease-and-desist for its dune project after discovering 18 pebbles in a delivery of sand the department pre-inspected. So, if pre-inspected sand had unwanted material, sand scraped up from Oak Island’s flooded roadways containing debris surely has unwanted material that would require plenty of sifting before it’s suitable.
At least one group of people has found a use for the sand.
Thursday morning, a small crew for Buff Builders, who said they obtained permission from the town, were scooping up loads from a stockpile near Middleton Avenue. The contractors couldn’t haul dirt onto the island during the restrictions, so they opted to fill a sinkhole on a property they were clearing on a non-hurricane-related project with the overwash material.
‘There’s no dunes’
Eleven-year homeowner Louann Mason is tired of relying on the town to protect her oceanfront home from damage. “I’m probably going to end up selling it. It’s enough,” she said Thursday while cleaning up debris in her driveway. “You can only deal with incompetency — people running the town — for so long.”
Mason said the last time the town organized a renourishment project in front of her home post-Hurricane Matthew, the sand washed away in one month. Before then, she corralled a group of 20 private homeowners to fund their own dune restoration project. This past week, Mason’s process of removing more than a foot of sand from her driveway and garage area was halted mid-way through; the town banned sand-moving on Aug. 8 without prior approval to attempt to curb sand from reaching its sewer system and from being illegally pushed back onto the beach.
Now, the stockpile is lumped in Mason’s front yard.
The stalls, the hiccups, and the red tape involved in restoring the beaches and fixing her home has made Mason lose faith the dunes will ever get restored in time.
“That’s ridiculous now,” Mason said of the sea turtle rule halting renourishment. “Because human life is so much more important. Human life, these homes, you’re talking million-dollar homes — not ours — but everyone else, maybe.”
Kathryn Levert, a volunteer with the Sea Turtle Protection Program, said the erosion and turtle debate is a recurring one. The time to build up the dunes is during the off-season — not scrambling while turtles are still laying eggs and conditions are still ripe for storms, she said.
“With Florence, we had kind of the same thing,” she said, noting that Isaias’ damage was far greater than any recent storm.
“It was the same conversation — ‘Why can’t we just put it back now?’ If there’s turtle nests, you’re going to mess them up, and if there’s not, you can’t just throw sand back on there without making sure that it’s just sand.” she said.
Across the island, homeowners are nervously sitting out the remainder of hurricane season. Pepperoni Grill employees and island residents Allison Rogers and A.J. Schlotterer are concerned by how naked Isaias left the island. “All these storms are brewin’ up, coming again, and we have no dunes,” Schlotterer said.
“There’s no dunes. If another one comes, we’re screwed,” Rogers added.
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