Some North Carolina Beaches Have Been Replenished Dozens of Times. Graphic: Western Carolina University / Al Shaw / ProPublica

By Lisa Song and Al Shaw
27 September 2018

(ProPublica) – As lawmakers consider disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Florence, projects to rebuild North Carolina’s shrunken shorelines are likely to get a healthy chunk of government money.

To their advocates, these so-called beach nourishment initiatives are crucial steps in buffering valuable oceanfront properties from storm damage and boosting local economies that rely on tourism.

But such projects replenish the same vulnerable areas again and again, and disproportionately benefit wealthy owners of seaside lots.

Moreover, pumping millions of cubic yards of sand onto beaches can cause environmental damage, according to decades of studies. It kills wildlife scooped up from the ocean floor and smothers mole crabs and other creatures where sand is dumped, said Robert Young, a geology professor at Western Carolina University.

In the Rockaways in New York, where beaches have been rebuilt repeatedly, “the only foraging shorebird you typically see is a seagull with a french fry in its mouth,” he said.

The U.S. has spent some $9 billion to rebuild beaches since 1923, a Western Carolina University database shows. Federal, state and local governments have spent more than $828 million to restock beaches in North Carolina alone since 1939, with much of that money coming from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In some cases, the Corps’ support consists of in-kind donations of sand dredged from other construction projects.

Newly nourished beaches suffer less erosion after storms than nonreplenished beaches. But the protection doesn’t last, as wind and wave damage chip away at the shore. The same North Carolina beaches have been renourished over and over. Carolina Beach has been replenished 31 times since 1955. North Topsail Beach, part of a barrier island northeast of Wilmington, has gotten fresh sand just about every year since 1997.

“This is literally a never-ending commitment,” Young said. “I think most people would probably agree, people in Kansas don’t have an interest in holding every beach in America in place.”

The Corps’ initial assessment of North Carolina beaches after Hurricane Florence found some damage, but it wasn’t major. In Carteret County, which receives sand but no money from the Corps, shore protection director Gregory “Rudi” Rudolph estimated they’ll need new sand on 70 percent of their 25-mile long beach. In recent years, FEMA has supplied most of the county’s beach nourishment funds through post-disaster grants. [more]

“A Never-Ending Commitment”: The High Cost of Preserving Vulnerable Beaches

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