Hurricane Irma's track threatens vulnerable Florida communities hit by last year’s storms

When Hurricane Matthew spun north off Flagler County’s coast last September, it left in its wake a mile of shredded State Road A1A, 20 breaches to the east Florida county’s dune system and about 600 flooded homes.

A year later the road has been repaired. But county, state and federal leaders have done little to bolster Flagler’s broken beaches and dunes system — an important buffer from a monster storm like Hurricane Irma.

In this October 2016 file photo, a section of State Road A1A sits badly damaged by erosion after Hurricane Matthew passed the east coast of Florida. The section of road had been previously undermined and recently Flagler County officials had began a beach renourishment process.

Flagler leaders now fear even more damage to their vulnerable coast as Irma bears down on Florida.

Flagler is one of several Florida communities damaged by last year’s storms — hurricanes Matthew and Hermine and Tropical Storm Colin. Most of those communities have done little in the last year to repair their battered shores, leaving residents more exposed to Irma and other storms this season.

Special Report:Shrinking Shores — The erosion of Florida beaches

Just like Matthew last year, Thursday’s forecast had Irma’s track buzz-sawing Florida’s east coast this weekend.

“People that lost their houses a year ago stand to lose their houses again,” said Craig Coffey, Flagler County administrator, adding, “It could get worse this time.”

In addition to drawing in tourists from across the globe and generating billions of dollars every year for state and local governments, Florida's 825 miles of sandy beaches also serve as the first line of defense against storm surge and flooding. Hurricane Matthew showed that communities with wide beaches and healthy dunes better withstood the storm.

More:Your house has flooded. Now what?

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection dispatched crews to the east coast this week to make emergency repairs to dunes damaged by Hurricane Matthew. DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein said his agency is doing “everything we can” to complete those repairs in time.

After years of neglecting the state's shores, Florida lawmakers increased statewide beach funding to $50 million this year, the biggest appropriation in over a decade.

A section of State Road A1A in Flagler County shows erosion damage after Hurricane Matthew passed the east coast of Florida in October 2016. The section of road had been previously undermined, and county officials recently had begun a beach replenishment process.

Earlier this year Gov. Rick Scott approved $15.8 million for Hurricane Matthew emergency dune repair for four counties along Florida’s northeast coast: Brevard, Flagler, St. Johns and Volusia. Lawmakers OK'd another  $13.3 million for Flagler and St. Johns.

Of those four counties, only Brevard had a sophisticated enough beach program in place to put sand on its shores. When the money was approved, Brevard had a project ready to build dunes along 9 miles of coast.

In Flagler the dune repair price tag is steep, with bids coming in at almost double what county leaders were expecting, Coffey said. They have also struggled with conflicting rules about working during sea turtle nesting season. Projects in Federal Emergency Management Agency zones could proceed during turtle nesting season, while neighboring county projects couldn’t, he said.

The county was prepared to finalize a $20 million repair project this week, with construction expected to begin in November, Coffey said. But that’s been shelved as the community braces for Irma’s impact.

For now, the county is spending about $40,000 to place emergency sand strategically along the beach and to raise the dune levels slightly.

“In the case we get a mild event, we might be able to keep water out,” Coffey said. “We’re grasping at a project that would take seven months to redo the dunes. We’re trying in a couple of days to fill some strategic spots.”

Tony Lulgjuraj, owner of Oceanside Beach Bar and Grill, stands outside his restaurant as he cleans up from Hurricane Matthew damage in October 2016. Lulgjuraj's restaurant is on a section of State Road A1A badly damaged by erosion and closed to traffic.

Johnny Lulgjuraj, 31, who co-owns the Oceanside Beach Bar & Grille on Flagler Beach with his brother Tony, said he feels city leaders did the best they could repairing what was lost last year.

“We’re going to be pretty safe,” he said. But as a business owner and a homeowner, he’s worried.

“We’re a little bit scared, as we should be, but we’re also trying to be prepared,” Lulgjuraj said. “It’s pretty terrifying. … Everything we worked so hard for could be wiped out from under us.”

More:Lawmakers approve $50 million for beaches; largest appropriation in over a decade

Just north in St. Johns County, the situation is similar. Neal Shinkre, St. Johns’ public works director, said the county teamed up with other agencies to use sand dredged from inlets and channels to rebuild the Summerhaven and Vilano beaches.

But the rest of the county’s beaches and dunes haven’t been repaired. The price tag was high, and the state would only pay half. They were hoping for 75 percent, Shinkre said.

“The beaches have been eroded, and the sand has not been put in there,” Shinkre said. “Of course we’re very concerned about that impact on these areas that could be caused because of Irma.

“We’re trying to do the best we can.”

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, left, surveys Hurricane Hermine damage with Franklin County Commissioner William Massey, center, and Florida National Guard Maj. Gen. Michael Calhoun, right, in the Alligator Point community of Franklin County, Fla. on Sept. 3, 2016. Over the years, the rural beach community in the Florida Panhandle has lost sections of road, sea walls and several homes to beach erosion.

Last September, Hurricane Hermine ripped up a stretch of coastal road in Alligator Point, a small Panhandle beach community in rural Franklin County. A year later the county has replaced that two-lane road with a one-lane lime rock road and is awaiting FEMA to approve a more substantial $3 million repair, said Alan Pierce, the former county administrator who now works as a consultant.

“If Irma comes in, that will wash out with the first storm surge, and there will be no access," Pierce said.

Alligator Point has been retreating from the Gulf of Mexico since 2007, when residents turned down a proposed tax increase to rebuild their beaches. Erosion has destroyed dozens of homes.

A section of Alligator Drive in Alligator Point, Fla., sits damaged on Sept. 3, 2016, after storm erosion from Hurricane Hermine.

Even after seeing Hermine’s damage, residents turned down another proposed tax increase earlier this year to put sand on the beaches, Pierce said.

“Nothing has changed since Hermine a year ago,” he said.

When Tropical Storm Colin made landfall in the Big Bend in June 2016, its waves walloped Manasota Key in Charlotte County, leaving homes and a condo building teetering on a cliff of sand.

Residents banded together to throw up sea walls, and a small stretch of beach has since returned. But county leaders are still developing a beach restoration plan, expected to cost more than $20 million. The Manasota Key beach is not expected to be rebuilt until 2019 at the earliest.

Clif Kewley, chairman of the Charlotte Beaches and Shores Advisory Committee, praised county leaders for their work on the beach renourishment project. But he said the wheels of government turn slowly.

Still, Manasota Key homeowners remain at risk.

“It’s not a very large beach right now,” Kewley said. “It’s not going to provide very much protection.”

USA TODAY FLORIDA NETWORK reporter Arek Sarkissian contributed to this report.

In this file photo, sand bags and other attempts to slow erosion sit scattered among damaged walkovers and eroded beach near the La Coquina condo complex on June 8, 2016, the day after Tropical Storm Colin passed Masasota Key in Charlotte County, Fla. Residents of the beach community were left scrambling to address the erosion and limited funding for beach renourishment from the state because of the lack of public access to the beach.