Hurricane Irma caused ‘extensive damage’ to Collier beaches; damage elsewhere less severe

Crashing waves from Hurricane Irma battered Collier beaches last week, causing “extensive damage” to the county’s No. 1 tourism draw, according to the county’s beach manager.

Elsewhere in the state, early reports indicate Irma-related shoreline damage may have been less severe.

Orange cones and caution tape block the beach access ramp, damaged by Hurricane Irma, at Vanderbilt Beach on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017.

On Thursday, Gary McAlpin, Collier’s coastal zone manager, toured the county’s beaches with representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection. It was just a preliminary inspection, with a detailed survey still to come.

“We’ve had damage on the beaches, and we will know the exact extent of the damage after we conduct the detailed survey,” McAlpin said. “We’re talking about height being washed away and width being washed away on the beaches, volume.”

While much of the post-Irma attention has rightfully been focused on damaged Southwest Florida homes, the condition of the beaches is important because they are an economic engine for the region and the state as a whole. By drawing visitors from around the globe, beaches generate billions of dollars in economic activity every year in Florida and billions of dollars in tourism-related sales taxes.

The beach just north of the Naples Pier on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. Hurricane Irma caused "extensive damage" to Collier County's beaches, according to the county's beach manager.

Florida's 825 miles of sandy beaches also serve as first defense against storm surge and flooding. 

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

On Thursday morning the beach near the Naples Pier was hard and compacted, whereas Vanderbilt Beach’s sand still seemed soft and powdery.

Hurricane Irma made landfall in Collier County on Sept. 10.

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“The beaches are usable. There’s room on the beaches,” McAlpin said. “There was extensive damage. We’ll be determining how much that is and working with the state and federal agencies as we move forward.”

Jack Wert, Collier’s tourism director, said repairing the damaged beaches will be a top priority. The county’s beaches are an important part of the visitor experience, he said, and tourists expect them to be in good condition. The county has reserves set aside to pay for beach repairs.

Beachgoers sit under the Naples Pier on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, six days after Hurricane Irma. The storm has caused "extensive damage" to the county's No. 1 tourism draw.

“Will it be enough? I don’t know,” Wert said. “I think the good news is this is happening at a time of year that is a little slower. September is our slowest month. October is a little better, but not much.”

To the north, early assessments show Hurricane Irma flattened Lee County’s beaches, but they generally remain in good condition, according to a county email.

“I think that overall they got pushed in and up a little bit, and didn’t fare too badly,” said Steve Boutelle, operations manager for Lee County’s natural resources department.

Charlotte County, which saw home-threatening erosion on Manasota Key after Tropical Storm Colin last year, also appears to have been generally spared, said Michael Poff, a county beach consultant.

“Everyone is saying they feel very blessed and lucky,” Poff said. “I’ve heard nothing yet from anybody out there of any major erosion. Normally if it had been really bad my phone would be off the hook.”

Debbie Flack, president of the Florida Shore & Beach Preservation Association, said it’s still early in the damage assessment phase. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been doing an aerial analysis of the coast, and local governments are working on post-storm surveys.

Shells fill the sand at Vanderbilt Beach on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, six days after Hurricane Irma.

But early indications are good, she said.

“I’ve not gotten any reports of major issues,” Flack said.

In the coming months, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to begin beach renourishment projects in several Florida east coast communities. Flack said she is hopeful Irma losses can be incorporated into renourishment projects already in the pipeline from Hurricane Matthew last year.

Some Gulf Coast communities also are being considered for emergency funding, Flack said.

“Let’s go slowly,” Flack said, “and remember that the beach can recover naturally quite a bit.”

Beach managers in Southeast Florida also have done some preliminary assessments. Nicole Sharp, Broward County’s beach manager, said their beaches experienced some erosion from Irma.

“The south county beaches are definitely narrow, and in some cases, we do have water very close to sea walls or lapping up to the sea walls,” said Sharp, noting the beaches protected upland infrastructure.

“The project did exactly what it was designed to do and intended to do,” she said.

Broward County already has submitted a request with the Corps of Engineers for assistance, Sharp said.

Flagler County, which got whacked by Hurricane Matthew last year, got whacked again by Irma. But while Matthew ravaged the Northeast Florida community's beaches, taking out dunes and a mile-long stretch of State Road A1A, Irma's flooding came mostly from the Intracoastal Waterway, said Craig Coffey, Flagler's county administrator.

There were breaches to the emergency dunes erected before Irma hit Florida. About 50 homes on the beach side flooded, as did hundreds more inland, Coffey said.

"It wobbled on us, and it did hit us bad. It just hit us different," Coffey said. "We didn’t get the severity of the flooding from the ocean side this time."

Coffey said some Flagler residents who just got their lives back together after Matthew are starting the recovery over after Irma.

"It's almost like post-traumatic hurricane disorder," he said.

In Southwest Florida, Collier and Lee counties issued precautionary swim advisories for their beaches late last week. The counties recommend staying out of the water until it can be tested for bacteria. Floodwaters and lack of power have caused sewer system overflows all over Collier County.

The Naples Pier has been closed to the public since Hurricane Irma struck the coast.

On Thursday morning Susanne Albertsson was sunning on the beach just north of the Naples Pier. She and her parents are in town from Sweden to visit their Naples condo.

There were few other people at the beach that morning. She wasn’t bothered by the erosion.

“I think it’s really nice,” Albertsson said of the beach. “I thought it would be much worse.”