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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014

Pinellas beaches still recovering from Tropical Storm Debby

Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 08:37 AM

While not a full-blown hurricane, Tropical Storm Debby still gutted stretches of the Pinellas County coastline and created financial problems for an area whose economy is highly dependent on beach tourism.

Sunset Beach, an eclectic, close-knit community tucked into Treasure Island's out-of-the-way southern tip, was among the Pinellas beaches that saw the worst of the late-June storm. As Debby made landfall north of Cedar Key, storm surge and waves had already eaten their way through the beach and were working on the dunes here.

Months later, the county is still not sure if it can restore Sunset Beach to what it once was.

Ping Wang, a coastal geologist with the University of South Florida who has been studying the beach and dune erosion Debby caused, shared some of his findings at a Sunset Beach Civic Association meeting Monday night.

"Before Debby, the beach was already narrow," he said. "It took away 20 feet. However, 20 feet was all that it had."

Sunset Beach and Pass-a-Grille, to the south, saw the worst erosion because of Debby, because both of the beaches are so narrow. But other Pinellas beaches actually lost more sand, especially Indian Shores and North Redington Beach.

The beach at Indian Shores, for example, lost more than 34 feet of width, but that part of the coast was in a better position to take the hit, given its width, Wang said. Sunset Beach, on the other hand, is an "erosional hot spot," he said.

Erosion isn't permanent. Currents gradually deposit sand back onto storm-eroded beaches, but that the process takes decades. Over the past 40 years, local governments have tried to offset the impacts of both chronic and storm-induced erosion by dredging sand from offshore areas and pumping it back onto the beach, a process known commonly as beach renourishment.

But renourishment is expensive, and controversial – especially in an era of lean federal budgets, when other parts of the country may be reluctant to send their tax dollars to Florida to rebuild vulnerable beaches.

Sunset Beach was one of the first local beaches to be renourished and now is rebuilt once every four years, on average, Wang said.

Whether the county can continue to secure the funding to continue building back Sunset Beach is not certain, though.

"There's a lot of things that need to come together for the project," said Pinellas County Coastal Coordinator Andy Squires. "And one of them's luck."

The roughly $20 million needed to cover renourishment for much of the Pinellas coast needs to come from county, state, and federal tax dollars – and the timing has to be right. Treasure Island accounts for $12 million of that, while Pass-a-Grille and Sunset Beach would cost $8 million.

County officials are hoping to secure the funding and finish the renourishment projects by the end of the year, Squires said.

"We're right now in the midst of applying for funding, and none of that's confirmed yet," he said.

Most of the money for beach renourishment – about 60 percent – comes from the federal government, Squires said.

Without it, Pinellas County's beaches wouldn't exist as we know them, Wang said.

Tribune reporter Josh Boatwright contributed to this report. (727) 215-7999