Coastal erosion is a problem in Franklin County, other Florida beaches

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By: Charles Roop | WCTV Pinpoint Weather
April 20, 2018

ALLIGATOR POINT, Fla. (WCTV) — The sand. The waves. The beach.

"We were just enamored with the area,” said Michelle Darpel.

Darpel and her husband, Gary, moved to a home in Alligator Point 14 months ago. It was love at first sight. But they did notice something behind their home.

"Well, there's been some damage,” Darpel said. “It might take some time. But, you know, the repairs will be done."

Five months before moving in, Hurricane Hermine destroyed the road behind the home. It also took some of the land out to sea. All that remains of the road today is dirt.

But it's not just Alligator Point that is dealing with issues. Many beaches in Florida - including a few in the Big Bend - are critically eroded,
according to a study from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The report goes county-by-county, highlighting with maps and detail what locations are losing the most coastline.

Jaap Nienhuis, an associate professor at Florida State University who studies coastal morphodynamics, says that many of these critically eroded locations are barrier islands and spits.

"For instance, St. George Island is an example of that and Alligator Point is another example,” he said. “You often have houses and nice beaches on that narrow strip of land. But because it is so narrow, it can be easily inundated during storms and because of that you have a lot of erosion."

Besides tropical cyclones being a cause for beach erosion, Nienhuis said that beaches in the Big Bend have finer, smaller sand grains. This finer sand makes it easier for waves to wash it away.

Another factor: Sea level rise.

As the land ice melts in places like Antarctica and Greenland because of climate change, the water levels are increasing.

"Because sea level rise is accelerating, it is very likely that sea level rise will be a major thing impacting our coastlines in the next century or so,” Nienhuis said.

The rate of sea level rise has been around 2 to 3 mm (0.07 to 0.12 inches) per year, but Nienhuis believes that the rate of change could be greater down the road.

But what we do to the coast also contributes to the coastal erosion issued. Man-made structures such as jetties and sea walls alter the coastline can impact those that live on it.

"Most of the coastal erosion and coastal change that we see here is either just natural waves and tides moving sediment around or people mismanaging the coastline,” Nienhuis said.

Meanwhile, what's left of the road behind the Darpel’s home is still wasting away.

"Every time we have a big rain, more is washing down,” Darpel said.

The lack of repair to what used to be Alligator Drive has been troubling for Darpel.

“We’re concerned with safety and that the beach is continuing to erode,” she said.

Officials are aware and have been working to address the road.

“[The erosion] is an immediate problem and a serious problem for us down there,” Alan Pierce, the RESTORE Coordinator for Wakulla County, said during a phone interview.

In the 30 years that Pierce has been in Wakulla County, he said that there were at least four houses on the south side of Alligator Drive that were bought out because of the imminent danger of collapse.

A list of ideas for what to do with the road has been drafted in an environmental assessment, according to Pierce. The assessment was paid for by FEMA as the road has been damaged repeatedly, and Pierce says the threat continues to repetitive damage.

“The ocean is right there,” he said.

As of now, the report is under review by FEMA for the estimated $3.2 million cost to repair the road. The price tag was estimated 20 months ago, according to Pierce, but it’s a waiting game.

“Well, you tell me how long it takes for something to get out of Washington,” Pierce said. “It’s an unknown timeline.”

Some options on what to do with the road are listed in the assessment sent to FEMA. One option is to relocate the road, but there is a catch.

"We don't have an option to relocate it unless we buy and condemn houses and that's very controversial,” Pierce said.

Another idea is to rebuild the road in its current location, but add more beach to protect the road. But that could be a never-ending battle as the sea fights to take it.

"The trade-off is the county would build the beach,” he said. “However, we would ask the residents to pay for the maintenance."

“We are trying all we can to get the road built back in a much more substantial method, but I don’t know whether we’ll get that approved or not,” Pierce said.

Despite the ideas laid out to save the road, the threat of higher sea level in the future is sobering to Pierce.

“The future [of Alligator Point] is bleak,” he said. “We can put sand back in this section of the road and maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. If a major hurricane comes through here, there are other sections of that road that also are going to be subject to damage.”

Pierce says that while the western end of Alligator Point is gaining land, the center part of the island is losing it.

Nienhuis noted that barrier islands tend to erode on the beachside, but also deposit sediment behind those islands. He said as sea level rises and storms impact the island, it will get closer to the mainland over time. Of course, that’s a problem for people living in these locations.

“Having an island move is very difficult. If you have houses on that island, they are likely not going to move with the island,” he said. “That’s one of the main challenges we have.”

Meanwhile, the wait for a new plan and approval from officials continues for Alligator Drive. With hurricane season fast approaching, the need for a solution becomes urgent.

“If things aren’t done to preserve [the beach], it’s concerning to us to how long we’ll be able to enjoy it,” Darpel said.

But she knows the risks of living on the coast.

"You make choices when you live in an area, you know,” she said. “Don’t feel sorry for us. Look where we live."