Less than a year after governments in Lee and Collier counties spent millions on restoring their beaches from the effects of erosion, they’re going to have to do it again. Hurricane Ian devastated the Southwest Florida coastline Sept. 28. Like a child trashing a sand castle, the hurricane laid waste to ongoing beach restoration efforts. That means thousands of truckloads of sand will be hauled to the coast and poured up and down beachfronts throughout the rest of this year and beyond.
A secondary project, renourishing Estero Island’s beaches, was ordered before Hurricane Ian’s impact and is slated to begin in the fourth quarter of this year at an estimated cost of $23 million. On Fort Myers Beach, though, the first order of business will be building an emergency berm, elevating the north-south island’s beach by about six feet.
“We’re replacing 90,000 cubic yards of sand on the beach,” says Chadd Chustz, the environmental project manager for the Town of Fort Myers Beach. An estimated 220,000 cubic yards of sand was lost, he said. “It’s from Margaritaville Resort’s construction site all the way down to the south end. The purpose of that is to provide protection to properties from a five-year storm.”
Hurricane Eta was the “five-year” storm used to model the beach erosion in preparation for future storms. Eta didn’t even make landfall in Southwest Florida, but its Category 1 level winds offshore stirred up and swallowed enough sand in November 2020 to devastate the area’s beaches.
An estimated 6,000 dump truck loads of sand will be rumbling to various points across the beach over the next few months, at a cost of about $7.5 million.
“The entire beach lost elevation,” Chustz says. “A lot of it washed onto Estero Island and into the canals and the back bay to some extent. Just looking at the beach, you can tell there are areas where we lost two, three, four feet vertically of sand.”
The berm also would benefit the endangered sea turtles, “and hopefully prevent them from crawling out to Estero Boulevard for nesting season,” Chustz says.
The ongoing project will bring in the sand from a mine in Immokalee, said Gary Grubbs, the project manager and owner of the Tampa-based Grubbs Emergency Services.
“We’re using local people and local contractors to help us assist,” Grubbs says. “We’ll get this thing back quickly. Building back beaches is my specialty. I’ve got loaders, I’ve got cranes, you name it. We can bring in whatever we need. My primary goal is to tap into local resources before we bring in outside stuff. I’m just distributing sand. We’ll start on the Gulf side in the middle. We’ll work our way north and south.”
One cause of confusion might be the berm’s height of six feet. There most certainly will not be a visible six-foot wall of sand, Grubbs said. That’s now how it looks.
“If you’re sitting on your back porch, you’re not going to see a six-foot berm,” Grubbs says. “It might be two or three feet. You’ll still be able to sit on your back porch and look at the ocean.”
About 45 miles due east of Fort Myers Beach, heavy equipment digs and processes tons of sand in Immokalee, while loaders fill dump trucks with it. Since 2004, about 600 acres of land there has been the heart of a sand mine owned by Stewart Materials. It is supplying sand this year to both Fort Myers Beach and Collier County.
“It’s coarser than normal sands are in Florida,” says Nick Stewart, owner and founder of the company. “Supposedly, the geologists claim that during the Pleistocene era, when the glaciers melted, it pushed the original Florida peninsula south. The coarser material is basically within four or five miles of Highway 27, as you go up the state. We happen to be on what I feel is the very southern tip of that formation. That’s why we ended up being in Immokalee.”
Stewart Materials supplies most of the sand to southwest and southeast Florida, Stewart said, as well as to the state Department of Transportation for infrastructure improvements, such as bridges and concrete projects, and to golf courses.
“We compete with the offshore dredging,” Stewart says. “Their business, the state and the counties will go offshore. They do drilling activities to try and find a sand source offshore. The dredging companies then offer the sand to the beaches.”
Whatever gets dredged gets placed on a beach, Stewart said. But from the sand mine, all of the material gets processed, and only the best part gets taken to the beach.
“We try to maintain a minimum of a 20-year supply in front of us,” Stewart says. “We’re currently adding some reserves. We’re also building another sand mine that will be able to serve the west coast. We have probably a 30-year supply with the new mine.
“Most people think we just go and dig it out of the ground and haul it to the beach. But this material is processed. It’s put to a spec gradation. We’re actually matching the gradation as requested—and we have for years—from Collier County as to what the original beach was. We’re putting back in the lifetime sand as it originally was on the beach. There’s much more to it than what people realize.”
In Collier County, the Hurricane Ian-caused beach devastation could have been worse if an emergency berm hadn’t already been built there, said Paul Beirnes, Collier’s executive director of tourism. The county devotes 42% of all tourist taxes to coastal zoning, which includes restoring beaches.
“We are the single largest contributor [compared to] any other county when it comes to our beaches,” he says.
In Lee County, 26.4% of tourist development taxes go toward restoring beaches and shoreline improvements.
“Hurricane Ian certainly impacted the entire coast and did a lot of erosion to the coastal berm, which goes along the entire coastline,” Beirnes says. “It would have been even worse had we not had such a robust berm. There was a request for funding to be able to very quickly rebuild that berm.”
That project cost just under $25 million and spanned from the now wrecked Naples Pier north to Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park.
“That’s really critical to ensure that, forbid another storm comes this next year, that we protect our beaches,” Beirnes says.
Another project is slated for Tigertail Beach on Marco Island.
“It’s an important one—not only for navigational purposes for boats, but anybody who’s been down there knows it’s a fragile area with nesting birds,” Beirnes says. “And it’s where dolphins and sea life come in. None of that takes into account what I call beautification, which is the typical beach renourishment. I’m a beachgoer. It’s a different beach than it was the second weekend of September 2022. We know how pristine that coastline was. That requires some beautification.
“But there are priorities. The berm is No. 1. Tigertail Beach is No. 2. Then attention will turn to the beautification of the beach. It’s definitely on the to-do list, but we can’t do it all at once; it would certainly hamper the budget.”
Collier County invests—and will continue to do so—in its beaches, because they are the county’s top tourist attraction, Beirnes said.
“We’re in a very good position to respond very fast to that berm, well before the start of the next hurricane season,” he says. “We’ll bring it back up to the level we all know and love. We do know that beaches are the No. 1 thing people come to this destination to enjoy.”
Lee County beach projects
Gasparilla Shore Protection Project
Construction: U.S. Army Corps
Dimensions: 141,972 cubic yards of sand
Cost: $3.7 million, all from federal funds
Source: Sand dredged from offshore
Gasparilla State Park
Construction: U.S. Army Corps
Dimensions: 139,666 cubic yards of sand
Cost: $2.8 million, funded by the state
Source: Sand dredged from offshore
Lynn Hall Park, Fort Myers Beach
Construction: Lee County
Dimensions: 5,700 tons of sand
Cost: $175,000, funded by Lee County tourist development taxes
Source: Sand trucked from Ortona in Glades County