Tropical Storm Debby creates new beach landscape in Manatee

Herald staffJuly 1, 2012 

MANATEE -- Brandi Garcia spent Friday afternoon with her children at a beach that had been transformed by Tropical Storm Debby.

"There's more seaweed, it's flatter, it's ickier," the 27-year-old Bradenton resident said, noting they had been at the beach just a week before Debby struck. "The water is cloudier, it's not as clear. There's a lot more sea gunk."

Debby's long slog through the Gulf of Mexico last week caused serious erosion to the crown jewel of Manatee's tourism industry.

More than 150,000 cubic yards of sand are estimated to have been lost at Coquina Beach alone because of the storm, representing a preliminary loss of $2.3 million from last year's beach renourishment project there, according to Charlie Hunsicker, county director of natural resources.

Many of Manatee's beaches were damaged by the storm -- but there were some areas that actually gained sand, he said.

Ten to 15 teams of investigators are traveling the state, reviewing damage from Santa Rosa County to Collier County.

What they are seeing are the effects of flooding, coastal erosion, tornadoes and water spouts, Hunsicker said.

"The state is trying to report out damages around 20 to 30 counties of the state along 800 miles of shoreline to determine where and when assistance can be put together," said Hunsicker. "It's a big task for the next couple of days."

Hunsicker plans to accompany investigators, but said Debby's aftermath here will be fairly obvious.

"The damages will be 'Oh, wow,'" he said.

An oceanographer explained a phenomenon she called "reverse erosion."

"Beaches, when they erode during a storm, sand is carried offshore. After the storm, calm waves, over months or a year, tend to carry it back," said Hilary Stockdon, an oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Petersburg.

"With stronger storms, sometimes sand is moved so far offshore, it's much harder for the beach to recover naturally -- that's when we see lasting damage from tropical storms," she said.

At Coquina Beach on the southern part of Anna Maria Island, Tom Carmichael-Smith sat on a bench reading a newspaper, occasionally glancing up to watch a bulldozer bearing a county logo, dumping crushed rock near a seawall.

Carmichael-Smith, also of Bradenton, walks daily along the beach. "The sand is all washed-up now," he lamented.

Lt. Rex Beach, a lifeguard at Coquina Beach with Manatee County Marine Rescue, pointed from atop his observation tower at areas where sea turtle nests once were. Only some were able to be relocated by volunteers to prevent them from washing away.

"Some of them were right at water's edge," Beach said.

Erosion caused by Debby had also "unfortunately exposed more erosion groins," Beach said.

The groins are structures designed to control erosion and trap sand.

"It's a hazard to our swimmers," he said, adding the groins will need to be covered.

Despite it all, Coquina beachgoers were still having fun.

The laughter of children and chatter of adults echoed across the beach, mixed with the splash of the waves Friday.

"This is a normal crowd," Beach said. "It's not keeping the people away."

Some sand was redeposited

Debby's waves pulled a great volume of sand off the beach and carried it in longshore currents, to redeposit it on other beaches along the entire island, said Hunsicker.

Alternatively, the sand congealed into shallow water sandbars immediately offshore and in plain sight or has been lost to deeper water offshore, never to come back to the beach, he said.

Linda Roberts sat on a beach chair at Bradenton Beach next to her daughter, taking in the sun, the waves and the sandbar Friday.

"It's a different view with the sandbar out there, but we still love coming here," Roberts said.

Crushed shells and rocks littered the beach.

"It's been quite a change," she said, contrasting the beach before and after the storm. "Before you would walk into nice, soft sand all the way to the water's edge, it was a really pretty beach. Now, the broken shells make it hard to walk on."

Debbie Snook, an employee at the Loyal Order of Moose Lodge No. 2188 on Anna Maria Island, said she had never seen so much erosion at the beach overlooking the gulf.

"It just looks like half my beach is gone," she said, pointing to a group of people walking at knee-high water close to the business. "They are walking on water instead of sand, all that used to be sand."

The aftermath could have been worse, she said.

"We were lucky, we just got a sample of what a storm could do," she added.

Nearby, the BeachHouse Restaurant was affected too.

"It's pretty insane, we lost our whole beach front," said Lisa Schottenhamel, manager of the BeachHouse.

Several steps of a wooden bridge connecting the restaurant to the beach are now covered with rocks and shells.

"This was never like this," she said.

Some nearby turtle nests were washed away, a few were salvaged, said Schottenhamel.

"Our parking lot was destroyed, our barriers and dunes were swept away, the wind was so fierce it snapped our metal flag pole in half," she said.

The storm shattered several light bulbs hanging in strands over the patio.

"Debby had quite a fury," said Schottenhamel.

The tropical storm blew away a 4-by-8-foot sign at Anna Maria Island Inn, said Court Zoller, owner of the inn.

"A seawall became exposed after the storm," he said. "I had no idea there was a seawall here. We might have lost more if there wasn't a seawall."

As the storm intensified, Zoller began searching for the business' insurance documents, he said.

"I was very nervous," Zoller said. "I was sweating bullets."

The property did not sustain any other damage aside from the sign's demise, he said.

"But the beach looks a lot different," Zoller said. "No question."

Wind speed and a long duration are certainly reasons why the storm did so much damage, said Stockdon, the oceanographer.

"The stronger the wind, the bigger the waves and the more storm surge," she said. "Another component contributing to large waves is the duration of the storm. The longer the winds blow, it allows more time for waves to grow."

"It was delivering these powerful waves and increased water levels for about three days, and wave events typically might last a half day," she said.

"Three days, we went through many tidal cycles, (it) pushed waves higher on the beach than they typically go, allowing them to erode them for days."

"It's a wake-up call for us," Stockdon said.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @Sarawrites. Miriam Valverde, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamValverde.

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