Beaufort News

On Harbor Island, residents try to beat erosion's clock

Harbor Islander Tricia Gardner: 'We need a permanent solution to erosion'

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It had not reached high tide when the water crept over the shoes of those walking just in front of Harbor Island's beachfront homes on Tuesday afternoon.

White and gray sandbags lay defeated around pilings after the weekend's high waters had rushed over them and threatened about 10 homes in the gated community between St. Helena and Hunting islands. Residents say some of the homes are ready to collapse into the ocean if measures aren't taken quickly.

They hope to have Beaufort County's beachfront areas added to federal disaster relief lists.

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Tricia and Lew Gardner's 25-year-old home lost about 15 feet of sand from the embankment behind their home, they said. Just off the back of the house Tuesday, a sharp drop-off led to the sand bags, an experimental wave dissipation system and then the incoming tide.

The damage happened despite the Gardners adding more than 300 bags of sand last week.

At nearby homes, water washed the sand from beneath foundations and exposed pilings, where two weeks earlier the embankment had appeared sound.

Mike Ricci, the Gardner's next-door neighbor, moved from his house over the weekend to stay with a neighbor after feeling unsafe in his large, cylindrical home. He said an engineer told him that once exposed, the footings could not bear the same weight.

He plans to have estimates from a contractor soon to make sure the work meets state Department of Health and Environmental Control standards. He, too, is hoping for some disaster assistance.

Ricci's is also one of the half dozen homes to employ the wave dissipation system, a permeable wall of heavy duty pipe designed to slow waves and build up sand behind the walls.

The idea for structure started in the Charleston and was approved for use last year. The Gardners and others were sold after hearing how it was used to protect an Isle of Palms condominium complex.

But during the weekend of high tides and heavy rains, water rose higher than the wall and waves crashed into homes.

The wave dissipation system was a last resort of sorts for the homeowners who have had sandbags wash away in the past.

State law restricts methods the Gardners and others would otherwise try, including sea walls, bulkheads and the use of rocks and similar materials to bolster property. Those methods are ineffective, create a false sense of security and have increased the risk of damage and further erosion in many cases, according to state law.

The Gardners' home required repair after a storm last spring. At the behest of DHEC, they removed smaller sand bags and brought in one-ton bags to protect against future encroachment.

"It looked like a fortress when we finished; it really looked impenetrable," Lew Gardner said. "In six months, they were all gone."

Some of the homeowners said they weren't aware of the threat of erosion when they purchased their homes.

The Gardners said they were given historical data when they purchased their house in 2006 that showed the beach had not changed in decades.

Ricci has owned his home 20 years.

"I never would have bought it if I thought it was going to get like this," Ricci said. "I'm in imminent danger right now. Given the damage, if it's not really fixed, the next high tide could be the one that takes it out."

Mark Harbaugh has also owned his home 20 years. The weekend's high water washed the most of the sand from beneath the home and uprooted trees, piling them atop the sandbags.

Harbaugh's next-door neighbor was forced to move out and his house deemed structurally unsound, Harbaugh said.

A house farther down the beach had boards covering the pilings. A grill and bicycle appeared buried in the sand.

Residents say their best option to slow the erosion could be an expensive beach renourishment. In the short term, they are looking for help saving their homes in an area that was spared the devastation as some of the rest of the state.

"There's a lot of wrinkles; it takes time," Ricci said. "We're playing beat the clock right now."

Follow reporter Stephen Fastenau at twitter.com/IPBG_Stephen.

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