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Hilton Head Island beaches survived historic storms just in time for 2016 renourishment project

Beachgoers walk past sand dunes eroded by recent high tides along Hilton Head's North Forest Beach on Oct. 14, 2015.
Beachgoers walk past sand dunes eroded by recent high tides along Hilton Head's North Forest Beach on Oct. 14, 2015. jkarr@islandpacket.com

Hilton Head Island actually had a double dose of luck when catastrophic storms pummeled the state earlier this month.

Not only did the heaviest rain, storm surges and flooding largely miss the island, but the damage to its beaches is sure to be short-lived, with a $20 million renourishment project already scheduled to begin early next year.

That has town leaders breathing a sigh of relief, even though the beaches lost about 160,000 cubic yards of sand -- as much as they used to lose in an entire year, according to town engineers' analysis.

"I was down there on the beach on Saturday and Sunday when storm passed by," Hilton Head Plantation general manager Peter Kristian said of Hurricane Joaquin, which ultimately stayed well offshore of South Carolina. "I can only imagine what type of devastation there would have been if that hurricane made landfall here (in South Carolina). We were absolutely spared. We were indeed very, very fortunate."

THE DAMAGE

Three days after the storms subsided, town engineers were on the beach assessing the damage.

The sand that washed away represented about $1.7 million, said Scott Liggett, town director of public projects and facilities. But he doesn't think the sand is gone for good, just "relocated."

"There's actually not a big concern that we've lost sand," Liggett said, "... it's still within the system we consider in our sandy shoreline. ...

"What we also consider as the overall health goes well beyond what people see as the dry sandy beach."

Although some of the aftermath was dramatic -- 13-foot-high scarps were carved out of the dunes on North Forest Beach, and some entire stretches of dry sand disappeared overnight -- none of it is considered an emergency nor was any property damaged, he said.

In fact, Liggett and town manager Steve Riley mostly see success in the response of the town's storm defenses.

Over the past 25 years, the town has built up a series of barriers to protect its beaches from large storms, and since 1993 it has collected a 2 percent tax on overnight lodging to fund those projects.

Some of the initial projects were "a miserable failure," but the town's sand fence and dune-building in 1997 succeeded in expanding the beach, Liggett said. In the years since, those fences and dunes have only grown, he and Riley added.

"Even with that scarping out on the water side, we still had 50 feet or so between dune and the beachfront properties," Liggett said. "It's there to provide this shock absorber if we need, and hopefully, we don't."

To date, the town has spent nearly $50 million to renourish and protect its beaches and has placed 8 million cubic yards of sand, about 6 million of which still remains in the beach system, Liggett said.

THE FACELIFT

The next batch of new sand is due to start hitting the island's major beaches by February.

The $20 million renourishment project will pump about 2.2 million cubic yards of sand onto four sections.

The biggest segment will be about 5.4 miles long, from the Marriott's Grand Ocean in South Forest Beach past Coligny to the northern edge of Palmetto Dunes, according to town plans.

Other sections include almost two miles along the heel at Port Royal Plantation, about 5,000 feet of South Beach in Sea Pines Resort and about 2,000 feet between Fish Haul and Mitchelville Beach parks.

Liggett will present the project for Town Council's consideration on Tuesday. The project is expected to take about four months, ideally finishing before the busiest part of the summer tourism begins, Liggett and Riley said.

The timing couldn't be better, Mayor David Bennett said Friday.

"We were very fortunate with respect to the storm, but we're also fortunate with the timing of the beach renourishment," he said. "Whatever erosion we have had will be short-lived with this upcoming project. That's obviously very fortuitous."

PINE ISLAND

One area of Hilton Head not quite as lucky, however, was Pine Island.

Located in the Dolphin Head area in Hilton Head Plantation, the section of beach on Port Royal Sound was particularly hard hit by the storm surges and high tides.

About 100 yards of the spit lost as much as 15 feet of sandy beach during the storm, plantation manager Kristian said. Storm surges also damaged sand fences, snapping four-by-four support planks like twigs, he added.

But the gated community is moving to contain the damage -- crews will repair the fences and truck in sand to renourish the beach this week, Kristian said. The plantation property owners board has approved up to $60,000 for the repairs from its operating and reserve funds.

Despite the setback, Kristian was still grateful.

"We have a permit that we're operating under that's good until 2020 to put sand out on the beach on an as needed basis," he said.

"We were really very fortunate in all of this that it wasn't worse."

Follow reporter Zach Murdock on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach and on Facebook at facebook.com/IPBGZach.

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