Despite the fury Hurricane Florence unleashed along the coastline of the Carolinas, areas with wide sandy beaches and high dunes fared well in the face of an unprecedented onslaught of storm surge and waves, according to the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA).

Although the coastline suffered significant erosion, restored beaches accomplished their design purpose of protecting upland properties and communities. While communities are pleased to have been spared from more serious damage, many must now rebuild their battered beaches to ensure their communities are protected from the next coastal catastrophe.

Hurricane Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, NC, at 7:15 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. Despite having been downgraded the previous day to a Category 1 storm, Florence produced a maximum surge of 10 feet or more along sections of the North Carolina coast. Since the storm had spent numerous days building up mass and momentum, the attendant storm surge was far greater than the reduced wind speed would indicate.

Additionally for several days prior to landfall, Florence’s forward motion had been slowed considerably by a high pressure ridge over eastern North Carolina. As a result, many beach areas experienced elevated water levels and heavy wave activity over several tidal cycles. This behavior, which is more characteristic of a nor’easter, can cause significantly more coastal erosion than would result from a faster-moving hurricane of similar size and power due to the extended time of surge and wave activity.

Comparison of Incipient & frontal dunes at Memorial Park in Pine Knoll Shores (Photo: Courtesy of Carteret County Shore Protection Office)

Initial assessments are still being compiled, but the first wave of data and aerial photographic comparisons indicate wide restored beaches combined with a health dune system stood up to the prolonged pounding of Florence’s waves and surge. This protection not only spared upland properties from catastrophic damages, but enabled coastal communities to recover more quickly and re-open for returning residents sooner.

This outcome is something that scientists, engineers, and policymakers have been championing since Superstorm Sandy in 2012 showed firsthand the value of wide beaches and healthy dune systems in reducing storm surge and wave damage.

On-the-ground observations

A comparison of dune structure following Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricane Florence in 2018. (Photos: Courtesy of Carteret County Shore Protection Office)

“Florence becomes the storm of record (twice) for high water level at the Beaufort tide gage – an unprecedented ‘one-two’ punch to Carteret County,” according to Greg Rudolph, Shoreline Protection Manager for Carteret County, NC. “The infusion of sand via beach nourishment and subsequent development of incipient, or ‘baby’ dunes since Hurricane Floyd in 1999 protected some 23 miles of homes, hotels, public accesses and infrastructure for the storm of record. There was no flood damage to oceanfront structures, nor any breaches of the frontal dune. Structural damage was limited to walkways only.”

“Our preliminary assessment is that our federal coastal storm damage reduction projects at Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach and Kure Beach did what they were supposed to do,” said Layton Bledsoe, New Hanover County’s (NC) Shoreline Protection manager. “It appears that very minimal damage was caused by ocean overwash to our small businesses, infrastructure and homes, and this is directly attributed to wide beaches and high dunes constructed and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects.”

“While Hurricane Florence did damage to our coastal communities, it could have been so much worse,” said Woody White, chair of the New Hanover County Commission. “Thanks to the consistent funding and focus on storm damage reduction efforts, both people and property were saved. This forward-thinking approach preserves lives and it preserves our tax base, which allows us to meet our other core governmental functions. In each storm, we learn more and more about what to do to make those protections even better in the future, and I know that had we not implemented storm reduction policies in years past, our damages today would be catastrophic.”

“The projects we have built in Dare County did what they were supposed to do,” according to Bobby Outten, County Manager of Dare County, NC. “They reduced the amount of flooding and damage that would have occurred had these projects not been in existence. Though not impacted by the worst of Florence, the 3-4 days of high surf and large waves would have resulted in extensive flooding and damages to public and private development had these locally funded projects not been built and maintained.”

“Based on what we’ve seen, the projects constructed by Dare County and the Towns of Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills performed as designed,” noted Ken Willson, a program manager for APTIM, the firm responsible for much of the restoration project design along the North Carolina coast. “In years past, the conditions created by Florence would have likely resulted in considerable flooding in Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills, washed out of the road around Kitty Hawk Road and Highway 12 in Kitty Hawk, and caused extensive beach access damage along the towns. We are happy to report that almost none of that occurred during Florence, which is a testament to the damage reduction provided by these projects,” Willson continued. “Furthermore, detailed analysis of how the projects performed in these conditions allow our engineers to improve future design of projects.”

In the wake of Florence, there will be a push by impacted communities for help in restoring their shorelines to their full protective profile in advance of the winter nor’easters and prior to the start of next year’s Atlantic hurricane season on June 1. State and federal officials will need to respond rapidly to this call for restoration, since mobilization of any such projects takes significant time and coordination, and the window for opportunity for restorative construction along this stretch of Atlantic coastline is often limited.

While the success of the Carolinas’ coastline in standing up to Florence is the story today, looking ahead at similar storm scenarios in years to come underscores the need for a post-storm recovery and restoration plan that allows coastal communities to rely on state and federal partners to step up swiftly following a storm’s landfall. Florence and similar catastrophic rain events in recent years also points out the need to build resilience throughout the watershed, to recognize that storms such as these are becoming more than coastal catastrophes bringing damaging impacts far inland and for far more days in duration.

The goal needs to be developing a response system starting at the federal level that enhances resilience and reduces risk, to aid local communities in reducing damages and accelerating recovery in a systemic and reliable response.

Source: American Shore & Beach Preservation Association (