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Pawleys Island: All eyes on the weather as extreme tides rise on eroded beaches

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Three weeks after storm-driven waves cut back the dunes along area beaches, the area will face a series of extreme high tides. “There’s nothing we can do,” Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis said this week as be prepared for a visit from federal officials to assess the damage from the 1,000-year storm. There’s no time for emergency sand scraping.

“What we can do is pray that we don’t have a northeast or east wind, an onshore wind,” Otis said.

High tides Tuesday and Wednesday mornings will reach 6.9 feet above mean low water. That’s slightly higher than the highs recorded last month that left island streets underwater.

The National Weather Service forecast is for northeast winds through Sunday then east winds as a front approaches from the west.

The millennial storm was created by the combination of a low pressure system and passing hurricane. It dumped record amounts of rain on the state and strong easterly winds and a 2-foot storm surge caused severe erosion. Staff from the Federal Emergency Management Agency met town and Georgetown County officials on Pawleys Island last week for a preliminary review of the damage.

Otis said he revised his estimate of the erosion damage after inspecting the remains of a walkway in front of the Sea View Inn. It showed about 16 feet of dune had been lost, he said. His original estimate was 12 feet.

FEMA workers were due back on the island Monday, but ended up rescheduling after finding damage at Garden City was more extensive than they thought. Their return visit this afternoon will coincide with the high tide. “There won’t be much beach,” Otis said.

On Tuesday, Georgetown County closed six of the seven walkways at Litchfield Beach. Erosion left some of the posts dangling above the beach. Only the walkway adjacent to the Litchfield Inn remains open.

Local governments are trying to get an estimate of the amount of sand lost in order to calculate the cost of repairs, which they hope will be funded by FEMA. “Nobody has a financial estimate of what it will take to put all this back together,” Otis said. “One thing that concerns me is if the sand is gone off the dunes and is somewhere in the intertidal zone the loss won’t be as bad as it appears.”

That could hamper the town’s plans to move the sand back to the dunes. Otis would like that to happen before February, a time that’s typically stormy.

Even without an onshore wind, next week’s tides are likely to lead Pawleys Island Police to close the causeways to traffic temporarily. Chief Mike Fanning said the rule-of-thumb is that if there is 5 to 6 inches of water on the road during the day and the pavement markings are visible vehicles will be allowed to pass. Drivers will get a warning about the effects of the saltwater on their vehicles.

After dark, “we err on the side of safety,” Fanning said. People who need to get to houses on the island are told to wait an hour for the water to go down so they won’t run the risk of driving off the pavement and into the creek.

During September’s lunar eclipse, which coincided with the extreme tides, police turned hundreds of would-be spectators away. “There was no beach to go to,” Fanning said.

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