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Sand is pushed up in front of houses to replace a dune flattened by Hurricane Matthew.

After Matthew: Pawleys Island starts rebuilding its dunes

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Heavy equipment hauled sand through the night on Pawleys Island in a race to rebuild a sand dune before this week’s spring tides could wash under beach houses already damaged by Hurricane Matthew. Regulators gave the town permission to excavate sand from the spit at Pawleys Inlet for the work, something that hasn’t been done in almost 20 years.

There was about 18 inches of water on portions of Springs Avenue at high tide Tuesday, but the tides are becoming less extreme as the moon wanes. “Everybody was concerned about having a breach like Hugo,” Mayor Bill Otis said. That hurricane in 1989 cut a new inlet across the south end. It was repaired with rock and concrete debris.

The town’s contractor, Goodson Construction, started work last Thursday after the state Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management authorized emergency beach scraping. Sand that washed from the beach onto Springs Avenue had been hauled by National Guard engineers and Goodson to the beach access parking lot on the south end. From there, a Goodson trackhoe loaded the sand into a dump truck to put it back on the beach. A bulldozer pushed the sand up in front of houses.

Hours later, the Army Corps of Engineers told the town the work violated federal law. “I stopped everything,” Otis said.

That evening, the high tide washed under some houses on the narrow south end of the island. Photos of that “seemed to get everybody’s attention,” Otis said. Corps officials were on the island in the morning. They agreed to approve an emergency permit. In the process, the town added a request to move 40,000 cubic yards from the spit south of the public parking lot.

“It’s essential that we protect those houses,” Town Administrator Ryan Fabbri said. He and Andrew Giles, project manager for Coastal Science and Engineering, watched as Goodson’s crews started work under a series of floodlights to take advantage of a falling tide.

Although the high tides were some of the highest of the year, the low were also more extreme, Giles said. That gave the equipment more area to work as it scraped sand from the intertidal zone.

By Saturday, the track-hoe had moved from the parking lot to the southern tip of the island. It filled dump trucks with sand from the water’s edge that was hauled north to be placed in front of houses.

A pair of pan scrapers also worked along the water’s edge. The agencies limit scraping to a depth of 1 foot. “They don’t want you digging a big hole,” Giles explained. The shallow cuts in the beach fill in “just like when you try to dig a hole in the sand.”

The last time the town was allowed to dig sand from the spit at the island’s south end was during a beach nourishment project in 1998. That project was also done by Goodson and added 270,000 cubic yards of sand to the beach in front of houses.

Storms in October 2015 caused severe erosion along the beach. It took four months for the town to get state and federal emergency permits to push up sand from the beach to rebuild the dunes. “If we didn’t push up dunes in March, there’s no telling how much damage would have been done on the south end” during Matthew, Fabbri said.

Fabbri called Goodson four days before Matthew hit, when it became apparent the hurricane was not going to turn east before it reached Georgetown County. A pan scraper sat across the street from the island’s makeshift town hall even as Town Council ratified the company’s $10,000 mobilization cost. By then, the National Guard had been working three days to clear Springs Avenue of sand. The initial estimate was that the engineers would have it done in a day. Their work “was nothing short of remarkable,” Otis said. Nobody realized the actual volume of sand on the road. Goodson’s machines are four to five times larger than the Guard’s and the engineers welcomed the help, Otis said.

The state emergency permit expires Nov. 3. Because of the time lost in getting the Corps of Engineers permit, Otis hopes the state permit will be extended.

The work that was done in March covered the entire island. The current beach scraping will follow the same format once it moves beyond the island’s south end. While the permit for the March project allowed only one scraping, the state will consider amending that permit to allow a second scraping, Otis said.

The work was initially estimated to cost $90,000. That’s now risen to about $200,000 as more equipment was brought in. Since the president declared Hurricane Matthew a federal disaster, the town expects to get reimbursed for 75 percent of the cost.

Along the beach north of Hazzard Street, the dune was cut back 40 to 60 feet by the storm. The town will have to decide whether to push up sand to create a berm in front of the remaining dune or to push it to the base of the dune. “The dune we push up is going to be way closer to the houses than people are used to,” Otis said.

That work will also involve removing portions of decks and stairs that were left standing on or hanging over the beach. Goodson wants to be indemnified by the town if it removes structures from private property. If the town agrees, it will lose its insurance coverage from the state if a property owner sues. “Are you willing to take that risk?” Otis asked council members at an emergency meeting this week. No hands were raised.

Town Council plans to meet Oct. 27 at the Waccamaw Library to continue that discussion and get comments from property owners.

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