Post-storm beach repair not in the cards at present

In the wake of two storms that heavily damaged dunes and beaches in Bethany Beach, South Bethany and Fenwick Island, the potential for funding for shoring up the storm-beaten beaches remains unclear.

Last week, officials announced that there would be no funding this year for replenishment of those beaches in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ working plan for 2016.

“Each project competes for the limited funds that are available,” said Stephen Rochette, spokesman for the Corps’ Philadelphia District, which includes the Delaware beaches. “Those decisions, made at the Washington level, are based on many different factors and other projects across the country.”

Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach, also hit hard by the same October 2015 and January 2016 storms, will undergo replenishment this year, Rochette said, simply because they were already on the schedule for replenishment.

“Regarding Rehoboth & Dewey, the available funding is from fiscal year 2015, provided late in fiscal year 2015, to be used for scheduled renourishment in fiscal year 2016.” Those funds, Rochette said, were provided prior to the two storms.

Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control spokesman Michael Globetti emphasized that “Bethany and South Bethany were never scheduled for a 2016 maintenance project. They have been on schedule for a 2017 maintenance project, and we expect that will be the schedule going forward.”

“If the Army Corps receives funding for these projects in 2017, a maintenance beach replenishment project will take place next year in those communities,” Globetti said.

Last week, Gov. Jack Markell wrote to President Barack Obama, requesting disaster funding to help in repairing damage to boardwalks in Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach. The storms, Markell said, “affected every town in the state, with particularly severe flooding and damage to the beach-side communities.”

“At least 28 homes sustained major damage or were destroyed,” Markell’s letter said, with additional ongoing assessments likely to increase that number. He also noted that “extensive damage to four state-maintained beaches resulted in severe beach erosion and multiple dune breaches.”

Sussex County alone qualifies for “Major Disaster” funding under federal guidelines, Markell said.

Beach and dune repair, however, will not be included in the $2.5 million in federal disaster funding sought by Markell, because those are projects overseen by the Corps of Engineers. The funds typically cover damage to boardwalks and other infrastructure, as well as aid in repairs for individual properties.

The need to address the damaged beaches has caught the attention of Delaware’s members of Congress, who visited the beaches last week to survey the damage.

“While effective emergency preparations prevented much of the damage last month’s storm could have caused, Sussex County and many communities around the state are still recovering from significant flooding.” said U.S. Sen. Tom Carper. “The federal funds provided through the Federal Disaster Relief Fund will help get those communities hardest hit back on their feet, and help ensure Delaware continues to be prepared for similar disasters in the future. I thank Gov. Markell for his leadership, and I urge President Obama to approve this Disaster Declaration as soon as possible.”

“Winter Storm Jonas packed a devastating punch last month, and many Delawareans are still struggling from the effects of flooding in Sussex County,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Coons. “Businesses, homeowners and our infrastructure all continue to feel the ramifications of the storm.”

“Coastal communities in Delaware were hit hard, and they need help. I had the chance to see a lot of the damage and flooding immediately after the storm,” said U.S. Rep. John Carney. “State and local resources are doing as much as possible, but we need federal assistance.”

State officials are hoping that Congress will approve funding to help the battered beach towns.

“It is our hope, and our expectation, that Congress will appropriate adequate funds to bring the projects back up to design levels,” Globetti said.

The Army Corps’ Rochette said funding is still being evaluated for storm damage along the beaches.

“We are still going through our process, for Bethany and South Bethany, as well as other projects,” Rochette said. That process, which the Corps goes through following “significant storms,” follows federal law and will determine whether federal funding is warranted.

“Once the process is complete, repairs would be subject to the availability of funds,” which would be separate from the routine funding allocated yearly by the Corps, Rochette said.

Meanwhile, DNREC’s Globetti said, the state agency is working on pushing sand onto the beach as a temporary measure to help prevent further damage.

“DNREC is utilizing the sand which is naturally returning to the beach, to bulldoze up to protect the front of the dune from additional impacts, and improve pedestrian access. Where conditions are appropriate, grass will be planted in late March in areas where it is needed,” he said.

Globetti emphasized that, although “the beaches and dunes have been through a very tough winter, and the impacts have been far greater than normal,” the fact that the dunes were in place at all helped prevent major damage in the beach towns.

“It is important to bear in mind that the dunes and beach system in Bethany and South Bethany is in better shape now, even with the tough winter we’ve had, than it was prior to the initial construction of these projects in Bethany and South Bethany, “ he said.

“With the lack of protection that existed in Bethany and South Bethany prior to 2005, the series of storms we have experienced this winter almost certainly would have caused damage to homes, businesses, boardwalks and streets in these communities,” Globetti added.

State and local officials spent part of the week in meetings in Washington, D.C., regarding beach replenishment issues.

“DNREC and the coastal towns have been discussing these ongoing issues — and we expect this open line of communication to continue,” and the same will occur, as well, with federal officials.

While South Bethany Mayor Pat Voveris was not in the nation’s capital this week, she said she strongly urged state and federal officials to come through with funding to shore up the damaged beaches and to protect the state’s coastal towns. Voveris lauded DNREC’s efforts to protect the coast from another devastating storm. She said there needs to be serious “behind the scenes” work done to ensure that the coastal towns remain protected.

Voveris said federal officials need to be mindful of the impact the beaches have on local and state economies. She added that even temporary damage can have long-lasting economic impacts, and emphasized the need to address the damaged beaches or face long-term consequences.

“If it goes away, it will never come back,” she said.

“It seems to me that if the government can send money to help other countries when they need it, it should certainly be able to help those towns here at home,” Voveris said.