‘We need your help’: Officials seek DeSantis' support for dune projects as governor tours Flagler Beach

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis met with city and county leaders to review Hurricane Ian’s impact on Flagler County.

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Gov. Ron DeSantis toured Flagler Beach's eroded coast and viewed the city's storm-shortened pier early Sunday, Oct. 16, as he visited to assess Hurricane Ian’s impacts.

Flagler County officials told the governor that the county has lost about half a million cubic yards of sand, which will cost around $35-40 million to restore. 

“We need your help,” County Engineer Faith Alkhatib said. “Without the dunes, there’s no protection.”

Dunes shelter coastal buildings and infrastructure from storm surge, and the county is working with state and federal agencies on projects to add additional sand to the beach.

DeSantis said that the city could look into the Resilient Florida grant for its coastline problems.

"It seems like this part of the state …  gets more erosion than some of the others," DeSantis said. 

The governor — along with FEMA Region 4 Administrator Gracia Szczech, Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie, and State Rep. Paul Renner — met with Flagler County commissioners, Emergency Management Director Jonathan Lord, members of the Flagler Beach City Commission and select county staff members during his hour-long visit.

Gov. DeSantis listened to reports from Alkhatib, Lord and Flagler Beach City Manager William Whitson, toured the pier out as far as the that's cordoned off for repairs, then viewed damage in Painters Hill.

Flagler County and Flagler Beach leaders give reports to Gov. DeSantis about the damage Hurricane Ian left behind. Photo by Sierra Williams
Flagler County and Flagler Beach leaders give reports to Gov. DeSantis about the damage Hurricane Ian left behind. Photo by Sierra Williams

Alkhatib told DeSantis that since State Road A1A in Flagler County is designated as a scenic highway, the devastation of the dunes impacts not only residential safety, but also the tourism income that supports the small businesses that line the beach.

Alkhatib asked the governor for help funding a beach renourishment program, and potentially lowering the amount the county would have to pay to match grant money for the program. The current requirement is 50%, she said.

“If you could reduce the 50% local match or waive it, it would help,” Alkhatib said.

Whitson told the governor that the pier is now, post-Ian, around 400 feet in length — half of its pre-Matthew 800 feet.

Flagler Beach received $10 million dollars to fix the pier after Hurricane Matthew in 2016. But, because of inflation and the further damage from Ian, it will cost between $15 and $18 million to completely restore, he said.

The city wants to build a cement pier with cement, which will make it more resilient against further storms, in time for the centennial in 2025, Whitson said. 

But because of restrictions on how the county can use FEMA money, it's not clear to the city government if FEMA will fund a cement pier, or require that the new pier be built to match the condition of the existing wood pier before Hurricane Matthew.

Flagler Beach Mayor Suzie Johnston said it’s important is to start the Army Corps of Engineers beach renourishment project. 

Hurricane Ian, she said, has left Flagler Beach and A1A “extremely vulnerable.”

Renner, speaker-elect of the House, said the county needs to be very proactive about the damage to the dunes and move to becoming a state-managed beach program — and quickly.

The state could then help the county fund the expensive renourishment project, he said. The first step, Renner said, is dealing with the the single property owner who is refusing to sign an access easement that the Army Corps of Engineers requires before its workers can start the project.

County engineer Faith Alkhatib (right) shows Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (left) the damage to Flagler Beach pier and beach. Photo by Sierra Williams
County engineer Faith Alkhatib (right) shows Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (left) the damage to Flagler Beach pier and beach. Photo by Sierra Williams

"This is a legitimate need for our entire community," Renner said, "So to have one guy being a hold out when his home is not being taken, his access to the beach is not being taken —  we're at a point where we need to move forward with eminent domain or whatever is required to get that project moving forward." (The remaining holdout is in fact a woman, not a man.)

Touring the pier with the governor, Whitson said the city is "out of bullets" as far as the dunes are concerned. 

The city doesn’t have an exact figure on the economic impact of the damage, he said. 

"We haven't done that analysis yet, but we know it's heavy," Whitson said.

Whitson told the governor that Flagler Beach sees 700,000-800,000 visitors each year. 

Their pier alone has had visitors from every state in the union and countries around the world: From July 25, 2021, to June 2022, the pier saw 80,000 visitors, not including the local fishermen, he said.

The county, and especially the coastline municipalities, is tourism dependent, Renner said.

"If we lose our beach, we lose our draw," Renner said. "It's an important priority that I'm going to keep an eye on."

After the tour, the group went to Painters Hill, where resident and Planning Board member Mark Langello showed the damage his property had sustained, according to a press release from the Flagler County government.

County Administrator Heidi Petito said in the news release that county government staff had been “elated” to hear that DeSantis would be visiting. 

“We could use assistance from the state to fast-track seawall permitting in this area, which suffered a lot of damage,” she said. “This visit gives him a better understanding of what our residents are dealing with in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian and continued vulnerability for upcoming nor’easters.”


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