Timelapse shows Hurricane Irma making its way through Miami Beach
Ivis Brioso walked along the beach with her 3-year-old grandson on Thursday morning, searching for a place to sit and enjoy the sun.
But a big chunk of sand was missing. The beach dropped off steeply from the level of the nearby walking path, leaving only a narrow strip of sand near the water's edge.
That's because blasts of wind and rain from Hurricane Irma, followed by fierce winter storms, battered Miami Beach's shoreline — a double whammy that washed away mounds of sand. The section between 66th Street and 68th Street, near where Brioso lives, is the most heavily eroded in the county.
"They need to bring more sand," Brioso said as she walked north, holding her grandson's hand. Hurricane Irma "destroyed" the beach in this area, she added, "which used to be nice."
Bringing more sand is exactly what Miami-Dade County plans to do. Next week the county will begin a four-month, $1.5 million emergency project to restore a 1,000-foot stretch of beach between 66 Street and 68th Street. The county will dump roughly 32,000 tons of sand in the area.
Some of the sand that washed away during Irma last September had already been replaced as part of an $11.5 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project, paid for by a combination of federal, state and county dollars, that dumped more than 285,000 tons of sand in Mid-Beach.
But replacing the sand, even if it washes away again, is vital to preserving the beaches that attract thousands of tourists each year and to shielding Miami Beach from the seawater that rises during storms. The sand added in 2017 absorbed some of Irma's wrath, protecting the condo towers and hotels along the coastline.
"The number one thing that beach renourishment does is protect upland property from storm surge," said Elizabeth Wheaton, director of environment and sustainability for Miami Beach.
Irma washed away the equivalent of 12,000 truckloads of sand from Miami-Dade's beaches. Then, in March, winter storms hit the northeastern United States and the bad weather strengthened waves in South Florida, further eroding Miami Beach's shoreline.
Replacing the sand isn't as easy as it might seem, however.
Miami-Dade has already depleted its offshore sand reserves, and bringing sand from coastal counties further north can be expensive. Although transporting sand from the Bahamas on barges could present a cheaper option, a federal law prohibits local governments from importing foreign sand.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach introduced a bill in Congress last year to lift the sand restrictions, but the bill has stalled. For the 66th Street project, Miami-Dade County is getting sand from the Ortona quarry in Central Florida.
Finding a way to pay for renourishment projects can also be a challenge. Federal and state funding is available for some projects, but local governments have to contribute. The county government, which manages Miami-Dade's beaches, doesn't have a dedicated funding source to cover the costs of replacing sand. Miami-Dade has used money from general obligation bonds to cover its share in the past, said Marina Blanco-Pape, director of water management for the county, but officials are working to identify a dedicated funding source in the county budget.
Miami Beach and Miami-Dade are also negotiating setting aside a portion of the tax revenue from a special taxing district in South Beach for renourishment projects, Wheaton said. Miami Beach hadn't previously contributed.
Dumping sand along the shore isn't the only solution. There are also other ways to shield beaches from erosion.
Miami Beach already has lime rock installations known as breakwater structures, which are designed to slow waves, on the beach near 32nd Street. This type of installation could prove useful in other areas of the city, Wheaton said. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has also explored the idea of installing hollow concrete balls designed to create artificial reefs off the coast.
The 66th Street renourishment project begins July 9 and is slated for completion by Nov. 6. The county is also looking at the possibility of expanding the project to include the area between 66th Street and 63rd Street. The beach typically remains open during renourishment projects, Blanco-Pape said in an e-mail, although visitors will likely see flagmen and other safety personnel keeping sunbathers away from the construction equipment. Some of the beach access points near the construction zone will be closed.
While sections of shoreline below 66th Street have also suffered extensive erosion, officials expect that over time currents will wash some of the new sand further south, repairing other areas of the beach, Wheaton said.
In the meantime, visitors haven't let the erosion keep them from sunbathing.
On Thursday afternoon, flight attendant Pedro Villas was lying on a narrow patch of sand between a steep drop-off and the water's edge, tanning alongside three of his co-workers. The group travels from Peru to Miami every week, where they stay at a hotel on 65th Street and Collins Avenue, and they've noticed how much the beach has changed over the past year, Villas said.
"Bringing more sand seems like a stupendous idea," he said. But, Villas added, the damage caused by Irma hadn't prevented the group from soaking up the sun. "We will always find somewhere," he said.