The Associated Press

Florida Special report: Dorian’s erosion destroys turtle nests, beaches

Hurricane Dorian played duck-duck-goose with beaches from south Florida to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, gnawing away sand and turtle eggs at some while leaving others virtually unscathed.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — At many shorelines, Dorian-fueled waves clawed away vast swaths of beach, leaving behind sandy cliffs. At Phipps Park in south Palm Beach, beachgoers were faced with a five-foot leap to get to the beach.

A few miles south at Lake Worth Public Beach, Dorian left no scars but did steal a few feet of sand.

Continuing south, the Lantana Municipal Beach — a frequent victim of severe erosion — was closed. At high tide Wednesday, the beach was gone. Waves lapped a seawall and lifeguard tower. Later in the day, a sliver of beach returned at low tide.

How the beach at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago fared is not known. There is no public access.

On Friday, as Dorian moved away from North Carolina, authorities were getting their first assessments of the fragile barrier islands around Wilmington, including the remnants of the Civil War site Fort Fisher at the thin tip of a peninsula jutting into the ocean. Among the strongest winds near Wilmington were clocked here.

Dorian’s slow churn just off Florida’s coast chewed up some beaches. Teams from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation and Palm Beach County Environmental Resources Management fanned out along the coast to assess damage. The agencies often partner in beach restoration projects.

By Wednesday afternoon, DEP had assessed 22 Palm Beach County beaches in critical erosion zones and posted the reports and photos on an interactive map.

If needed, DEP also sends engineering teams to damaged beaches to do more in-depth assessments and document damage to dunes and coastal structures. Many areas impacted in previous hurricanes have recovered naturally or have been restored through beach renourishment projects.

As for sea turtle nests, about half the nests that had not yet hatched — about 9,000 — were destroyed in the storm, said Benji Studt, the public outreach supervisor at the county department.

Unfortunately, leatherback turtles, the largest of all turtles and an endangered species, prefer to nest on the county’s northern beaches. But leatherbacks also nest earlier in the season than the green and loggerhead turtles that nest on the county’s middle and southern beaches, meaning most of the leatherback nests had already hatched, Studt said.

“The silver lining in this is that even though we did lose half the remaining nests in north county, we did have a record breaking season this year and two-thirds of the nests had already hatched,” Studt said. “We did luck out in that regard.”

This year’s nest count topped 50,000 and two-thirds of those nests had already hatched before Dorian’s waves lashed local beaches, Studt said.

Although the sight of cracked eggs and washed out nests is heartbreaking, “turtles have evolved to deal with this kind of natural event” by laying multiple nests each year.

“A lot of people think they lay just one nest but each is laying 6-8 nests each season,” Studt said. “One of the reasons turtles do that is exactly to combat events like this.”

Georgia’s sea turtle nests fared better than Florida’s. Only about 15 percent to 20 percent of the record-breaking nearly 4,000 loggerhead nests remained unhatched as the storm approached. And in the Peach State, Dorian didn’t push the tide as high as the previous weekend’s king tides. Department of Natural Resources Biologist Mark Dodd said while his crews were still assessing nesting beaches, “the data we have suggests the effects were relatively minimal.”

Dorian did bring some good news: The storm washed away the thick mats of sargassum seaweed that have smothered county beaches this summer.

Still, the Palm Beach County health department issued an swim advisory on Thursday, urging beachgoers not to swim until the results of water quality tests confirm that the water has not contaminated by stormwater from Hurricane Dorian.

GateHouse Media journalist Mary Landers in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this story.

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