VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — Hurricane Isabel kicked up the sand along the oceanfront Thursday, providing the first test of a taxpayer-funded $125 million beach widening project completed last year.
The project, financed largely with federal money, is intended to protect high-rise oceanfront hotels from surging waves and attract more tourists to the popular vacation spot. But it has been criticized by a beach erosion expert as a waste of money because the sand will continue to wash away.
"All of us paid for this, including the people in Omaha," said Orrin Pilkey, a geologist and professor emeritus at Duke University who studies beach erosion.
"The sea level is going to keep rising and the erosion rate is going to increase," Pilkey said, meaning the beach will need more and more sand.
The enlarged beach was no longer visible in spots Thursday as ocean waves crashed against a concrete seawall.
The project, completed in March 2002, pumped 4 million cubic yards of sand from the ocean floor and dumped it onto the beach, widening it to 300 feet. The federal government paid 65 percent of the $125 million; the city paid the rest.
Phill Roehrs, a coastal engineer with the city, estimated that Isabel would deposit 500 to 1,000 cubic yards of sand into storm drains and onto landscaping along the resort strip. He called the erosion a minor and expected nuisance.
"I'm planning to use part of the beach. It's a sacrificial element," Roehrs said. The sand is protecting the buildings by absorbing the energy of the waves, he said.
The city may have to add sand, depending on Isabel's impact, but that's better than significant damage to hotels, Roehrs said.
Other East Coast beaches have tried sand replenishment. At Hunting Island State Park in Beaufort, S.C., about 1.5 million cubic yards of sand were placed on the beach in 1991, but virtually all of it has washed away.
Another replenishment project in Virginia Beach added sand to the beach in Sandbridge, a remote community of about 1,500 beach houses that was under a mandatory evacuation order during Isabel.
In 1998, the city spent $8 million to add 1.1 million cubic yards of sand to Sandbridge. This year, 1.5 million cubic yards of sand was added, with the federal government paying 65 percent of the $10 million cost and the city paying the rest, Roehrs said.
"I can't help but think the $10 million could have paid for a better school system rather than for nourishing a beach for a few fat cats," Pilkey said.
Roehrs said Pilkey would prefer that people move away from the coast, but that's not realistic.
"We're here now and we have to deal with it," Roehrs said.