Posted on January 25, 2023
For residents of Stinson Beach, the sight of ocean waves running up their streets, carving away tons of sand, flooding homes and even washing a house or two into the sea every decade or two has been an accepted tradeoff for a beachside lifestyle.
The storms that pummeled the community this month, causing millions of dollars in damages to homes, were similar to others that longtime residents like Celeste Laprade experienced in the early 2000s, the late 1990s and a particularly destructive storm in 1983. Major flooding events date back to 1940, 1956 and 1978.
“We all chose to live on the beach and we realize that that can happen,” said Laprade, secretary of the Stinson Beach Historical Society. “We all understand that living out here has its dangers.”
But Marin County sea level rise projections show the flooding and damage are expected to become a regular part of life at Stinson Beach in the coming decades unless defenses are put in place.
County studies in 2016 and 2021 concluded that 200 to 400 homes in the community of nearly 800 homes are expected to experience flooding by 2030, with the number increasing to 600 by the end of the century. Beginning in 2050, beaches visited by millions of people could begin to disappear should sea levels increase by 3.3 feet or higher, according to the projections.
“We’ve seen what can happen at this level of the sea,” said Jack Liebster, a planning manager with the Marin County Community Development Agency. “If it’s 3 feet higher or 2 feet higher, it’s going to have a tremendously greater impact on the area. It’s something we need to get ahead of.”
The worst of the damage from the recent storms occurred from Jan. 5 to Jan. 7, when swells reached heights of 15 to 19 feet across the coast, according to the National Weather Service. Stinson Beach residents posted videos of ocean water gushing into the Calles neighborhood and battering beachside homes on Jan 5.
As the tides and swells grew more intense throughout the morning, the Stinson Beach Fire Protection District and the Marin County Sheriff’s Office began to evacuate residents on eight streets from Calle del Pinos to Calle del Occidente, said Stinson Beach fire Chief Jesse Peri. The Stinson Beach Community Center was opened to house displaced residents and short-term rental guests.
Residents in the Patios neighborhood and Seadrift to the north were asked to stay in their homes.
At least two residents were unable to leave because of the flooding and had to be rescued, Peri said.
“There were two rescues that took place by neighbors and rescuers,” Peri said. “The community really bonded together and local community members who have been through this and know the situation were on their exemplary behavior.”
Peri is recommending all residents sign up for AlertMarin notifications for future storms. He said the system was critical to the successful evacuations this month.
After the evacuations were conducted, crews began to place thousands of sandbags to prevent homes and roads from being inundated. Calle Del Arroyo was blocked off after the street was flooded.
Betsy Herdman, who has owned a house in the Calles with her husband since 2003, was one of the residents who evacuated. While she said she is used to flooding during king tides, Herdman said she was shocked to see the aftermath when she returned.
“I’ve never seen that amount of damage on the beach though in all my 20 years here,” Herdman said. “The dunes are just decimated.”
As skies cleared this week, the toll the storms had taken was made clear. Several feet of sand had been washed back into the ocean while nearby streets were covered in a thick layer of sand and debris. A patio of one home was nearly toppled after its front supports were broken, with two sun chairs clinging to the angled railings. Steps leading down to the beach hovered a few feet above the sand. A driveway at one home had been completely washed away.
Stinson Beach homeowners Yvonne Robinson and Richard Evatz walked down the beach on Jan. 17 and were sad to see some of the landmarks along the beach, such as a wooden chair with a mermaid carved on the back, had been washed out to sea. When looking to buy a house in 2018, Robinson said she had looked at the Calles and Patios but decided against it because of the flooding risks — a decision she is glad she made in retrospect.
“I just wasn’t too sure about the future,” she said. “So I decided I’m going to be up on the hill where it was a little more affordable but it wouldn’t be as affected by all these higher tides and storms.”
Kevin Loughlin, a former San Rafael resident who lives in Petaluma now, made one of his regular trips to the beach to walk his dog and was shocked to see how much sand had been washed away. The supports of a sea wall in front of one home that once were buried under several feet of sand were laid bare. The thicken wooden supports of a neighboring house were cracked, as were the deck railings several feet above.
“It’s amazing the power of the ocean,” Loughlin said, looking down the beach on Tuesday.
All told, the storms resulted in an estimated $15 million to $20 million in damages to Stinson Beach homes, according to the Marin County Fire Department.
Farther south, the National Park Service parking lot was strewn with sand, wooden debris, tiny bits of plastic, bits of crumbled asphalt and concrete blocks. The parking lot is still closed, with no estimated time of reopening as of Friday, according to park spokesperson Julian Espinoza.
Several efforts are now underway to plan for worsening flooding in the coming years. The options being studied by the county include elevating roads and homes, building sea walls and dunes, boardwalking entire neighborhoods and building a new sewage system to replace septic systems. Liebster said county officials have been working with residents and agencies on the options and plan to release recommendations in mid-2024.
Meanwhile, the county is expecting to complete an update to its 2016 sea level rise vulnerability study for Stinson Beach in the next month to include other factors such as groundwater, which could exacerbate flooding during heavy rains. The update will also integrate the results of a 2021 study into nature-based defenses such as dune restoration.
“There are a bunch of dunes already out there in the Patios,” Liebster said. “They were affected but they weren’t destroyed. So that’s an interesting finding that they can actually work to protect homes and utilities.”
The National Park Service is also studying ways to protect beach access and protect against storm surges and coastal erosion in the future. Options include creating an overflow channel in Easkoot Creek as well as relocating utility facilities and roadways.
“As we look at possible options for repair, we are also planning for a long-term solution,” Espinoza said.
But after experiencing several storms during her nearly 40 years at Stinson Beach, Laprade questioned whether these defenses will be enough in the future.
“I don’t know that any permanent change can occur,” Laprade said. “It’s just the risk we take for living out here.”