Posted on November 15, 2023
It’s no secret that the beaches of Volusia County don’t look like they used to before Hurricane Nicole hit.
Jessica Fentress is the Volusia County coastal division director on the coastline, an area where many family memories are made.
“They can remember being kids in these houses,” Fentress said.
Fentress reflected on the past year after Nicole walloped the coastline, causing houses to crumble onto the shore and forcing families out of their homes.
“They’re managing their finances, their families, wellness, everything,” Fentress said.
Hurricane Nicole hit just before the holidays, which shocked homeowners.
“We suffered damage that we have never experienced before in Volusia County,” Fentress said. “This is the first time that the entire coastline of Volusia County suffered critical erosion to the point where dozens of structures were at risk of collapse immediately after a storm event.”
After the initial shock, Fentress said the primary focus was reopening the beach.
“We had to save our holiday season. We had to save Spring Break. We had to save our summer season,” Fentress said.
So, the county got to work. Fentress said the hurricane caused $30 million worth of damage to county beach infrastructure alone. They worked hard to find the money.
“We brought in over $82 million in grant funding for Volusia County’s beaches alone. That would not be done without the support of our state government. Our local elected officials, our regional elected officials,” she said. “And without that $82 million worth of grant funding, then the county would not be able to put sand back on our beaches.”
In the past year, over 75% of the county’s beach walkovers are back open, seawalls have been replaced, and for properties that have not been able to put in temporary protection, the county is almost done setting out.
“Access is open,” Fentress said. “It may not look as pretty as it did before the storm. It will take us years to recover. But we are prioritizing beach access over everything.”
So, what is next for Volusia County? With sea turtle nesting season over, Fentress said the next big projects are debris removal, construction repairs to walkovers and beach approaches and the big one: bringing sand back.
“Basically, the entire shoreline’s going to have a facelift,” said Fentress.
She said the county is not just looking at next year’s projects but well beyond that with a feasibility study.
“We’re not looking on what is it going to look like next week? What’s it going to look like in two years? We’re trying to figure out what our coastline is going to look like in the next 50 years,” Fentress said.
With that long-term mission, she said they are expecting challenges.
“Five to 10 years when the grant money runs out as a community, we’re going to have to have a conversation on, ‘How do we maintain this vision of the beach that we decide that we want?’” Fentress said. “And that’ll be a difficult conversation. But we’re going to engage our community and we’re going to see where we end up.”
In the year following Hurricane Nicole, Fentress said Volusia County prioritized getting the beach back open for the people. Moving into next year, they plan to work with the community to plan out its future.
“Ultimately, our community is coming back stronger. And ultimately, we will have a better beach when we see it on the other side,” Fentress said.