Article and photos by Jackie Pennoyer
Battered by recent back-to-back coastal storms, several state-owned barrier islands dotted along Beaufort’s coastline lost stretches of protective beaches, critical habitat for threatened species and key structural defenses safeguarding state resources.
In particular, Hunting Island State Park saw a wipe-out spanning nearly two miles of recreational beach following Hurricane Matthew and Tropical Storm Irma. The coastal storms also left the state’s only publically-accessible historic lighthouse vulnerable to tidal flooding and stripped away about 40 percent of the island’s sea turtle nesting ground.
According to J.W. Weatherford, park manager, Hunting Island’s northern coastline was so eroded that management was forced to shutter the entire island — one of Beaufort’s top attractions and economic powerhouses — for nearly two years. In total, the park suffered $5 million in damages and lost roughly $2 million in revenue due to lost time.
“Almost every restaurant from Lady’s Island to [Hunting Island] said if we were closed for two more months, they would have had to close,” Weatherford said. “If we just gave up here, Beaufort County would be impacted severely.”
Neighboring state-owned isle to the south, St. Phillips Island also sustained severe storm damages. A previously-constructed riprap revetment, which helps control beach erosion and protects existing park facilities, was blown apart by high-force winds and impact surges. Currently, riprap stones are strewn across the shore, leaving very little of the original structure in place.
The Charleston District authorized the state park to begin re-nourishment work on Hunting Island in August 2019. Once complete, the park’s project is expected to add nearly 1.2 million cubic yards of beach-quality sand to the impacted shoreline. For additional protection, the project — carefully timed to avoid disruption of turtle nesting season — also involves installation of two noninvasive groins, sand fencing and vegetation.
The state park’s second renovation project, repair of the demolished riprap revetment on St. Phillips Island, is currently under review by the Charleston District.
Speed and helpful applicant interactions are among Charleston District Regulatory Division’s top priorities, but regulators are also responsible for thoroughly studying the specified project area and completing a compliance process with other state and federal agencies.
This, combined with optimizing the project’s impact to public coastal storm resiliency, makes the process a complex one.
“Ultimately, our goal as regulators is to work on behalf of the public,” said Courtney Stevens, biologist. “We work hard to ensure applicants — including our partner, the State Park Service — understand the process and maintain the public’s best interest at every step.”
At a recent site survey to both islands, Lt. Col. Rachel Honderd, Charleston District commander, observed the regulatory team finalize St. Phillip’s Island jurisdictional determination, a critical step in the permit process that involves definitively drawing wetland boundaries.
“It’s truly evident how much our team really cares about their work,” said Honderd. “I couldn’t be more proud of this team and the important work we do.”