Add sand, lose sand, repeat. The climate conundrum for beaches.

By Daniel Cusick | 04/15/2024 06:24 AM EDT

The U.S. is paying a fortune to rebuild beaches, only to see the sand disappear.

Hurricane Nicole swept away chunks of sand supporting a building's foundation in Daytona Beach Shores, Florida, in 2022.

Hurricane Nicole swept away chunks of sand supporting a building's foundation in Daytona Beach Shores, Florida, in 2022. Rebecca Blackwell/AP

Rebuilding beaches after hurricanes is costing U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars more than expected as the Army Corps of Engineers pumps mountains of sand onto storm-obliterated shorelines.

Congress approved more than $770 million since 2018 for emergency beach “nourishment” projects after five megastorms struck Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. Those costs shattered government expectations about the price of preventing beaches from disappearing through decades-old programs that in many cases were created before the dangerous effects of climate change were fully understood.

Four of those storms — Michael, Maria, Irma and Ian — were among the most powerful to make landfall in the United States, raising questions about the rising costs of pumping, dumping and spreading sand onto beaches that are increasingly jeopardized by the effects of climbing temperatures.


The emergency funding since 2018 was used largely to fortify Florida beaches. Those costs far surpassed the annual price of scheduled beach repairs nationwide, which amounts to roughly $150 million over 19 states.

It also received less oversight than long-term rebuilding programs, which depend on rigorous analyses by the Army Corps to help ensure that financial benefits derived from activities such as tourism outweigh the price of piling sand on beaches that will eventually wash out to sea, according to researchers.

“It’s like the old-school way of the corps funding for nourishment has disappeared over the last decade,” said Andrew Coburn, associate director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.

“With Congress doling out all this money after disaster events, it seems the corps is being given carte blanche authority to do what they want on these beaches,” he added.

The rising costs of beach rebuilding reflect strained federal efforts to sustain shoreline communities at a time of accelerating rates of rising seas, unprecedented temperature increases and intensifying storms that make landfall with sharpened fury, bigger surges and more rain.

The beach aid came on top of billions of dollars in federal supplemental disaster relief for communities hit by those five storms, for things like infrastructure rebuilding and temporary housing. Unlike long-term beach projects — for which costs are shared between federal, state and local governments — emergency rebuilding is fully funded by the Army Corps.

They are considered “repairs” to long-running beach programs, known in Army corps parlance as coastal storm risk management projects, many of which date to the 1970s. They are one of the most controversial programs within the corps’ Civil Works Division because critics say it robs federal dollars from taxpayers in inland states to rebuild oceanfront communities — only to see the sand wash away.

Corps officials say such criticisms are unfounded and that beach rebuilding after disasters keeps coastal economies alive, in part by ensuring that vacationers can spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on hotels, restaurants and retail shops.

That has been especially true in the wake of Hurricane Ian, which ripped up the central Gulf Coast of Florida as a Category 4 storm in 2022, destroying beaches from Fort Myers to Captiva Island. Ian then crossed the state and entered the Atlantic Ocean, reforming into a Category 1 storm. As it tracked northward, it devoured sand from Flagler Beach near Daytona and St. Augustine Beach south of Jacksonville, then roared up the Georgia and Carolina coasts. Weeks later, Hurricane Nicole stripped away more sand from many of the same beaches.

Sand is added to the beach in Miami Beach, Florida, as part of a $16 million project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Sand is added to the beach in Miami Beach, Florida, as part of a $16 million project by the Army Corps of Engineers. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Milan Mora is chief of the Programs and Project Management Division within the Water Resources Branch of the corps’ Jacksonville District. He oversees more than 35 long-term beach rebuilding projects from Tampa to the Florida Keys and from Miami-Dade County to some of the state’s northernmost beaches.

Mora acknowledged that emergency beach spending in the corps’ Jacksonville District has spiked since 2018 because of storms like Ian, Nicole, Irma and Maria. He noted that neither Maria nor Nicole made a direct hit on Florida, but their massive wind fields and wave action took big bites out of already scoured beaches along the Atlantic.

“What I can tell you is [that] this year and next year are higher than usual because some beaches already under these [coastal storm risk management rebuilding] programs were badly damaged by Ian and Nicole” in 2022, Mora said. “I can say every one of these projects is about protecting infrastructure from big wave action associated with these storms. These are not situations where we can simply leave [beach reconstruction] to the locals.”

Beach tourism in the U.S. accounts for roughly $45 billion in economic activity and generates about $25 billion in federal tax revenue, according to the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, which works closely with the corps.

“We are not seeing diminishing returns yet,” said Nicole Elko, the group’s executive director who holds a doctorate in coastal geology. “Will we in 50 years? Maybe. But right now, the evidence for continued investment is strong.”

‘Simply astronomical’

But skyrocketing spending on beach rebuilding now eclipses what Congress once thought was sufficient to protect beach towns.

The federal government entered the beach-building business in the 1950s when work began on the first 18 shore protection projects, according to a corps history of coastal programs. Then in 1962, Congress gave the corps explicit authority to rebuild beaches, setting off what has become hundreds of projects, mostly on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Congress initially planned for beach communities to receive periodic sand infusions over a 50-year time frame. Expectations were that beaches would receive sand roughly once per decade, though that has increased on average to every four or seven years with the quickening pace of erosion.

A surfer walks along New Smyrna Beach, Florida, after a storm washed away sand from a rebuilding project.
A surfer walks along New Smyrna Beach, Florida, after a storm washed away sand from a rebuilding project. | Nigel Cook/Daytona Beach News-Journal via AP

Studies show that the corps currently spends between $100 million and $150 million annually on those long-term projects, usually on a cost share of 65 percent federal and 35 percent state and local. But as hurricanes and other coastal storms grow more intense because of climate change, those costs could soar into the hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century.

“It’s simply astronomical what these dollar figures could add up to,” said Randall Parkinson, a coastal geologist and research associate professor at Florida International University in Miami.

He published a peer-reviewed paper with a colleague in 2018 under the unambiguous title: “Beach nourishment is not a sustainable strategy to mitigate climate change.”

Their findings, based on analysis of projects in the Florida Panhandle, ran counter to previous studies that suggested coastal communities could outrun rising ocean waters by pumping sand onto eroding beaches every five to seven years.

“That’s just not going to happen. We’re past the point of even thinking that piling sand onto beaches is going to save these communities,” Parkinson said in an interview.

A landmark federal study led by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2021 came to a similar conclusion, noting that the long-term viability of rebuilt beaches depend on the rate at which sediment is dispersed along shorelines.

“The spreading rate is episodic because it is driven mostly by storms, the frequency and intensity of which are difficult to predict now and may be complicated in the long term by climate change,” the authors wrote.

Moreover, “beach nourishment can cause detrimental sedimentation on sensitive seafloor habitats, and the dredging [of sand] … needed for nourishment can reduce sediment supply to barrier islands, which reduces their ability to keep pace with sea-level rise.”

Sand is dumped on Flagler Beach, Florida, ahead of Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Sand is dumped on Flagler Beach, Florida, ahead of Hurricane Irma in 2017. | David Goldman/AP

Despite the double jeopardy of monster storms and rising seas, more local governments will be seeking sand to rebuild beaches over the coming century, experts say.

St. Augustine Beach, a city of 7,000 people in northeastern Florida, is one of those communities. Its beaches have received sand infusions for years but were badly damaged by Hurricanes Ian and Nicole, which came only six weeks apart.

Last month, St. Augustine Beach began receiving $33.5 million in taxpayer-subsidized sand to replace what was lost to the hurricanes.

Dylan Rumrell, the mayor, said he understands why many taxpayers are opposed to rebuilding beaches that will soon erode again. But he won’t apologize for protecting his town’s allure to tourists.

“What I’ve come to learn is that without the beaches, there won’t be any money to take care of other things,” he said. “I’m a multigenerational Floridian, and I can tell you beach nourishment has been a good thing for this state. We’re lucky to have it.”