Swept Clean: From Surge to Recovery

Swept clean by Laura ~ Kelly Hamby Nature Trail, Brazoria County, October 2020

Two years ago, on August 27, Hurricane Laura moved ashore in Cameron Parish, Louisiana; sustained winds of 150 mph (130 knots) made her the strongest hurricane to strike southwestern Louisiana since record-keeping began in 1851.

Wind damage in Texas was limited to eastern and southeastern portions of the state. Despite my concerns about a variety of favorite places in that area — the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary, the Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve, and the Big Thicket generally — a September visit to assess the damage (written about here) eased my mind.

In Galveston and Brazoria counties, water rather than wind inflicted the most damage. Within the village of Surfside Beach and along portions of Galveston and Follett’s island beaches,  storm surge and overwash obliterated the line of vegetation and resulted in a loss of elevation.

After waters receded, a 2′ to 3′ dropoff made clear the amount of sand that had washed away

Movement of the vegetative line after Laura had significant consequences for residents on the barrier islands. Since 1959, the Texas Open Beaches Act has guaranteed free public access to state-owned beaches: an area defined as extending from the line of mean low tide to the line of vegetation. Since the Open Beaches Act prohibits construction on public beaches and limits the rebuilding or remodeling of properties impacted by storms, there were issues to be resolved once Laura had departed; by definition, a few homes suddenly were located wholly or in part on public beach.

In reponse, the General Land Office issued an order declaring that for a period of two years the “landward boundary of the public beach” in Galveston and Brazoria counties would extend inland for a distance of 200 feet from the line of mean low tide. The new temporary boundaries would give the natural line of vegetation time to recover, and allow for beach stabilization prior to any enforcement actions against homeowners whose property had become part of the public beach.

Of course, when long-time residents meet new regulations, lawyers aren’t far behind, and lawsuits soon were filed. That said, I was less interested in the legal issues involved than in the General Land Office’s two-year time frame; I wondered what kind of changes would occur, and whether that was time enough for regeneration to take place.

Clearly, designers of the plan were both knowledgeable and experienced. It’s been fun to watch the land recover; so much so that I thought I’d share some of the changes of the past two years with you.


The post-storm boardwalk, sans steps

One of the nicest features of the nature trail is its boardwalk. Crossing a coastal prairie remnant before reaching the dunes, it provides for easy bird watching.

Before the storm, the prairie and dunes were rich in plant life, and the boardwalk had steps leading down to the beach. The force of Laura’s surge removed the steps, carrying them a good distance inland. Eventually they were removed, along with an assortment of trash barrels, broken salt cedars, and storm-borne flotsam: tennis shoes, two-by-fours, styrofoam coolers, and seaweed.

The boardwalk steps

A natural analogue to the steps, this huge log made clear the water’s strength. Four of us tried and failed to move it from its resting place on the sand.

Still, it made a fine subject for a bit of beachy abstraction.

Once the heavy equipment arrived — front loaders, surf rakes, dump trucks, bulldozers — it wasn’t long until the salt cedars had been removed and the sand cleaned. Without its dunes and the plant life they sustain, the beach certainly looked different, but there were smaller, more subtle beauties to be enjoyed. The time for the dunes to flower would come later.

(part one of three)

Comments always are welcome.

60 thoughts on “Swept Clean: From Surge to Recovery

  1. Given time, nature can recover the ground lost to storms. People can help the process to some degree. And, they can hinder it a lot.
    Two years ago this week our area felt the impact of a severe strong derecho. Winds of over 100 mph for 45 minutes removed limbs and whole tops of trees behind our house. What was once a shaded woods became stripped of branches and very sunny. We added rollup blinds to our screened deck. We have noticed how much the trees have grown back and filled in the void.

    1. I well remember that derecho, and your reports of the damage to your house and the general area. It’s good to hear that, as with the beach, time has allowed nature to regenerate. “The same, but different” often applies in these situations. One reason for prescribed fire in places like the Sandyland Sanctuary is to open up the canopy for other native plants to thrive. You got the same effect, but for a different reason. In the next two posts, I’ll show some of the dune rebuilding that’s taken place.

  2. I sure didn’t know about the Open Beaches Act, which ” limits the rebuilding or remodeling of properties impacted by storms”, so once Laura ended, those with damaged properties cannot in fact rebuild. I like the idea of all beaches being public land. In Brazil, the coastline for the most part belongs to the navy and there are very few private beaches. Nature sure has its way to takeover and fast, as some of your photos document.

    1. It’s a little more complicated than “can’t rebuild,” but as I read the various legal documents and the history of rebuilding after previous storms, it was too complicated for me to fully understand. Suffice it to say no one can simply plunk a house on the beach, or do a variety of other things that impede public access. One of the most interesting legal battles involves the closing of the beach at Boca Chica for Space X launches, but that’s a different, if equally complicated, issue.

      The changes to the shoreline and dunes can be dramatic after a storm. Laura didn’t come close to being as destructive as a storm like Ike, but she still provided an interesting opportunity to watch a natural rebuilding process.

  3. Here in Australia with rising seas, waterfront properties are all of a sudden less desirable. Some houses are now tilting into the surf, whole beaches are disappearing and still people are skeptical of climate change., Insurances are now very high or even unavailable on many seaside properties.

    1. While it’s tempting to blame climate change for all the residential damage inflicted by storms, peoples’ insistence on building (and rebuilding, and rebuilding) in areas they know will be affected is a significant issue. It’s not like we don’t know. Hurricanes began wiping whole towns off the Texas coast as soon as people began settling here in the 1800s. Today, the west end of Galveston Island is almost completely rebuilt from the damage inflicted by Ike. Many people simply self-insure, and live with the knowledge that in a year or a decade, the re-building will have to begin again.

  4. Nature will always recover. If coastal wetlands and robust dune systems are restored there is a natural buffer system to mitigate some of the effects of storms, but the increasing force of hurricanes gives cause for great alarm.

    1. The ability of wetlands to serve as a buffer is critical. The loss of wetlands in Louisiana is especially significant for just that reason. On the other hand, one of the most interesting phenomena I’ve been following is the building of a new delta system in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, which has nearly stable wetlands. Even there, natural processes and human activity can disrupt the rebuilding, but it’s still an interesting laboratory for those dedicated to slowing or even stopping land loss.

    1. Sand in the front yard is a real problem for homeowners, but I did smile a bit when I came across the various lists of regulations about what to do with all that sand: what can be retained, what has to be replaced onto the beach, and so on. Even when no storm is in the area, a consistent, strong south wind can send sand across the Bluewater Highway that runs from Galveston to Surfside; sometimes, little dunes begin to build. I still remember my incredulity the first time I saw a highway sign that said, “Watch for Sand on Road.”

      1. I don’t recall even having that problem, but we did lose part of A1A during a storm one year. You can still see some of it during low tide.

        1. And you just pushed my nostalgia button! The Keys are one of my favorite places in the world — at least, I enjoyed them tremendously a couple of decades ago. Every now and then I reminisce a little with this. As Jimmy says, “Got a Caribbean soul I can hardly control and some Texas hidden here in my heart!”

    1. It sure is. People don’t necessarily think of Kansas as flood territory, but I still remember leaving Kansas City in 1951, when the Missouri River and its various tributaries flooded. We were visiting relatives, and the only bridge we could take to return home to Iowa was closed because of the water. When it opened temporarily, my dad decided to go for it, and I still can see the rail cars and cattle floating just under the bridge as we crossed. Eventually, I moved to Texas, and learned the phrase “watered in” from friends in the hill country.

      1. I’m from PA and have been watching the 50th Anniversay of Agnes. It really reminds me of Harvey, the same type of storms that didn’t leave. My home town is bordered on the west and east by large creeks and south by the Susquehanna. Eventually, the state bought out people’s property along the creeks. We had a big dike on the river and did alright there.

        1. I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t remember Agnes, until I realized I wasn’t in the country at the time and would have missed out on all the news. When I read the Wiki article, the number of similarities with Harvey were striking. Despite winds peaking at only 87 mph, that refusal to move along certainly did immense damage.

          As a side note, I smiled when I read about the flooding caused in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton region by the Susquehanna and Lackawanna rivers, but only because I never knew where the Lackawanna River was. When I was a kid I thought ‘Lackawanna’ was the sound a railroad train made as it clicked along.

            1. I especially enjoyed the mention in that article of the Erie Lackawanna Dining Car Preservation Society. That’s a specialized interest, for sure.

        2. I just realized this is the anniversary of Hurricane Alicia, too. That was my first hurricane, and the eye came right over the Rice U. area. It was an amazing experience.

  5. Hard to believe it’s been almost three years and a pandemic since you took us to Kelly Hamby. Your “beachy abstraction” reminds me of similar ones I did there. I like that reddish shell in your penultimate picture. Looking forward to parts 2 and 3. The name Hamby leaves openings to Ham[by] it up.

    1. It doesn’t seem so long ago, does it? One of my favorite memories of that day is of the group of nuns that were enjoying the beach, taking their own opportunity to bloom.

      Because of the structure of the nearshore waters, finding whole shells isn’t necesarily common. The waters are relatively shallow, and there are quite a few offshore sandbars where waves break and deposit the shells, so I was pleased to find that pretty red scallop on the beach. The best shelling’s in winter, especially on a low tide.

      Unrelated, but interesting: in the past two days, the Cenizo in the area have burst into prolific bloom. We had a bloom before our rain about three weeks ago, but this is something else. It’s going to be interesting to see if the ‘barometer bush’ is right.

    2. Make that a win for the barometer bush. Behold:

      “4:34PM: Harris County FLOOD WARNING SYSTEM | Heavy rain at Taylor’s Bayou @ Shoreacres Blvd near Shoreacres. Street flooding possible.

      “4:40PM [NWS] Update: Torrential rainfall just south of La Porte. A few sites reporting over an inch of rain in just 15 minutes! Areas of poor drainage are likely to have some standing water where the heaviest rainfall is occurring.”

      And….. there goes the power!

    1. The first lesson probably should be that recovery takes patience, whether it’s a dune, a prairie, or a patella. It can be tempting to try moving on too quickly.

    1. Why was the filling done? I presume for construction, but that might not be so.

      So often, the consequences of decisions don’t begin to appear until well after there’s no turning back. That’s especially true with introduced species of plants or animals that turn out to be harmful, but human activity certainly can cause problems. When I began visiting south Louisiana, one of my Cajun friends pointed out that on maps of the area, wiggly lines are bayous, but straight lines are canals. Those canals, often dredged by commercial interests, are a pipeline for the salt water and tides that help to destroy the wetlands.

  6. I find it fascinating how nature recovers (with just a wee bit of help from humans). I don’t remember too much about Hurricane Laura. I guess that was the pandemic year and I was likely preoccupied with that worry (there’s only so many things we can focus on at one time, huh?!) Bring on the next two parts — I’m eager to see the changes!

    1. I’m not surprised you don’t remember Laura. Because it made landfall just east of the Texas/Louisiana border and didn’t dramatically affect Houston or New Orleans, it didn’t get the attention from the media it might have otherwise. Cameron and Lake Charles really took a hit in Louisiana, as did the Beaumont area. Even a year later there still were blue roof tarps everywhere. It took a long time for those cities to recover, and the work’s still going on.

    1. Anyone who wonders why Texans can sometimes be a bit — blasé — about the weather can take 2020-2022 as an example. First it was Laura in August of 2020. Then, in January of 21, we had our state-wide freeze. Now we’re in drought, and people are muttering about how a nice, well-behaved low pressure system would be welcome. There’s a great Texas saying: “Satan called. He wants his weather back.”

  7. Oh, very nice Linda. I can’t wait for the next two. I don’t generally have much sympathy for those whose land gets taken by the sea. Surely they knew they were buying beachfront property on a barrier island. The natural life cycle of a barrier island is to degrade on the seaward side until a new one takes its place.

    1. True enough. A home builder I know says, “Don’t build in Galveston unless you’re ready to lose your property — without complaining.” Some of the risk can be mitigated by living on the bay side rather than the beach side, and now that building codes have been improved, things are better.

      I do smile when I see some of the old homes on the island — the ones that are weather-beaten and rickety. A guy who lived on Bolivar once told me, “My house survived the storms because it’s got so many chinks the wind blows right through.” He might have been right.

  8. Twenty years ago in college (on Galveston) it was always talked about how one day there will be a storm that opens up a channel through the west end of the island. I can’t recall exactly where that cut would happen but you can just imagine it. Been too long since I’ve been on the beach and I need to get back at it!

    1. There nearly was a cut through farther down the coast. It’s been several years now, but as I recall it was south of Quintana, and involved erosion around the ICW. A friend and I came upon the spot accidentally, and were impressed by two things: the huge granite boulders they’d moved in, and fresh bobcat tracks in the sand.

      Given the presence of San Luis pass, I doubt that another cut would occur on the west end, but it’s going to be very interesting to watch what happens on the Bolivar Peninsula now that they’ve filled in Rollover Pass. Some fear the effects on the bay now that the tidal movement has been stopped, and some are sure that, in time, another storm will open up what humans closed.

  9. A bit surprising that changes were made but they make sense so that is good news. I am not in the position to have feelings about rebuilding but I am alway amazed by the determination folks show to stay the course of multiple storms, some minor and some devastating. I would hope that grandfathering is taken into consideration for homes that were not destroyed but find themselves in the new no-build zone.
    As informing as the wide view shots are, it is the shell shot, although I am sure many residents might be described as shell-shocked, that I was most appreciative of.

    1. Even though I’ve been through Alicia, Allison, Rita, Ike, and Harvey, as well as a few minimal storms, I can’t imagine leaving the coast. Of course, I’m not at the edge of the water, but in Allison, Ike, and Harvey, the water came and found me anyway. I’ll say this — hurricanes have one big advantage. You can get away from them if you want to. At this point, I’d stay for anything that appears to be a Category 2 or below, and I’d ponder a Cat 3. Anything above that, and I’d be watching the storm on television, somewhere inland.

      I really like that image of the red shell, too. One of the things I like about it, apart from the color, is the number of other life forms that have attached themselves to it.

    1. It is nice to see the beach cleansed of human detritus from time to time. A storm isn’t the best way to clean a beach, but on the other hand, strong winds and tides sometimes can do it, leaving simple bits of nature, like that grass, to shine.

      The season’s been quiet this year, but there are stirrings. To be honest, some of us are crossing our fingers that the little tropical critter stirring in the Bay of Campeche will head north and west, and throw some much needed moisture toward Big Bend. Rain without a name, we call it — and when it arrives, it can be a real blessing.

  10. Interesting how many people are unclear on the concept of delayed gratification paying off in a bigger way than I want mine now. I’ll be interested in seeing your follow-ups.

    1. Some years ago, I saw one of those folksie, homemade plaques at a craft show that bore this message: “Why put off until tomorrow what you can screw up today?” Sometimes, a refusal to wait for events — natural or otherwise — to unfold leads to bad decisions and unsatisfactory results, but we still struggle with the need for patience, and sometimes mess things up with our impatience.

    1. It’s always fun to write about a place that others know. I love Hamby for several reasons, not the least of which is the availability of parking and the relative absence of the party-hearty crowd. Even in summer, most who pass by are on their way to Surfside or back to Galveston, although the nice kayak launches along the bay side do draw appreciative visitors.

  11. Nature is certainly very good at reshaping a landscape, but also very good at rejuvenating and restoring it, given time. I’m curious to read the rest of this series and see what you found.

  12. It is amazing how nature is restored. I remember some of the surprising effects of it when we visited Mount Saint Helens about a decade after it erupted. We were astonished to see the signs of recovery after such a devastating wipe-out of vegetation.

    1. That’s such a good example of what nature’s capable of. Whether it’s the landscape or our own bodies, the urge toward recovery is undeniable. People who’ve never experienced an injury or suffered through a storm [drought, fire, flood] seem to be to be more impatient than those who’ve experienced the process in the past. Once we know what’s possible, it’s easier to wait.

  13. Several of our favorite birding and fishing beaches have been “rearranged” over the years by storm-influenced events. Sometimes, the “new” beach is better. Sometimes, we cried.

    Nature is nothing if not resilient. She does not need a building permit or team of lawyers to redesign a coastline. Us puny humans can only react. If we insist on having that beach front property, we shall be destined, eventually, to learn harsh lessons.

    Looking forward to the rest of the story.

    1. Sometimes, a storm rearranges more than a beach. Thirty years ago, Hurricane Andrew rearranged southeast Florida. I can’t remember how long it was after Andrew that I flew down to meet friends at their boat in the Keys, but I still remember driving through Homestead and being horrified. At that point, I’d been through Alicia, but all the other biggies were yet to come.

      Of course, even an indirect hit or a small storm can wreak havoc, as Laura proved. As we like to say over here — and as I’m sure you say there — even in a slow season, it only takes one. If you’ve never seen this Gary Larson cartoon, I suspect you’ll get a kick out of it.

    1. Patience may or may not be a virtue, but anyone who wants to avoid a good bit of frustration in life will learn patience. Gardeners have to be patient; the ill or injured need patience; children waiting for Christmas have to learn patience, too — often to their chagrin! If nature can help to teach the lesson, it’s all to the good.

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