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.
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.
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.
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.
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.