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.

Sunday Solitude

 

On pleasant days — any day with blue skies, sunshine, calm winds, and moderate temperatures — the beaches of the upper Texas coast range from crowded to over-crowded.

When the weather turns, as it did this weekend, strong southerlies, roiling water, and cloud-shrouded skies empty the beaches. On Sunday, the Kelly Hamby Nature Trail beachfront was empty, apart from a few pelicans patrolling offshore waves and a flutter of songbirds sheltering behind the dunes.

It was, in short, a perfect time to visit its beach.

The force of waves reaching nearly to the dunes had washed the shore clean of debris. Only the heaviest logs rolled and tumbled at the water’s edge.

 

Covered by a thin layer of receding water, the coarse-grained sand reflected sun, sky, and clouds with a pearl-like sheen.

 

Pushed ashore by strong winds, receding waves carved shallow, intricate channels into the sand. Watching the movement of the waves, words from John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flats came to mind:

Time is more complex near the sea than in any other place, for in addition to the circling of the sun and the turning of the seasons, the waves beat out the passage of time on the rocks, and the tides rise and fall as a great clepsydra.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Click any image for a larger size and more detail.