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Latvala Hopes To Turn The Tides On Beach Restoration

A St. Johns building damaged due to erosion from Hurricane Irma.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Florida’s beaches are in constant need of restoration, to truck in sand that the sea washes away. In the wake of Hurricane Irma, miles of critically eroded beaches are in even more danger. Now a powerful lawmaker is once again trying to get funding to replenish the shorelines.

A St. Johns building damaged due to erosion from Hurricane Irma.
Credit Florida Department of Environmental Protection /
The Florida Channel
A St. Johns building damaged due to erosion from Hurricane Irma.

Hurricane Irma blasted Florida’s beaches. The Keys, the Southwest Gulf Coast and the First Coast saw some of the worst effects. Alex Reed is with the state Department of Environmental Protection. She says the storm ate away at the shoreline, with damage ranging from minor to major.

“On the Southwest Gulf we saw predominately wind-driven damages. Once we got up to the northeast is we saw a totally diff picture. This is where we saw the damages that were waves and tides and surge,” Reed said.

Beachfront buildings in St. Johns County tumbled over the edge of a cliff of sand, worn away by the storm.

“Here we saw major beach and dune erosion countywide. We saw severe impacts to the St. Augustine inlet, and also Anastasia Island and the Summer Haven community. We documented 171 major structures. 15 of those were destroyed. 115 buildings are now currently in imminent danger,” Reed said.

Local municipalities are desperate for more sand to shore up their beaches. And they need funding from the state and federal governments. The difficulty is Florida beaches still haven’t recovered from Hurricane Matthew in 2016, according to Deborah Flack, president of the Florida Shore & Beach Preservation Association.

“The problem obviously with FEMA is that we don’t know when those dollars will be forthcoming. The first FEMA check from Matthew, senator, that I was aware of, that came down on beaches, came down the day after Irma,” Flack said.

Last session, state lawmakers failed to deliver too. Last session Clearwater Republican Senator Jack Latvala pledged $50 million for beach restoration. He's a longtime lawmaker in charge of the all-important appropriations committee.

“This bill we saw last year. We had it in this committee last year. It was approved by committee. It was approved unanimously by the Senate,” Latvala said.

That’s Clearwater Republican Senator Jack Latvala, a longtime lawmaker in charge of the all-important appropriations committee. Last session he pledged $50 million for beach restoration.

“It enjoyed the widespread support of our coastal governments, beach communities, and tourism industries. And there was not a single negative vote or a single negative concern expressed during the consideration of the bill last year,” Latvala said.

But the bill ultimately died in the House, under the leadership of Speaker Richard Corcoran, a fact Latvala hasn’t forgotten. Now he’s bringing the bill back. And the pressure is on: Latvala is term-limited, and running for governor.

“And I listen to the Speaker and I think about the things that I’m going to miss in the process and the things that I’m not going to miss. That’s definitely going to be on one of those lists,” Latvala said.

But as long as Floridians and their visitors want to live, work and play on the beach, Flack says throwing money at the problem of beach erosion will help.

“What I always say here, it’s far less expensive to replace sand than buildings and lives,” Flack said.

And she says the beaches that are restored did well in the hurricanes.

“Nourished beaches did an outstanding job absorbing the storm impacts,” Flack said.

In a tight budget year with multiple industries in need of bailouts, Latvala says beach re-nourishment is an effective use of state money.

“Our beaches are very important tourism drivers, and have a return on investment of dollars we put in of 5.4 to 1, which is one of the largest returns of anything we spend state money on,” Latvala said.

It’ll be up to Latvala and his Senate colleagues to convince House lawmakers the beaches are worth it.

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.