SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — There wasn’t much of a beach to access at South Padre Island’s Beach Access 5 on Friday morning.
High waves hurled at the coast by far off Hurricane Delta turned the coastal horizon into a boiling, roiling mess at daybreak.
Sometimes the big waves would crash together at sea, turning into mist far off in the gulf. Other times they’d swell up onto the beach, running up the boardwalk and into the beach access’ parking lot with a cargo of flotsam and jetsam: dead fish, bits of plastic, tree trunks that didn’t appear very Texan.
The waves that didn’t find a boardwalk or channel to flow into would swell up around the foot of the dunes, eating away at the base and carving them into sheer little cliffs.
Occasionally when those waves hit the dunes the wet sand on their face cracked and crumbled, falling into the surf. Some of the fine, dry sand underneath would follow, running down the face of the dune in a stream.
Little by little, the Gulf of Mexico swallowed up South Padre Island’s sand dunes Friday, the same way it’s expected to naturally at times of high water in the winter and the same way it wasn’t expected to over the course of 2020’s exceptionally busy hurricane season.
National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologist Barry Goldsmith was also at Beach Access 5 on Friday morning, surveying the damage.
“Each time these storms come in the beach erosion, the dune erosion, is worse and worse, and it’s probably the worst I’ve seen since I’ve been here, the amount of erosion of dunes,” said Goldsmith, who moved to the Rio Grande Valley in 2008. “And the beach is flat, there’s really not much slope to it, which allows this water to just come up unencumbered.”
Goldsmith says Hurricane Delta passed by the Island at about 1 a.m. Friday, going directly over a National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration buoy 200 miles offshore. That buoy recorded peak gusts just under 100 mph.
Goldsmith didn’t see Delta passing by in the wee hours of the morning, but he could certainly see what the storm had done.
Many of those dunes were wet on top, he said, meaning that at some point in the night those waves had pushed up over those 4- or 5-foot high dunes and spilled 10 or 20 feet inland. He couldn’t tell if any of those waves had gone clear across, but there was certainly some water crossing the Island during the morning.
Highway 100 was flooded north of Beach Access 5, with 6 inches to a foot of foamy seawater rushing southward down the road and into a channel on the west side, speeding out to the Laguna Madre.
Likely high tide water, Goldsmith said, it may have been coming down from Beach Access 6 or the bay.
“Unless you had a four-wheel drive or pretty high wheel-based pickup truck, that wasn’t really safe water to drive in because it was up to a foot and it was moving,” he said.
Goldsmith reckoned how far Hurricane Delta penetrated the dunes by measuring it against other storms. He places it in the top three — not quite as severe as Hurricane Ike, he said, but more than Hurricane Beta, which took its own toll on the island’s beaches just last month.
“The big issue is the erosion of the dunes, that’s what we’re seeing with all of these events,” Goldsmith said.
Ike caused millions of dollars in property damage on the Island, while Beta and Delta did not. They did, however, contribute to beach erosion that will cost millions of dollars to mitigate.
The General Land Office awarded South Padre Island $4.6 million for beach renourishment efforts last month, efforts city of South Padre Island Shoreline Director Kristina Boburka says will help the dunes do their job.
“Mother Nature’s going to come in and she’s going to do what she wants with them truly, and we kind of just have to adapt to what she’s going to do,” she said. “So we’re seeing these damages now; long-term, we’re always working on beach renourishment efforts with the state and the federal government, so that’s our longterm biggest goal to combat erosion in these high tides.”
The 25 named systems in 2020 rival the 2005 Hurricane Season with its 28 named systems. This year currently ranks number two in terms of tropical storms, which swept almost every corner of the Atlantic Basin.
“We’re seeing more frequent storms, and not only more frequent storms but stronger storms out there, so it’s been a very interesting year,” Boburka said.
Excepting Hurricane Hanna, those storms passed South Padre Island completely this year. They still took a toll.
“Primarily the storms didn’t even come near South Padre Island, but those storms entered the gulf,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of high tides, and from those high tides we’re seeing a lot of loss in our beach and dune systems.”
Planning and preparation helped the Island prepare for 2020’s corroding waves. Boburka says the city has built a dune system over the past few years, nurturing plants that hold the delicate, dynamic dune ecosystem together.
You could see that vegetation Friday, large mats of Railroad Vine with deep green leaves and purple belled flowers swaying in the wind. The waves had pulled the rug out from under those plants on some parts of the island, particularly north of the city, exposing roots while they ate away at the dunes the plants are nested atop.
“Ten years ago we probably didn’t have the vegetation that we have, so we’ve really built that up and that’s something we’re going to start working on again, is building up our dunes and protecting that system out there,” Boburka said.
Boburka says dune erosion due to high tides is nothing new, especially in the winter. While dune erosion this year has been unseasonable, she says it’s ultimately a sign of the dunes doing what they’re supposed to do.
She says she and her team will continue monitoring South Padre’s dunes and working on renourishment programs in an effort to make sure there’s always a sturdy sand dune for a strong wave to break against.
“I can’t stress enough how important they are,” she said. “We’re always watching these storms and predicting what they’re going to do so we can act appropriately.”