Sep 15, 2023 - News

How Hurricane Idalia changed Tampa Bay beaches

A composite of two images, one of a beach with a thriving patch of dunes, the other of the same beach just sand and no more dunes.

Pass-a-Grille Beach before and after Hurricane Idalia. Photo: Courtesy of Ping Wang

Hurricane Idalia made landfall in August 200 miles north of Tampa Bay, sparing us from the worst of the Category 3 storm.

Yes, but: The cyclone, even that far away, wreaked havoc on Pinellas County beaches, several of which were already in need of nourishment before the hurricane.

What happened: Storm surge washed away sand and dunes, leaving just a thin, bare shore along the famous barrier islands, according to before and after photos captured by University of South Florida researchers.

  • Ping Wang, a professor in the School of Geosciences who has studied west Florida beach erosion for 20 years, told the Tampa Bay Times it was the worst erosion he'd ever seen from a single storm.

Why it matters: A healthy beach, with a wide shore and plenty of dunes, protects coastal infrastructure and habitats from storms. Tampa Bay beaches are also a major tourism draw and a favorite feature for residents.

Zoom in: The photo above shows Pass-a-Grille Beach, where Idalia wiped out three decades of dune growth, Wang told the Times.

  • The popular local spot is part of several Pinellas beach renourishment projects that are on hold because of a requirement by the Army Corps of Engineers that beachfront property owners provide permanent access to their land.

Indian Rocks Beach saw similar dune destruction. That patch of dunes was about 12 years old, Wang told the Times. The dunes regrew after erosion from Tropical Storm Debby in 2012.

A composite of a beach shown before and after a hurricane. On the left, the beach is covered in a green patch of dunes. On the right, the dunes are gone, leaving only sand.
Indian Rocks Beach before and after Idalia. Photo: Courtesy of Ping Wang

On Sunset Beach, storm surge washed away sand and warped a swimming-pool deck seen in the photo on the right.

A composite of two images of the same stretch of beach before and after a hurricane.
Sunset Beach before and after Idalia. Photo: Courtesy of Ping Wang

Madeira Beach, too, saw sand erosion. The storm also washed away a turtle nest that is shown blocked off with pink tape in the photo on the left. Still, it shows the benefit of having a wide beach to start with, Wang told the Times.

A composite of the same stretch of beach before and after a hurricane. On the left, the beach has a wide shore of white sand. On the right, the strip of sand is much narrower.
Madeira Beach before and after Idalia. Photo: Courtesy of Ping Wang

Belleair Beach, which Wang said in the Times is "a very aggressive erosion hotspot," was set to begin renourishment next year, so the shore was already depleted by the time Idalia struck.

A composite of the same stretch of beach before and after a hurricane. On the left, the beach has a a green patch of dunes. On the right, the dunes are gone, and a seawall lays exposed.
Belleair Beach before and after Idalia. Photo: Courtesy of Ping Wang

What's next: County officials are working on a plan to stabilize the barrier islands, a spokesperson told WTSP.

  • "The county is going to be implementing emergency control measures in the hardest hit areas to get them shored up at least through hurricane season," spokesperson Tony Fabrizio said.
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