St. Augustine, Fla. – Feb. 24, 2023 -- Jacksonville District’s St. Augustine Back Bay Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study took two big steps forward when the district and its non-federal sponsor, the City of St. Augustine, began a three-day charrette and held a public meeting to introduce residents to the study’s issues and aims.
Some 60 representatives from across USACE, the City of St. Augustine, Florida Department of Transportation, the National Park Service, and other stakeholder agencies gathered to exchange information and begin formulating alternatives to protect the city from flooding, storm damage, beach erosion and related threats in the decades ahead.
“Taking action to reduce flood related damage to residential and commercial structures, historic and culturally significant resources, and the city’s infrastructure is critical,” said City of St. Augustine Commissioner Barbara Blonder, welcoming the technical experts to the formal brainstorming session.
“The estimated value of heritage in St. Augustine, based on the economic analysis, is nearly $3 billion,” she said, noting that a 2019 survey identified 2,059 historic properties in the city of 14,000 inhabitants.
“Heritage resources must be considered an integral component of any resiliency strategy. The historic resources in St. Augustine are integral to our local economy and must be protected,” Blonder said.
“Our residents are feeling the strain of repeated flooding of their homes. My home has flooded. I know exactly how that feels. We must do everything we can to keep the heartbeat of our city strong by helping our citizens become more resilient.
“The strategies that will be identified in this study will help increase resilience and reduce risk from future storms and the compounding impacts of sea level rise. We will have to make some difficult decisions, but these decisions will be based on the best available and most comprehensive information thanks to this initiative,” Blonder said.
The city’s chief resiliency officer, Jessica Beach, briefed on the impacts of 2022’s Tropical Storms Ian and Nicole, which resulted in high water marks in the city and around St. Johns County of 5 to nearly 7 ½ feet. Post-storm inspections revealed that of some 500 properties surveyed, 55 percent experienced significant flooding with more than 4 percent experiencing more than 18 inches of inundation in their homes, she said.
“By far, the most heavily impacted neighborhood is South Davis Shores,” said Beach, going on to describe the city’s heavy investment in ongoing and upcoming projects to protect all residents and locations, stressing the importance of integrating the new back bay study with current and future efforts.
“We have a lot of programs and strategies that we’re putting in place for the city, and I think it’ll be important for the team to understand that we have a lot of projects that are slated now. Some are already done, but we have a lot that are coming up in the next five years as well,” she said.
In the afternoon, Jacksonville District’s Angie Dunn and Stacey Roth presented an overview of the USACE SMART planning process, responding to questions from the floor and clarifying requirements that participants should bear in mind as they began to formulate alternative approaches to creative solutions.
They were followed by project manager Wes Wilson and planning chief Nancy Parrish of USACE Charleston District and City of Charleston chief resilience officer, Dale Morris, who described their shared experience and lessons learned in leading a similar study for a sister coastal city with a rich historical heritage that faces similar flooding and climate change impacts. The Charleston Peninsula CSRM Study, begun in 2018, concluded with a final report to the Chief of Engineers and was forwarded to Congress for appropriation last summer.
Afterward the assembled ecologists, biologists, planners, coastal engineers, economists, and other specialists split into half a dozen discussion teams to begin the arduous task of assessing threats and hypothesizing alternative paths to meeting them.
“What we’re looking to do is clearly define the problem and then start to get a handle on what potential measures we could recommend in a final plan, and begin the public engagement process as well,” said Jason Norris, an economist with the USACE Office of Water Project Review, who travelled with several colleagues from USACE headquarters in Washington, D.C., to attend the charrette.
“Those are the big things, to bring different parts of the Corps together, but also people from outside the Corps because they have expertise too. And we definitely want to take that into account as we move forward,” he said.
That evening, more than 60 area residents gathered in the Alcazar Room at City Hall for a public presentation and discussion of the study with USACE and city representatives. City and USACE staff spoke about the issues and aims the feasibility study will be designed to address and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and its requirements.
“I’m here to just listen to what’s going on,” said North Davis Shores resident John Petrow, who experienced last season’s tropical storm impacts.
“We moved here in 2018, so we’re new kids on the block. We’re in one of the 1950s houses here. We had 22 inches of water in our yard, and I did certain things, metal panels in the doorways, to eliminate it. I actually had a bilge pump in our ground floor bathroom, 1,000 gallons on a battery with a float switch, try to keep the water at a tolerable level as long as the high tide was up.
“There are issues here, but hopefully they’ll get resolved. The sewage system is one thing, the drainage is another, you know,” he said.
“Our property and our neighbors’ properties have flooded here in each of those major storm events since Matthew in 2016. Everybody’s concerned,” said fellow city resident Ted Mooney.
“Three years sounds like a long time, four years sounds like a long time before approval, and then it's going to take time to build whatever is decided on, but I'm so excited that St. Augustine is going to get the attention it needs,” said his wife, Robyn Mooney.
“We’re looking at a comprehensive solution, not only to protect the bay front, which is the historic, downtown tourist area, but we want to protect the city as a whole and its residents,” said Jacksonville District senior project manager, Jason Harrah.
“We want to hear your concerns about various alternatives, which may be flood walls or raising people’s houses or buying people’s house out; or natural and nature-based features such as mangroves or wetlands or oyster reefs. We want to hear what kinds of alternatives they think may work, what are their concerns with the study process, and what do they hope to see at the end of the study process.”
The district is soliciting public comments now and will continue to do so at other major study milestones, Harrah said.
Comments may be submitted through March 10 for consideration during the initial NEPA portion of the study process, and may be emailed to CESAJ-St.AugBackBayCSRM@usace.army.mil or sent via the U.S. Postal Service to Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District, ATTN: Mr. Darren Pecora, 701 San Marco Blvd., Jacksonville, FL 32207-8915.
A video of the Feb. 22 presentation may be viewed at https://staugustinefl.new.swagit.com/videos/208852.
Additional information on the Back Bay study can be found on the USACE and city websites at https://www.saj.usace.army.mil/Missions/Civil-Works/Shore-Protection/St-Johns-County/City-of-St-Augustine-Florida-Back-Bay-Feasibility-Study/ and https://www.citystaug.com/1046/Back-Bay-Feasibility-Study-with-the-Army.
The public can obtain news, updates and information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District on the district’s website at www.saj.usace.army.mil, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/JacksonvilleDistrict, Twitter at www.twitter.com/JaxStrong, and Instagram at www.instagram.com/jacksonvilledistrict.