Residents walking the West End beach Wednesday morning peered under the washed-out foundations of waterfront homes and climbed down the several-foot drop between the end of San Domingo Drive and the beach.
Part-time resident Sandra Vogt walked on the narrow shore in front of Pirates Beach and pointed to a black plastic tube that was covered by sand two days ago.
“We’ve been coming down here 40 years and have seen this happen over and over,” Vogt said.
Tropical Storm Beta and Hurricane Laura both caused significant damage to West End dunes and undercut some beachfront homes within a month of each other.
The storms left residents and the city not only to clean up the damage but also to untangle a mess of regulations governing dune repairs, which still raises several questions, including how much public money to spend to benefit private property owners.
The damage also kicked up an age-old West End worry about what happens when private houses end up on public beaches after a storm causes the lines of mean high tide and vegetation to shift.
Under the Texas Open Beaches Act, the public has the free and unrestricted right to access Texas beaches, which are on what is commonly referred to as the “wet beach,” from the water to the line of mean high tide. The dry sandy area that extends from the “wet beach” to the natural line of vegetation is usually privately owned but might be subject to the public beach easement.
The city is not yet sure exactly how much damage Tropical Storm Beta caused, Assistant Director of Development Services Catherine Gorman said.
‘WHAT WAS I THINKING’
The city will know more about whether roads were washed out or any dune walkovers damaged after it finishes surveying the West End, Gorman said.
To see dunes and homes damaged is reason for worry, Spanish Grant resident Terri Muniz said.
“All of a sudden, I’m asking myself what was I thinking moving here?” Muniz said.
Muniz placed sandbags in front of her beachfront street to try and save it from getting washed out during the storm, she said.
In front of her subdivision, Muniz could see pilings poking out of the sand that once were covered, she said. That’s where a house had been before it got demolished after Hurricane Ike in 2008, she said.
The pilings are dangerous and she wants help fixing it, she said.
“Everybody’s got excuses as to why they don’t do anything,” Muniz said. “I’m confused about the bureaucracy of it all.”
HOW TO PROCEED?
The city plans to expedite the permits residents will need to complete the dune restoration, Gorman said.
But rebuilding dunes often is up to the property owner if those dunes are on their private property.
The Texas General Land Office, which oversees state beaches, generally recommends using beach-quality sand to rebuild the dunes or placing sand fences to help trap windblown sand.
The state hasn’t imposed a deadline by which residents must repair dunes, but the land office recommends doing so quickly, spokeswoman Karina Erickson said.
The land office also has told the city it can scrape up sand that blew from the beach onto streets and put it back, Mayor pro tem Craig Brown said. Brown is acting as mayor.
But there still are many questions, such as how the city could expend public resources to put sand back on private property, Brown said.
“Those are issues that we still need to work with the GLO on to make sure that we’re clear on how we should proceed,” Brown said. “I think it’s very important that we get written confirmation.”
‘WHAT’S SO ALARMING’
The dunes are important protection to the island and property, and both Hurricane Laura and Tropical Storm Beta battered the beach, Brown said.
“What’s so alarming is we did not get really a major hit with either one of these storms and we see what the destruction is,” Brown said. “With a direct hit or a major hit with these storms in the future, you can just imagine how that’s going to affect the dune structure.”
Herb Sanford, another part-time Pirates Beach resident, surveyed the damage Wednesday morning.
“The water comes around from behind the dunes and washes them out,” Sanford said.
Sanford is worried the beach damage has left the homes so close to the public beach that the state might try to claim them. And he’s also worried that, eventually, people on the beachfront could lose their homes, he said.
That’s bad for Galveston because these homes generate tax revenue, he said.
“You know what happens every time you lose a house?” Sanford said. “Galveston loses $10,000.”
Normally, the land office gives the beach some time to recover from such significant erosion before it will take action like that, Gorman said.
Erickson didn’t immediately respond to questions about private land becoming public beach.