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National assessment of hurricane-induced coastal erosion hazards: Southeast Atlantic Coast

July 1, 2013

Beaches serve as a natural barrier between the ocean and inland communities, ecosystems, and natural resources. However, these dynamic environments move and change in response to winds, waves, and currents. During extreme storms, changes to beaches can be large, and the results are sometimes catastrophic. Lives may be lost, communities destroyed, and millions of dollars spent on rebuilding.

During storms, large waves may erode beaches, and high storm surge shifts the erosive force of the waves higher on the beach. In some cases, the combined effects of waves and surge may cause overwash or flooding. Building and infrastructure on or near a dune can be undermined during wave attack and subsequent erosion. During Hurricane Ivan in 2004, a five-story condominium in Orange Beach, Alabama, collapsed after the sand dune supporting the foundation eroded. The September 1999 landfall of Hurricane Dennis caused erosion and undermining that destroyed roads, foundations, and septic systems.

Waves overtopping a dune can transport sand inland, covering roads and blocking evacuation routes or emergency relief. If storm surge inundates barrier island dunes, currents flowing across the island can create a breach, or new inlet, completely severing evacuation routes. Waves and surge during the 2003 landfall of Hurricane Isabel left a 200-meter (m) wide breach that cut the only road to and from the village of Hatteras, N.C.

Extreme coastal changes caused by hurricanes may increase the vulnerability of communities both during a storm and to future storms. For example, when sand dunes on a barrier island are eroded substantially, inland structures are exposed to storm surge and waves. Absent or low dunes also allow water to flow inland across the island, potentially increasing storm surge in the back bay, on the soundside of the barrier, and on the mainland. During Hurricane Isabel the protective sand dunes near the breach were completely eroded, increasing vulnerability to future storms.