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Hurricane Dorian eats away at Hilton Head Island beach as residents wait for worst

The early impacts from Hurricane Dorian were being felt on this resort island’s beaches by mid day Wednesday, and conditions were only expected to deteriorate along the seashore with the approach of the powerful storm.

Rising tides were pushing water farther onto the island’s beaches and the ocean churned as waves rose along the 12-mile seashore. Heavy rain began to pelt the island about 1 p.m.

“The additional push of water has started,’’ said Scott Liggett, Hilton Head Island’s public projects director said Wednesday morning. “We didn’t have as much water drain out this time at low tide as predicted.’’

By afternoon, winds were picking up as a stream of locals stood on stretches of beach to survey the situation. One man swam in the ocean as high waves crashed around him. The waves appeared to top 7 feet at mid-day.

“The next high tide is the one you really have to worry about,“’ said Matt Perry as he stood on the Coligny beach section of Hilton Head Island. “We know we’re going to have some beach erosion.’’

A major concern was how the storm would affect the town at high tide overnight Wednesday and early Thursday. Hurricane Matthew sent water into the street beside Coligny Park three years ago, and many said Dorian has a similar track to that storm.

Many feared that property would be damaged, if the beach washes away in the storm.

Like in other South Carolina resorts, beach erosion is a major worry on Hilton Head Island, a resort of condominiums, high-end hotels and gated neighborhoods. The town, which attracts millions of visitors from across the country, periodically renourishes beaches to widen them for tourists and property owners.

Hilton Head Island has spent about $32 million since 2016 to renourish its beaches to keep them wide, but the replenished shore was in jeopardy as Hurricane Dorian approached.

Liggett, the town’s director of public projects and facilities, said damage assessments after the storm will tell the story of how bad the erosion was. But Dorian was already being compared to Hurricane Matthew, which took a substantial toll on Hilton Head three years ago.

Hurricane Matthew washed waves over the beach and sent water into the street beside Coligny Park three years ago.

Hilton Head Island’s beach renourishment efforts, which usually are done every decade, have been virtually ongoing since Hurricane Matthew in 2016. That storm washed away substantial portions of the beach as the shoreline widening project was in progress. That caused the town to spend more than $3 million to finish the project.

Then, in 2017, Hurricane Irma eroded the beaches, causing the town to conduct another renourishment project, Liggett said.

A storm surge of 4 to 7 feet was expected from Dorian. Liggett said the town was particularly concerned about a dune restoration project that has been ongoing. The project involved building up dunes and planting grass to keep them in place.

Dunes, like renourished beaches, buffer oceanfront homes and hotels from rising seas. If another storm comes after dunes are lost, it could have greater impacts on oceanfront property.

Statewide, erosion was expected in the usual hot spots across the coast. Folly Beach, Hunting Island State Park and Cherry Grove in North Myrtle Beach were among them.

Rob Young, a coastal geologist from Western Carolina University, said before Dorian swept by the storm had the potential to cause as much beach erosion as Hurricane Matthew in 2016. That storm wrecked hundreds of miles of beaches from Florida through South Carolina to North Carolina as it lumbered up the coast in 2016.

Storms that move slowly can erode beaches more heavily for a simple reason: they have more time to pound at the seashore, Young said. In Matthew, the storm stuck around so long that it encompassed several high tides, pushing water farther inland, he said.

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Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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