In an effort to tame the beast amid the beauty of the island, the Town of Hilton Head Island has recently completed a fencing and planting project to help stabilize the beaches' sand dunes and plant life against nature's wrath.
Most of the blame can be traced to Hurricane Matthew that blew along the coast in October 2016, obliterating countless 2-foot to 5-foot-high dunes in its path. Of course, beach and sand erosion has been a nuisance forever in the Lowcountry, and this $290,000 effort is the latest step to help restore beach stability and sustainability.
"It's very effective and relatively inexpensive, so the payoff-cost benefit is very high," said Scott Liggett, director of public projects and chief engineer for the town. "We're trying to create a foundation upon which these dunes can grow and flourish by trapping the windblown sand. It really does a miraculous and incredibly quick job to trap and accumulate that sand. And the plants with their root systems will further anchor the sand once it starts forming."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is picking up 75 percent of the project's tab, with the town chipping in the remainder. Liggett said the South Carolina Department of Emergency Management might relieve the town of its 25 percent financial burden.
"We've never done a sand fencing and planting project like this one before," said Sally Krebs, sustainable practices coordinator for the town. "This was almost the entire beach... We have so many areas of the island where the dunes were completely destroyed by Matthew that we wanted to give the dune building a bit of a boost."
Roughly $200,000 of the total expense was spent installing upward of 4,000 V-shaped fence panels along 7 miles of beach, from the island's toe in Sea Pines to Fish Haul Creek Park on the north end, Liggett said. The 16-foot-wide panels with wood slats stand 4 feet tall, with an additional 2 feet buried in the sand attached to pine posts. Galvanized wire connects the slats together in the panel, he said. The fencing by contractor Henley Jones Construction in South Carolina took about three months and was completed in April. Two installments of planting by contractor Earthbalance Corp. in Florida took 10 days total, being completed two weeks ago.
Among the native dune plants planted were panic grass, sea oats, salt hay, and morning glory and railroad vines. The vegetation was placed in front of, behind and between the sand fencing.
"You need something to anchor the sand, so that's where the plants come in," Krebs said. "The plants send their root system through the sand to build a sand dune... We looked at what plants were there and tried to copy that."
Basically, the slats in the fence panel catch the windblown sand and deposits it at the base. Over time, the sand builds up and will completely cover the fence, creating a sand dune. The fence will not be removed once a dune has been formed.
Dense dune vegetation also helps protect homes and properties from damaging salt spray, and the dunes themselves provide natural storm barriers between the ocean and residences.
Just as important, dunes help protect habitats of native species like six-lined racerunner lizards and sea turtles, who lay their eggs above the tide line.
"What we're trying to do is enhance what we have that has become the second most active turtle-nesting beach in the state," Liggett said. "We're giving them some turf to call home for their eggs."
Krebs asks the public to keep at least 15 feet from sand fences so as not to disturb nature at work.
Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.