Anybody with a sharp eye walking along Cocoa Beach Thursday afternoon would have noticed a few signs that a hurricane had just passed through the area.
Wet sand on the dune crossovers, some small gullies slicing between grassy spots on the dunes and high-tide mark farther up the beach than normal were all hints of Hurricane Nicole’s visit.
But the casual stroller probably wouldn’t have noticed those. Instead, they would have seen homes sitting safely tucked behind grassy dunes 20 or more yards wide above another expanse of sand sloping gently to the ocean.
Just a few miles south, in Satellite Beach and Brevard County's southern beaches, the scene was far different.
There, at least nine houses, condos and motels have been declared uninhabitable by the county because they have been undermined by beach erosion.
Dune crossovers and walkways were torn apart by storm surge. Some homes sit on what are the edges of sandy cliffs dropping down 10 or more feet to what remains of the beach. In some places, little sand is left on the beach, exposing the rocky bottom and remnants of old seawalls that had been designed to keep the ocean at bay.
Why the stark difference?
Brevard's beaches are not created equally
According to Randy Parkinson, a coastal geologist and research associate professor at Florida International University, there are a variety of factors that affect storm surge such as subtle differences in contours along the ocean floor, offshore shoals, reefs and limestone outcroppings. Also, a full moon, King Tide and the orientation of the shoreline relative to how waves hit makes a difference.
"I think it was a reminder of the precarious nature of our urban relationship with the Atlantic Ocean," Parkinson said of Nicole's erosion. "This is not going away, and at some point it's going to force some difficult decisions to be made."
Rising seas play a role that is not going away, either, and that's accelerating, Parkinson said. "Sea level is rising much faster than it had," he said, adding that the rate from Port Canaveral to Fernadina Beach has increased to 6 or 7 millimeters per year, up from about 2 mm per year in the early 1900s.
Even in the best of times, the beaches south of the Pineda Causeway are very different from those in Cocoa Beach and Cape Canaveral.
South of Pineda, the beaches are far narrower, in some places just a few yards wide at high tide. And most oceanfront buildings sit just at the crest of dunes that drop down sharply to nearly flat beaches without the benefit of wide sloping dunes.
Could the dunes there be a key?
Among the many lessons Brevard learned from earlier storms is that native plants can be a coastal dweller's savior. Those who witnessed hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004 invested in planting native vegetation on their dunes. The county also had a number of bargain sea oat sales to provide the erosion-preventing plants. Grants to plant sea grapes and other vegetation also helped.
But experts say there's is likely another reason why the beaches north of Pineda Causeway may have fared better than much of eastern Florida after Nicole: A port and a class-action lawsuit secured much of the Space Coast's shoreline with a 50-year federal commitment to beach renourishment.
A class action made all the difference
A 10-year legal battle that employed a unique application of condemnation law in 2000 won a thick shield of sand for thousands of residents in the communities south of Port Canaveral. The battle drew big names, including the late Al Neuharth, founder of FLORIDA TODAY and USA Today.
Their reasoning was simple: When the government builds a dam along a river, it must compensate property owners who lose land to flooding caused by the structure. So why not apply the same concept to down-drift beach erosion caused by Port Canaveral being dredged and jetties constructed in the 1950s.
Ultimately, more than 300 plaintiffs joined the suit, including the cities of Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach and Satellite Beach.
After a decade of legal wrangling, in late October 1999, the federal government offered a 50-year beach renourishment project and a $5 million settlement to the property owners. Under the deal, the Corps would restore 13 miles of coastline south of the port.
Now, the federal government typically pays just over 60% of the cost of Brevard's large-scale beach sand-pumping projects, required every several years, with the county and state spitting the rest of the cost.
But the county's thinner mid-section — Satellite Beach and Indian Harbour Beach — had to wait many more years for some sand relief than most other beaches in the covered area. Large-scale beach "resanding" was stalled there by a rare reef that houses a unique marine worm.
And the county's southernmost beaches lack the population and public access to qualify for large-scale renourishment, so the county floated the idea of creating a special tax district to have homeowners to pay for the new sand, though it decided to use tourism tax dollars for some dune repair work following Hurricane Dorian in 2019.
Brevard’s South Beaches suffered most
Residents all over Florida's eastern seaboard woke up Thursday to find beaches carved up by waves and surge, or gutted underneath structures that now dangle dangerously oceanward and dashed dreams of coastal living for many.
While beachside property almost always suffers the most when big storms hit Florida, Hurricane Nicole has managed to show the disparities between Brevard's "renourished" beaches and those that were not.
"I have not seen them this bad since 2004 after the combined effect of three storms," Mike McGarry, Brevard's beach renourishment coordinator, said Thursday, referring mostly to the damage done south of Pineda Causeway.
Nicole erased much of the dune in front of Oceana Oceanfront Condos in Satellite Beach, built only three years ago. On Thursday morning, waves pounded right up to much older homes along Shell Street.
At Sandpiper Towers, built in 1964, ankle-deep ocean flowed through the parking garage underneath the condo.
Even further south, properties in Melbourne Beach were also devastated.
As the surf waned a little on Thursday afternoon, Stephanie Goldstein could see the deep-dune wounds Tropical Storm Nicole had inflicted on the Melbourne Beach Resort she manages.
"We have severe damage," Goldstein said, as waves continued to pound the shoreline and she assessed the damages at the resort. "We have no dune, whatsoever."
Now the resort, formerly called Sandy Shoes, once again teeters dangerously on the edge of a sandy disaster as it did in Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and before that in other storms, making the building and others like it around Brevard and the state perennial post-storm cliff hangers.
"You can see how it just completely caved in everything," Kristen Toomey, one of the resort's employees, said Thursday.
"It's like the end of the world over there. It's kind of surreal."
John McCarthy is a 25+ year veteran of FLORIDA TODAY, who currently oversees the space team and special projects. You can contact McCarthy at 321-752-5018 or email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Hurricane Nicole: How was Cocoa Beach spared the worst of the storm?