Beach rebuilding in Galveston

February 20, 2009 1:44:03 PM PST
There's a new emergency in Galveston where the millions of dollars pumped into the island city's economy by tourists are slowly eroding away, just like the sand wiped away by Hurricane Ike. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

Galveston is working hard to make sure you have a beach to go to this spring and summer. The economy depends on money brought in by people who plan a trip to the coast.

We think of sand as having an infinite number of grains, but it does have its limits. On Galveston Island, Ike tested those limits.

The beaches on which tourism is based have vanished along the seawall, the sand taken out to the gulf by the storm surge.

We're approaching the start of tourist season with spring break and now Galveston is in the midst of a massive recovery project that's as important as any debris removal. The project is taking back the sand that the storm stole, rebuilding the beaches, and the island's economy.

It begins along the east jetty. Beneath the water, sand is being swept from the floor of the channel in a mining operation that started in shallow water.

Fred Dupuis, the sand mining supervisor, said, "The water depth in the area where we began digging was 10 feet deep and we're gonna dredge it down to 30 feet deep."

Through a temporary pipeline nearly a mile-long, a mountain of sand is destined for the beachfront along the seawall. Eventually, 4,000 cubic yards will be mined just offshore and moved onshore.

Matt Mahoney of the Texas General Land Office said, "It's a huge project. Over two miles of beaches will be restored in front of the Galveston seawall. This operation to dredge all this material out of here, it's a multi-million dollar operation to do this."

It's also an emergency operation by the state of Texas. As much as it's for the environment, it's for Galveston's economy.

According to a local study in 2007, tourism provided nearly $15 million in hotel taxes and a third of all sales tax revenue was tied to visitors. After Ike, that income dropped by more than 50%. The biggest key to that recovery is giving tourists something to return to in the beaches.

Along the shoreline, the sand that did weather the storm is being cleaned and separated from the last remnants of debris. It's a giant sifting operation that is also being conducted by the state land office.

"There's a lot of debris in this sand and what you're seeing back here is a screen where sand is being taken off the beach anywhere from 8 to 12 inches in depth," said John Gillen, of the Texas General Land Office. "It's being hauled by the large trucks to the screen. Clean sand is coming out one end and debris goes out the other two sides."

When tourists do return, they'll have a beachfront of clean gulf coast sand to enjoy. The deadline for the project is the end of March when turtle nesting season begins.

Life and a lot of work goes on here as sand is being given back to preserve this barrier island called Galveston.

"They move and they shift and it's when you draw that line in the sand and you need to preserve it for the people who live here. It's a vital resource," said Mahoney.

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