When Scott McQuade thinks about the Jersey Shore these days, he envisions something he hopes he never sees here.
To the director of the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau, the images are haunting — oceanside attractions like roller coasters and homes yanked from their foundations and tossed into an angry sea like children’s toys; a beach defaced, beaten to a pulp by violent winds, surging water and torrential rain and a once thriving tourism community that has all but flatlined since Hurricane Sandy struck the Garden State last October.
Nothing is as it was. Sandy plunged the New Jersey coast into chaos Oct. 29, robbing beaches of their stability and people of their livelihoods. Best estimates put the damage to the shoreline and its towns some 800 miles to north at $30 billion.
McQuade knows what every community touching the Atlantic Ocean knows and what emergency preparedness officials continue to warn coastal Georgians about: Hurricanes are unpredictable forces that can make landfall here just as easily and just as quickly as Sandy did in 2012 on the New Jersey coast.
As the person responsible for coordination of the tourism industry here, McQuade feels the New Jersey pain.
“They were just starting to see the tourism industry recovering (from the recession), and now this,” he said. “It will take the Jersey Shore tourism industry years to recover.”
McQuade has cause for concern with the approach of June 1, the beginning of the North Atlantic hurricane season. Tourism is the lifeblood of Glynn County.
Recent figures show tourists spent between $800 million and $900 million in Brunswick and the Golden Isles annually. At its peak, tourism accounts for some 23,000 jobs in Glynn County.
All of that could be washed away. Tropical storms, rare here for decades, are popping up off the coast with increasing frequency. Glynn County has been in the path of several since 2005, when Tropical Storm Tammy rolled into town with drenching rains that flooded homes and businesses. Last year there were two.
Meteorologists are predicting an active hurricane season this year.
Ken Davis, spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, the agency in charge of emergency preparations across the state, says a hurricane slamming into the Glynn County from the ocean could have a significant impact.
“By ‘significant’ impact, I mean a Category 3 hurricane coming ashore in Glynn County could cause major damage — destruction to beaches, infrastructure, structures and commerce in its path,” Davis said. “Certainly, a Cat 3 with the right set of dependent variables … could wash it away.”
A Catetory 3 hurricane is considered a major storm, with sustained winds of 111 to 129 mph, and variables such as whether it struck at high or low tide and the angle of approach could intensify the damage.
It’s not like it hasn’t happened before, notes former Glynn County Commissioner Cap Fendig, a longtime resident of St. Simons Island.
“In 1964, living on the beach of St. Simons, I watched (Hurricane) Dora take a 17-foot vertical cut of sand away from my front yard and wipe out a row of homes by 5th Street,” Fendig said.
The destructive power of a hurricane would be even greater today, says Fendig, who’s lived the past 49 years at the beach on St. Simons Island. There is little to stop or slow a tidal surge on a beach that virtually disappears below the waves at most points on the island at high tide.
That is why Fendig took it upon himself to call for some kind of nourishment project on St. Simons Island, even though years before, in the early 1990s, the very idea ignited a verbal civil war in the community, with residents and county commissioners evenly divided on the issue. A lot of harsh words were exchanged between the two sides before the county finally decided against following the actions of Tybee Island in Chatham County and Amelia Island in Florida, both of which rebuilt beaches with sand pumped from the ocean.
Since those days, few have dared even to mention beach nourishment or renourishment.
Fendig continued to press the issue. He was concerned, and remains so today, that a blow from a hurricane would hurl Glynn County into the same economic maelstrom he’s seen other communities slide helplessly into when in a low state of readiness in a natural disaster.
The community never bought into it and even said thanks-but-no-thanks to a state grant for $1 million to study beach renourishment.
Opponents of redepositing snatched sand onto the beach said it wasn’t necessary because lost portions of the beach would return naturally.
Fendig heard that line nearly 50 years ago.
“The message was, when I grew up, we had sand to give up to a storm, but not since ’64,” he said.
That missing sand, the current state of the beach on St. Simons, is what worries Glynn County’s tourism director today.
McQuade can see how much beach remains above water at high tide. It’s about the same as it was in the wake of Dora. The beach is still malnourished and the seawall built of Johnson Rocks, so named after President Lyndon B. Johnson, remains much of the island’s main line of defense.
“It is a real and present danger for the fact that tourism is No. 1 to the economy and the fact that tourism is driven primarily by our beach assets,” McQuade said. “Having them intact and usable is key to attracting vacationers. It is certainly one of the most appealing aspects for people who vacation here.”
His thoughts return to the Jersey Shore and the tailspin a single hit from a single hurricane put its economy in just over six months ago.
“It’s hard to talk about this topic without getting to the part that there isn’t a lot of sand left on our beaches,” he said. “There is not much sand out there to protect us.
“There probably should be some sort of preparedness plan, so if an incident does happen we are not trying to figure out the day after or week after what to do.”
That might not be the case. Capt. Jay Wiggins, director of Glynn County Emergency Management Agency since late 2008, said he personally is not aware of any plan for addressing a beach stripped of its cover.
“It is really more of a public works issue, and I am sure the Army Corps (of Engineers) would have a stake in that, also,” Wiggins said.
That is not likely the kind of answer that will put McQuade at ease with hurricane season just two weeks away.
“I wish we could control the weather, but Mother Nature is in charge of that department,” McQuade said. “There is not much we can do other than pray we don’t get hit by any storm with any significance.”