Hurricane Haven: No Road, No Problem?

An Ecological and Sociological Nightmare for Residents of Summer Haven

Joseph Guiffre & Molly Britt

The unincorporated town of Summer Haven is along A1A between St. Augustine Beach and Marineland. Summer Haven is perched on a razor thin bit of barrier island sandwiched against the saltwater waves of the Atlantic Ocean and a tributary of the Matanzas River called the Summer Haven river. The houses here are on the beach, not along the beach, the houses here are quite literally on the water. The high tide mark on a normal day reaches within 30 feet of the stilted homes. Over the years, the already naturally narrow barrier island has been slowly eroding. Beach access is riddled with blocked off sea turtle nests and dunes. Docks with no access to water and some houses on stilts may not be there much longer. With almost every major storm that comes along the coast, more and more of Summer Haven slips away into the ocean. St. Johns County, the State of Florida, and the federal government have put a lot of manpower and money into changing that.

Located off of what Florida residents know as A1A is a strip of road called Old A1A, but do not be tricked though; there is no road. Old A1A splits from State Road A1A and veers along the beach, where multiple beachfront homes are located. However, the beachfront view became much closer than residents anticipated following many hurricanes and heavy storms throughout the years. What used to be an actual road along the beach has eroded to what is now a simple route in the sand—only accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles. No four-wheel drive? No access, even if you live there.

The battle between the sea and the sand has been a problem in Summer Haven since people began building houses there in the 1890’s. Prior to the paving of Old A1A in the 1920’s the only way to get to the fledgling resort town was by boat or by going up the beach. Old A1A was then built, like in many places in Florida, right along the waterfront, creating a dreamlike experience of driving just above the crashing waves for the new motor tourists passing through the area. The road also allowed for people seeking a place to build a beach house and an easy way to get up and down the shore. Major development of the greater area around Summer Haven and up the St. Johns County coast began in the 1950’s. In the autumn months of 1962 several severe storms known as the Ash Wednesday nor’easters passed through the area and the town of Summer Haven was declared a disaster area. Following the Ash Wednesday storms the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) constructed a barrier called a revetment out of chunks of granite along 1,800ft of beach on the northern end of the Summer Haven peninsula, close to the mouth of the Matanzas Inlet. The revetment would protect the beach from being washed away further and guard against Old A1A and the houses of Summer Haven from crumbling into the water. In 1964 Hurricane Dora, the strongest storm to hit the St. Augustine area in modern memory slammed into the coast. Dora caused major damage all the way up to Jacksonville. In response the USACE constructed an additional 1,070ft of granite revetment  along Old A1A to protect the roadway. By the early 1970’s the placement of a major roadway right on top of the beach was deemed too risky due to the frequent storm damage. A1A was rerouted 800ft into the mainland onto the other side of the Summer Haven River. This left Old A1A to serve as a shorefront road for the people living on the beach but remained a public roadway maintained by St. Johns County. The area remained susceptible to erosion and storm damage, so much so that Summer Haven was included in a special federal program called The St. Johns County Shore Protection Project, first authorized in 1984. The program has allowed the USACE and FEMA to regularly maintain the beach and dunes by placing sand dredged from the Intracoastal Waterway and the Summer Haven river onto the affected areas. The United States Congress reauthorized the St. Johns County Shore Protection Program in 1999, following Hurricane Floyd. Between 1992 and 2019 a total of 10 beach restoration projects were completed on the 2 miles of beach in Summer Haven that has seen recurring extreme erosion. The dredging and beach restoration projects in that 22 year period placed approximately 2.5 million cubic yards of sand on this small stretch of beach alone, according to public Florida Department of Environmental Protection data. The cost of those projects collectively are hard to pinpoint but in a study released by the USACE in 2017 put a $78 million price tag on the next 50 years of beach re-nourishment and damage mitigation. 

The last 20 years have tested the resolve of the residents of Summer Haven, the St. Johns County government, and the federal agencies tasked with rebuilding the beaches over and over again. It would appear that neither the ocean or the people fighting against the waves show any sign of backing down. In 2004 after Hurricane Jeanne the USACE rebuilt Old A1A after it was heavily damaged and repaired the roadway yet again only 4 years later. In 2008 Tropical Storm Fay revealed that erosion was a threat not only to roads of Summer Haven but the land itself. The 2008 storm caused massive amounts of sand to be ripped from the beach in a complete breach of the dune system, creating a new inlet into the Summer Haven river. The land was topped by waves wiping entire dunes from the landscape and depositing that sand into the Summer Haven river. The water in the channel of the river was fully replaced by sand. The bridge over the river became a bridge over sand. The breach located about a mile south of the Matanzas Inlet turned the main part of Summer Haven into a temporary island. The Tropical Storm Fay breach was eventually filled in by natural processes. 2011 also saw Hurricane Irene cause a complete washover in the southern end of Summer Haven.

By this time after multiple repairs to Old A1A, which had been transferred to St. Johns County by the state in 1979, had been completely destroyed. The residents on the southern end of Summer Haven sued the County for failing to maintain the road. The first court decision came down in favor of the county which said that duty to maintain the roadway was subject to what St. Johns County deemed reasonable and the county did not find rebuilding a road after every major storm to be reasonable. The precedents set by this case have caused much concern, as expressed by people like Attorney Thomas Ruppert of the Florida Sea Grant. The 2011 Summer Haven case set forth a precedent wherein more affluent communities would receive funding for projects meant to mitigate the effects of Climate Change and less would go to underprivileged communities. The southern section of old A1A has not been repaved and remains a part of the current beach. Then came Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and another breach that occurred 1000ft away from the first one caused by Tropical Storm Fay. The breach in 2016 caused by Matthew illicated an emergency response by St. Johns County and the USACE and a large-scale, multi-year, multi-million dollar project was initiated. Bulldozers worked rapidly to close the breach with dredged material from the Summer Haven river, which was still clogged with sand. The breach was closed and sand from the river was used to slowly rebuild the beach.

According to one resident, who wished to remain anonymous, sand silted into places surrounding the areas of erosion at the southern tip of Summer Haven between the years of 2008 and 2016, resulting in natural sand dunes being formed. The county spent millions attempting to rebuild them over the years only to dig up the dunes and put the river back.

By 2021, the remaining dune rebuilding and vegetation replacement was recently completed and the woes of Summer Haven and its beach seemed to have finally ended. Then in the fall of 2021 another severe nor’easter blew in. The years of work rebuilding the dunes were swept away almost over night. As during previous storms, the river behind the dunes became a stream of sand. The 2021 storm caused yet another breach in the dunes in almost the exact location of the previous two breaches once again creating an inlet from the Atlantic Ocean to the Summer Haven river. It would seem that the millions of dollars spent since 2016 had little effect. Summer Haven has been declared the most volatile beach in Florida due to the constant changes in topography and the human activities meant to stop it. A National Park Service survey of coastal engineering projects in the Matanzas Inlet area found that the likely cause of the repeated breaches on Summer Haven are human-caused. The study found evidence that the concrete bridge over the Matanzas Inlet is preventing the inlet from migrating, a natural process, when that is prevented by infrastructure or human intervention the inlet will try to open in a new area.

One plan put forth by the USACE and St. Johns County is to buy the remaining houses in the affected area of Summer Haven and demolish them. Buyouts are fairly common solutions for people who have property in places where natural disasters are frequent. “It’s totally voluntary and would be handled by FEMA”, Mr. Ruppert says. The question of a buyout raises other concerns; like how to value the property, and issue of the taxpayer’s burden. “When you buy a house on the beach you assume the risk of erosion and now of sea level rise and when those properties are impacted, the taxpayers are the ones paying for the bailout”, says Ruppert. The houses that remain and continue to be lived in would need massive repairs, upgraded protections, demand county services like roads, and would need new infrastructure, like plumbing and electricity. “Septic tanks are another thing to look at, the houses there currently could be seeping sewage directly into the Summer Haven river and the Atlantic Ocean”, Mr. Ruppert points out. There have not been studies conducted showing increased pollution in the river as of the time of this publication. Beyond the ecological impact, Ruppert says the implications of providing bailouts to wealthier landowners over the less affluent is problematic.   

The buyout program would offer up what seems like a solution to the never ending problem at Summer Haven. The land would be turned into a preserve, allowing the dune systems to grow and shrink naturally and act as a refuge for endangered wildlife. Instead of fighting the wind and waves to protect houses, Summer Haven would act as a natural buffer against storm surge to protect homes inland. The buy and preserve option would also help the Summer Haven river which has been filled with sand for years. The river is as contentious as the beach renourishment. Photojournalist Walter Coker, who has been fishing the Summer Haven river since the 1980’s wants to see the river restored and the county put the money to better use; “If they could put the river back as it was I’d be all for it, but they can’t, and that’s been proven several times now, yet they persist”. The resolve of the St. Johns County Government has been proven time after time. During a red hot housing market in the fastest growing county in Florida, the motivation can be easily understood. The questions must be asked how much more money and resources will be thrown at battling the waves of the Atlantic.  The St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners called for yet another study, at a cost of $400,000 as of April 2022. The Board did not respond to a request for comment.

Another resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, believes the county should let nature take its course, referencing other inlets in the area that have a “history of opening and closing.” The resident says “it’s a dynamic barrier island and it wants to be dynamic…. We can close it up, we can keep filling it up, but it’s just going to keep breaking through.”

The shifting sands of Summer Haven stand as a testament to the power of mother nature and also to the persistence of people to hold on to what they’ve built. Summer Haven is a microcosm of what will happen globally as sea levels rise. On this strand of sand exists an opportunity to lead the way into the stark reality of Florida’s future with reasonable solutions.