The beckoning bayside beaches along the Rickenbacker Causeway are defined by their easy access. Pull up, plop on sand, wade into water, or hop on a Windsurfer or Hobie Cat.
But since Hurricane Irma struck 13 months ago, the roadside beaches on Virginia Key and Hobie Island have been in various states of disrepair or closed to parking or fenced off from anybody seeking a little warm sun and soft surf.
It’s taken a long time to fix the erosion damage caused by Irma because the wheels of bureaucracy turn at turtle pace, especially when environmental permits are required. But there is some good news. The restoration of Hobie Island (the first barrier island after passing through the Rickenbacker toll booth) on the south side from the Comfort Station to the east end at the foot of the William Powell bridge that finally began Sept. 17 is scheduled to be completed next month. The portion from the Comfort Station — which houses restrooms, showers and water fountains — to the west end is scheduled to be completed sometime in December, according to Miami-Dade County’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces.
Crews were out Monday and Tuesday moving piles of sand with Bobcats and shovels as part of the sand re-nourishment effort that will include 13,000 tons of sand. Larger coral rock boulders will be used to aid shoreline stabilization and new pavers will replace those dislodged or washed away by Irma’s storm surge.
“It’s about time because it’s been more than a year,” said Jose De Jesus, who said he’s at the beach four times a week. “They told me after Irma it would be a while but they really only started work three weeks ago. You didn’t see anybody working for months and months.”
De Jesus said he and other people have been using sections of beach that aren’t too damaged or shrunken, but it’s difficult to get to because parking and the beachside road are closed. He has to walk, ride his bike or hope to find a parking space under the Powell bridge where the fishermen like to park
“The existing facilities have experienced minor to heavy erosion, resulting in a reduction to the beach sand and undermining existing shoreline revetment, roadways and parking,” says a county description of the project. “This project will restore the area to its pre-storm condition as well as provide mitigation work to offset future storm damages.”
The bad news is that the stretch of fenced-off beach and partially closed parking areas on the south side of Virginia Key (the second barrier island as you head east on the Rickenbacker) opposite the Miami Marine Stadium and east to Seaquarium won’t be completed until May 2019.
The really bad news is that the north side of Hobie Island, which has a scenic view of downtown Miami and is a favorite barbecue area, is blocked by a chain-link fence and won’t be reopened until construction not scheduled to commence until the summer of 2020 is completed. First comes permitting, then contract procurement. The county was able to reuse design plans and an existing coastal permit to implement FEMA-approved mitigation work. Otherwise the permitting process could have taken up to three years, said Victoria Galan, communications manager for the parks department.
The scope of the north side project “features shoreline stabilization, beach re-nourishment, storm water management, parking improvements, invasive vegetation removal and installation of new landscaping in upland area,” according to the county. Invasive species include the dozens of Australian pines that provide shade to beachgoers but are detrimental to the soil.
When Australian pines were removed from the south side, there was an outcry from the public. They were replaced with palms and other vegetation, but the south side remains relatively stark and shade-less compared to its former state.
The county has taken care to phase construction, open beach and parking areas when completed and keep the popular running/walking/cycling path open.
Still, those who frequent the beach are impatient.
“More than a year already, and then two more years until the other side is done — that’s ridiculous,” said Daniel Chaviano, standing on the south side and pointing across the Rickenbacker to the north side beach. “All the improvements they did here before were a waste of money anyway. Where does all the money go? Into someone’s pocket, I think.”
Said Luis Garcia: “It’s a shame they can’t reopen everything faster. The beaches are the reason people visit here and live here.”