SEASIDE — In an effort to mitigate the effects from storms, Seaside has launched a project to restore and renourish its coastal sand dunes.

The beach town along Walton County Road 30A said in a press release that the renourishment project will “further develop Seaside’s long-term preservation and resiliency strategy to protect the landscape and maintain the native ecosystems.”

“Even though we haven’t had a big storm in the past few years and we’ve been blessed with that, there’s always the chance that could happen,” said Lori Smith, the spokeswoman for Seaside. “We just want to make sure the beach is protected, the environment is protected and the community is protected as well.”

The work began last week behind the Coleman and Seaside pavilions, and will take about three months to complete. The town has contracted with Dune Doctors, a Pensacola-based coastal erosion control firm that specializes in planning, constructing and maintaining native ecosystems and protective landscapes.

The project is being financed by the Seaside Community Development Corp., a private entity. Smith would say only that the project will cost “several thousand dollars.” 

“This investment is our commitment to keeping the dunes protected and beautifying the area,” she said.

The project will be done in four phases. In the first “preservation” phase, the dunes will be cleaned and fertilized. Sea oats and panic grasses will be planted during the second "protection' phase. In the “optimization” phase, more plants such as ground covers and flowers will be planted in bare areas. The final “dune management” phase will include health checkups, site visits and pruning, and annual fertilizations.

“Seaside is committed to the most beneficial sand dune restoration and beautification,” Seaside co-founder Robert Davis said in a statement. “It is vital to protect our coastline, and we hope that neighboring communities share our commitment in maintaining and beautifying the most important, and fragile, part of our ecology.”

Environmental officials say keeping dunes healthy is critical to the ecosystem, especially in an area where storms and hurricanes can erode beaches in a matter of days. Hurricane Opal removed over 800,000 cubic yards of sand from Okaloosa County beaches in 1995, and while the area hasn’t seen a storm the likes of Opal in more than two decades, gradual wear and tear on coastal dunes caused by years of smaller storms can be just as devastating.

“Sometimes dunes will build up with storms and sometimes, when you have high waves, dunes can wash away and erode,” said Scott Caraway, the environmental manager for public works in Walton County. “The coastal system is very dynamic. It’s hard to say what those dunes are going to do from year to year.”

Caraway said the dunes are critical to South Walton’s ecosystem and economy, primarily because they protect the coastline in the event of a storm. He said the dunes act as a “buffer between waves and coastal development,” absorbing wave energy and reducing damage to anything behind them.

“Dunes are also important because they provide habitat to wildlife, like sea turtles and nesting shorebirds,” Caraway said. “They’re very important in a lot of ways.”