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FOLLY BEACH — The new visitor center has pilings driven more than 40 feet deep in the sand. Its ground-floor walls will break away to protect it from storm surge.

Eight years after Hurricane Irene and an ensuing series of eroding storm tides collapsed the former Dunes House and visitor center at the popular Folly Beach County Park, the finishing touches are going on a new center built to withstand those sorts of blasts.

Ask Bruce Wright, the project manager, what the secret is to this place surviving a hurricane and he points down the beach.

It’s the groin.

The groin is the controversial 700-foot-long wall that was opposed by conservationists concerned that it would rob sand from the Bird Key Stono, or Skimmer Flats, a valuable shorebird rookery in the inlet past the beach.

The opposition almost derailed the park’s beach renourishment, which would have derailed rebuilding the Dunes House.

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Bruce Wright, Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission project manager, at the new Dunes House at Folly Beach County Park on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. The park closed temporarily in 2011 after high waves tore it up as Hurricane Irene passed offshore. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Groins are barriers, usually made of rock or wood, built from the dunes into the ocean. They are controversial because they interrupt the flow of sand in shore currents, building beach sand upstream but depleting it downstream.

The visitor center Dunes House and all of the Folly park, needed that sand built back.

The $3.3 million project restoring or renovating the visitor center and other park structures — paid for by a bond to be repaid with property tax money — followed a $3 million project six years ago to build the groin and renourish the beach.

The park beach today is wide with high dunes.

Conservationists who opposed the groin said it won’t make much difference in whether the rebuilt structures hold up through a powerful hurricane.

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Brian Evans and Aaron Rothwell work on electrical systems along the outdoor stage at the new Dunes House at Folly Beach County Park on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. The park closed temporarily in 2011 after high waves damaged it as Hurricane Irene passed offshore. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

“Even under normal beach conditions, structures like terminal groins pose a threat to downdrift beaches and perpetuate a false sense of security,” said Emily Cedzo, the land, water and wildlife program director for the Coastal Conservation League.

“There’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that the terminal groin can protect the Dunes House during an extreme weather event like a hurricane,” she said.

Sunset view

The new Dunes House adds to a park that was all lost to the tides, its sand and infrastructure scattered on the beach or swept into the marsh behind.

The center is scheduled to open by March, complete with a dunes walkover to the beach that takes in the sweeping view of the marsh and ocean, showers, changing rooms, bathrooms, a picnic area in the shade and an expanded concession stand.

The set-up will be roughly similar to the one at the Isle of Palms County Park but more elaborate. The concession menu will include snack food and lunch items. The walkover has more of the feel of a private boardwalk than the wider walkover to the Isle of Palms beach. 

The center will feature a sunset-view entertainment deck with a bandstand backed by the seas, open to events and beachgoers and making the park equally a year-round destination. The 2,000-square-foot deck is the size of the ground floor of a comfortable home.

“To me, this is the bomb,” Wright said as he stood on the deck Monday looking out at the breaking surf.

Mark Patrick, general manager of Folly Beach parks, said the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission is “currently in discussion” regarding whether alcohol will be permitted at the Dunes House, as well as the possibility of private event rentals.

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Construction is done to the new Dunes House at Folly Beach County Park on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. The park closed temporarily in 2011 after high waves tore it up as Hurricane Irene passed offshore. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Swept into the marsh

The popular Folly Beach park closed in 2011 after high waves tore it up as Hurricane Irene passed offshore. Before the commission was able to renourish the park’s beach in 2013, the former center was undercut by erosion, toppled and was removed.

Septic tanks lay exposed and lidless in the sand before they, too, were taken out.

Meanwhile, a wide inlet beach was washed over beyond where the groin is now. Storm tides shredded a maritime forest grove as they swept into the marsh.

This was a place that drew 100,000 people per year. Park officials worried aloud at the time that, if the work couldn’t be done quickly enough, the entire sand bluff that holds the park could be swept away, too.

By the time the park reopened, it was little more than a broad crest of flat, renourished beach. It has operated since with portable restrooms, a makeshift office and make-do refreshment stand. It continues to draw about as many people as before.

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A boardwalk to the beach from the new Dunes House at Folly Beach County Park on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. The park closed temporarily in 2011 after high waves damaged it as Hurricane Irene passed offshore. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The primary dunes are now rebuilt 10 feet high by fencing capturing blown sand. Secondary dunes are establishing behind. The Dunes House and its septic field are built behind them. The dunes are what stand between the center and hurricane storm surge.

The house is built to state coastal zone codes, or capable of withstanding 120 mph winds. 

Is that enough?  

“It’s about as good as you can get,” Wright said.

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