Story last updated at 3:08 p.m. Thursday, October 10, 2002

Anti-erosion project tested

High tides, big surf pound yet-to-be-completed seawall

by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

photo: news

  Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News
Construction crews with East Road Services continue work on the Ocean Loop seawall Tuesday afternoon, despite heavy surf and spray. Work on the project should be completed sometime next week, according to Public Works Director Carey Meyer. Winds of 20 to 30 knots combined with high tides in excess of 20 feet during the storm that hit Monday.  
The waves hit the seawall so hard on Tuesday afternoon that the ground shook atop the bluff it was built to protect. The sound was like distant cannonfire, and the eruption of water off the corrugated surface was part Old Faithful, part Las Vegas fountain.

The fall's high-marking tide cycle combined with two days of 20-30 knot winds to deliver the North Pacific's first big test of the still-under-construction seawall at the Ocean Loop bluff.

But after weathering the two-day storm, moderate by Cook Inlet standards, the wall remained upright and only somewhat scarred as the sun came up Wednesday morning.

For Carey Meyer, the director of public works for the city of Homer, that was a positive sign.

"What happens if it's a 24-foot tide and we get 40- to 50-mph winds? And what are the odds that we could get those two things occurring together again? I'd say very likely."

<> Carl Schoch, oceanographer

"It's still standing," he said of the $1 million wall, which will be financed by the City of Homer and eventually paid for by the affected property owners.

But reaction among those blufftop property owners and other bystanders was a little more tentative as they stood looking down on Tuesday's crashing and churning surf.

Findlay Abbott was concerned about a crack he'd seen near the base of one section. And before the tide brought the waves fully to bear on the wall, there had been a 35-foot log resting at the toe of the seawall.

"Will it be able to stand up to a log that size?" he asked skeptically.

The wall itself runs along roughly 1,800 feet of beach at the foot of the bluff. It stands close to 10 feet high and is constructed out of fiberglass composite sheets. It is reinforced by a layering of dredging spoils from the small boat harbor.

The wall's design, which comes from Anchorage engineer Arvind Phukan, was the subject of much controversy as city officials and landowners weighed various options in a series of meetings last spring. Ultimately, the alternative of using armor rock, like that protecting the Homer Spit, was abandoned as too costly. After all the necessary permits were in hand, work went ahead with Phukan's design earlier this summer.

Now, questions that were raised in public meetings were being voiced again.

photo: neighbors

  Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News
Working during Mondy's low tide, crews fill in behind the seawall with soil to reinforce it.  
What about all the water that becomes trapped atop the back-filled dirt and gravel?

What will happen in the spring as the freeze-thaw cycle sloughs off pieces of the bluff and compresses the back-filled area?

And in the face of such a battering as it saw this week, how will the fiberglass fare as rocks and gravel are tossed into it and pushed along its base by the current?

While Abbott claimed that abrasion was already taking its toll, the conventional thinking is that the wall, which was built above the mean high-tide mark, will not face such destructive forces often enough for it to be threatened.

But near-shore oceanographer Carl Schoch, research head at the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, said that the higher tide cycles that come in the fall are often accompanied by high winds and storms.

"What happens if it's a 24-foot tide and we get 40- to 50-mph winds?" Schoch wondered. "And what are the odds that we could get those two things occurring together again? I'd say very likely.

But it would cost a fortune to build a seawall that could withstand all storms."

Schoch went out to the site to get video footage of the changes in wave patterns brought about as the surf deflected off the seawall's surface.

Schoch brought up the classic Catch-22 of seawall physics -- all the force that is turned aside when a wave strikes a wall will have to come to bear someplace else downshore.

And Schoch's prediction is that the storm berm protecting Mariner Park lagoon will be the place bearing the brunt of deflected current from the seawall.

Schoch said he sent the video clips to colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey, who will be in Homer next week to begin assessing the long-term effects of the seawall. The USGS will also be launching a study of shoreline erosion and sediment transport along the peninsula coast from Homer to Kenai.

Schoch said their response to his footage was swift.

"They called me right back and said, 'wow,'" Schoch said.

While the science community sets about studying the effects of the seawall on the surrounding shorelines, the local homeowners are simply hoping it keeps the bluff from eroding any further.

"If it can survive this tide, we're probably good to go," said Vince Tillion, who owns property overlapping the western end of the seawall.

As several neighbors discussed the wall and the waves, Tillion's 6-year-old son, Clem, played gleefully in the shadow of some monumental spouts of water.

Meanwhile, contractor Troy Jones, whose company, East Road Services, was hired to build the seawall, watched the wall with a very attentive eye.

The action of the bay was powerful enough that he noticed a slight wiggle in the wall in one location, a sign that did not please him. But still, he speculated that if the wall were not in place, the bluff would have suffered some substantial losses during the storm.

"Even this one storm would have probably took it out," he said.

As for the crack that had appeared in the seawall, Jones said he was pretty sure it was a flaw in the material and not due to damage sustained during construction or the storm.

But Abbott remained skeptical about the strength of the wall's material.

"I've had a lot of experience of living down here with the waves, and when Mr. Phukan said this plastic was going to do the trick, my bull---- alarm started going off," Abbott said.

Phukan could not be reached for comment.

Jones, meanwhile, laughed that his toughest oversight did not come from any official agencies but from the neighbors who have been watching the construction from above.

"There's been a lot of inspectors," he said. "Every homeowner's an inspector."

Sepp Jannotta can be reached at sjannotta@homer