What a lovely sight driving along U.S. One just a few feet from the azure blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean from MM74.5 to MM75 on Lower Matecumbe. No homes between you and the ocean. So close you can almost touch the sea! Sheer beauty.
Most people call the area Sea Oats Beach, but not everyone.
Over the years, locals have watched as the beach has gotten narrower and narrower each year. Many remember the billboard installed on the beach when there was still expanses of dry land. Eventually the billboard was part way out into the ocean.
Click here to see photos and read the story – Sea Oats Beach Billboard.
The view along the beach is spectacular, but that is just about the end of the good news: The close proximity of the highway to the shoreline of the Atlantic could well spell future disaster.
FKEC project: In 2021 the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative expects to begin a project: moving the power transmission poles from the shoreline at Sea Oats Beach to the bay side of U.S. One.
Click here to read about the FKEC project
Who would be impacted: Lower Matecumbe Key residents and Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) officials share deep concern about the precarious stretch of low-lying U.S. 1 at Sea Oats Beach. Not just the folks living on Lower Matecumbe have to worry, but everyone who travels the Florida Keys beyond this island – tens of thousands of residents, property owners, and tourists heading south. It has been known for years that this stretch of highway is in serious jeopardy from storms, large and small, long before “sea level rising” became a concern. If this section of highway is washed away, there will certainly be desperate and angry calls for help from areas to the south.
When Hurricane Irma invaded in 2017, the damage to U. S. One at MM74.5 was primarily limited to one lane, but repairs created huge congestion for vehicles traveling south past this location for months.
After a major hurricane, it is critical that U.S. One be clear to get emergency services through.
After Irma, a pile of broken asphalt pieces was stacked on the side of the highway.
Sand recovered from the highway, was piled on the right of way at MM74.5, cleaned and filtered, expected to be used for future restoration of Sea Oats Beach. The Village soon realized it would be years, if ever, before any restoration of the beach would be possible. The sand was given away.
Matecumbe Sandy Cove condominium was a 12-unit three story complex immediately across the highway from Sea Oats Beach. It completely collapse with just the top floor still visible following the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma.
Now, more than three years after Hurricane Irma, FDOT is in the process of stabilizing the shoreline by repairing the embankment washout at Sea Oats Beach. During this project they are re-using the erosion control articulating block mat (ABM), installed during a highway shoulder stabilization in 2008, adding another layer, and placing rip-rap below grade. FDOT expects this will be a “more permanent and stable” system.
Five Year Plans
A year after Irma, at a public meeting in Marathon in November 2018, a tentative Five-Year Work Program was presented by FDOT as is done regularly each fall. In the 5th year of that plan, 2024, FDOT projected they would do preliminary engineering for the section of highway from MM74– MM75, Sea Oats Beach, at a cost of $1.5 million. This was intended to be the start of the long term “fix,” a design to raise the level of U.S. One, perhaps significantly.
At a Lower Matecumbe Key Association meeting several months later, FDOT engineer, Daniel Iglesias, explained that “major construction projects require detailed designs, extensive permitting by multiple state and federal agencies, and multimillion-dollar funding.”
“We understand you want to see something done quickly, but it has to be done the right way” Iglesias said. He later added, “There is no way to raise the road to address a 15-foot-high storm surge.”
The most recent 5-year plan was presented virtually in October of 2020. FDOT Officials now say they’re in the early design stages of a road improvement project from MM 73.7 to MM 77.5, referred to as a paving project. The road and shoulders will be elevated 1 to 1.5 feet in most locations. The highway by Sea Oats Beach is to be raised by 2 feet.
Initial engineering was submitted on September 23, 2020. The design work is expected to take a year. Any additional runoff created as a result of the project will be addressed with installation of drainage inlets, swales, trenches and underground piping. The estimated $10 million construction project is to start in the spring or summer of 2022.
If you believe at all in “sea level rise,” you will join a majority of residents of Lower Matecumbe who question whether two feet of added elevation will do anywhere near enough to justify the cost and the extended traffic congestion that will result.
Some of the local old timers know this thin sliver of land at about MM75, along U.S. One on Lower Matecumbe, as Bale Beach. Bale Beach is derived from the fact that a couple decades ago the U.S. Coast Guard in Islamorada often intervened when bales of illegal marijuana floated ashore here, hoping to arrest smugglers waiting to pick it up.
Stop in at Florida Keys Brewing Co. to taste “Bale Beach Pale Ale,” surely named after this famous beach.
Some folks travel from all over the country to the Florida Keys in search of treasures from the old Spanish Treasure Galleon fleet, victims of the 1733 hurricane. They call our beach Treasure Beach.
On July 15, 1733 the Nueva Espana Flota, with 20 ships that sailed from Havana, were caught in a severe hurricane while on their way to Spain. Most were grounded on the reefs of the Florida Keys. The names of the ships are very confusing, sometimes with a religious name, sometimes named after the captain or owner. The shipwreck often referred to as Herri, Terri, or El Lerri is in about 14’ of water not far off the beach at MM75. All that is visibly left of this shipwreck is ballast stone, easily distinguished from our coral rock and sandy ocean bottom.
Centuries ago, builders placed round stones from rivers near ports where ships left for the New World. The stones were placed against the keel of ships. This kept the galleons steady under sail. The round river stones could be replaced with ore deposits or stones containing emeralds from the New World for the trip back to Spain. Or they could remain if there was room enough, to steady the ships in wind.
When the treasure galleons wrecked back in 1733, the remains were scattered over miles of ocean.
Hurricane Irma brought good fortune to some treasure hunters on Treasure Beach on Lower Matecumbe, according to Dr. John Christopher Fine. Fine is an expert in maritime affairs and beach detecting and diving on shipwreck sites. Fine has authored 26 published books including TREASURES OF THE SPANISH MAIN.
Florida has designated the shipwreck site of the San Pedro further north, near Indian Key, as a historic underwater preserve. While the original cannons have been removed, the state has placed cement cannons around a ballast pile for divers to enjoy. The San Pedro is a shallow dive accessible to snorkelers. The cement cannons simulate an original 1733 fleet wreck site.
Sea Oats Beach
Why do we call the area “Sea Oats Beach?” The beach was once lined with sea oats plants, not that long ago.
Sea Oats are a vital part of the ecosystem in so many coastal areas, playing an important role in coastal conservation. Because of this, it is illegal to pick sea oats in Florida. They have a massive root system capable of holding soil and sand in place during extreme weather like hurricanes and tropical storms.
The sand that collects around the plant actually stimulates its growth. The cycle of sand collection and plant growth facilitates expansion of the sea oats and the sand dunes. If sea oats are buried by the sand, it develops an underground stem system that grows to the surface and produces another plant.
Sea oat leaves and stems also trap wind-blown sand. That increases the size of the dunes, too. Of course, sand dunes also help protect the coast from erosion during high winds and storm surges.
“Sea Oats Beach” has virtually no beach left and no sea oats.
With every storm, large or small, the surf pushes sand from Sea Oats Beach onto U.S. One. Hurricane Irma came and went on Sept. 10, 2017, and with it. the sand washed up and over U.S. One. With the surge, big chunks of highway washed away, too.
Time to rename the Beach once more? Any thoughts? Jeopardy Beach?
Look what happened when Hurricane Irma came to call in September 2017
While the damage to U. S. One at MM 74.5 was primarily limited to one lane, repairs created huge congestion for vehicles traveling south of this location.
The highway at Sea Oats Beach has been an area of huge concern for decades as the beach has eroded and the ocean in high tide is just feet from the highway. Yes, this would probable be best referred to as
Jeopardy Beach… enjoy at your own risk.
Sea Oats Beach once had a billboard. Area residents fought for years to get rid of the billboard that extended into the ocean along the otherwise beautiful Sea Oats Beach!
After Hurricane Georges struck in the fall of 1998 and did significant damage to the billboard, residents called nearly a dozen enforcement agencies one Sunday morning when heavy equipment was lined up preparing to replace the billboard without permits. Residents lined both sides of the highway prepared to do what they could to stop the work. The work was halted.
The sign company then attempted to get a permit to “repair” the sign. Islamorada code would not allow a new sign and would only permit repairs if the cost was less than 50% of the existing value. Billboards are considered personal property not real property and are taxed accordingly in Florida. Diligent residents were able to obtain the tax filing from the state demonstrating the owners claimed the old sign had a value of just $5,000 for tax purposes. Their sign permit was denied.
Later, representatives of the Lower Matecumbe Key Association contacted the property owner and negotiated a purchase of the property for $30,000.
The Village took over from there and bought part of Sea Oats Beach in November 1999. In an effort to win Lower Matecumbe votes, candidate for Village Council, John Cioffi, with chain saw in hand, waded into the waters to remove the billboard where for years he had advertised his business, T-Shirt City.