First, Sharon Arnstein heard the roar. Then, the white-capped waves crashed against a makeshift barrier, leaving an unwelcome calling card at her sandbagged front door Thursday--the season's first trickle of flood water.
"We're lucky," said Arnstein, watching the 7:50 a.m. high tide from her second-story balcony. "If that barrier wasn't here today, then we'd be under water, no question."
Residents in the tiny beach community of Surfside kept an anxious watch on the 7.1-foot tide--the year's highest--that threatened to wash away the thin slice of beach that protects homes from the ocean's steady march. The barrier--5,500 sandbags, a 500-foot-long sand berm and 5-ton boulders--stood firm against the pounding waves; at high tide, a few waves splashed over the barrier, but there was no flooding or damage.
The barrier was erected in a last-minute rescue effort last week. It gets another test today, the first day of winter, when another 7.1-foot high tide rolls in. Officials said they expect the barrier to again hold because no strong surf or wind is expected.
The true test would come if a huge tide hit at the same time as a big storm, city officials said. The barrier is designed to break the force of the waves so homes won't topple, but it will not stop a storm-churned surf from flooding homes and streets.
City officials said there wasn't enough time or money to try anything else before this winter's storm season.
"What we have there is the best line of defense right now," said Steve Badum, Seal Beach's public works director.
Meanwhile, throughout the winter, the Orange County Fire Authority will remain on standby with portable pumps to remove any flood water, and police will be ready to direct evacuation or other emergency efforts, said Seal Beach Police Capt. Gary Maiten.
"We really have our fingers crossed, to be honest," he said.
Surfside, a gated community, includes 260 homes, 20 of them on the beach.
The sand erosion problem began in the early 1940s, when a jetty was constructed for the neighboring Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station. The jetty blocks the natural flow of sand to Surfside's shoreline and provides a springboard for ocean swells that pummel the community's beach.
As a result, the Army Corps of Engineers in 1962 agreed to replenish the sand every five years, due this fall. This year, the corps canceled the $10-million sand replenishment program because of budget cuts.
Residents have been preparing for winter since October, filling sandbags, boarding up windows, clearing first floors and patio decks, and digging trenches under houses to catch any surging tide.
On Thursday, several got up early to wait for the high tide, some toting video cameras. City Manager Keith Till walked the beach in a suit, tie and dress shoes, as joggers and fishermen went through their morning routine, as if it were any other day.
"We got a good break here," said homeowner Gino Salegui, 60. "Mother Nature was a good kid."
But residents say their anxiety is just beginning.
Winter is expected to deliver more high tides and punishing storms, as their fragile beach erodes each day with no immediate hope in sight.
Surfside is regarded as a "feeder" beach. Its sand is supposed to travel south, replenishing Sunset Beach, Bolsa State Beach, Huntington Beach, Huntington State Beach and Newport Beach.
Since 1991, the Corps of Engineers and other agencies have worked on a study to track sand erosion along a 32-mile stretch of Orange County's coast from Dana Point to Seal Beach. The report will recommend a long-term solution to Surfside's erosion problem, said Thomas Rossmiller, assistant civil engineer for the county.
"What happens in Surfside possibly several years in the future could affect what happens in west Newport, for example," he said. "If we stop feeding sand at Surfside, we would end up with other beaches in the area being starved of sand."