Hilda Benítez, a neighbor and spokeswoman for this environmental group, lamented the significant loss of areas where sea turtles used to nest. (GFR Media)

Neighbors, businesses, and visitors in Ocean Park area are constantly amazed at the significant loss of beach in what once was the starting point of a long coastal area.

"Sand starting receding a year ago and we have lost three of four dunes here during the last months," said yesterday Aida Balzac Betancourt, a resident of the Punta las Marías.

Although she thinks this a cyclical problem, Balzac Betancourt said that before the sand used to come back. "This has not happened again since August 2018 and its very serious," she stressed.

"This is scary. I've lived here for more than 30 years and I've never seen anything like it," she said, pointing to what used to be a large land space between Ocean Park to Último Trolley beach.

For Beach House restaurant owner Damián Pablo Maldonado, customers feel uncomfortable with the landscape of destruction surrounding his business.

"It's devastating. Since I settled in 2018, it's been getting worse. There seems to be no repair for all the damage to the beach. People complain about sand on the streets and sidewalks," he said.

Another neighbor, Eduardo Álvarez Gutiérrez, said that after undertows three months ago, coastal erosion is extensive and threatens not only the safety of the area's residents but also businesses and sports activities in the area.

Álvarez Gutiérrez, the owner of Wind Addiction, pointing to the sea, recalled his that skate surfing business was in that area and showed old aerial photos with the place crowded with people where there was once a beach.

"When you look at this, it's really dramatic. I've been living, conserving and doing business here for 20 years. What happens is that winter swells, and the best known on the island, La Marejada de Los Muertos (when high waves come), did not happen this year. Those swells brought all the sand that moved from east to west thus bringing the beach back," he said.

Álvarez Gutiérrez is concerned that this space for families, sports and endangered species will be seriously affected. Álvarez Gutiérrez is president of 7 Quillas, a group that provides protection and seeks the conservation of the Leatherback turtle, an endangered sea turtle that annually reaches the coasts of Puerto Rico to lay its eggs.

Hilda Benítez, a neighbor and spokeswoman for this environmental group, lamented the significant loss of areas where sea turtles used to nest.

"We grew up here. Changes have been significant since the 1960s and specifically since last year. We are losing that vital space for the conservation of the species," she said.

Benítez urged attention to this problem, which, she said, could threaten the lives of thousands of people and affect natural resources.

"We are struck by the fact that in recent months, swells, although not as severe as when we have bad weather, are constant, aggressive and strong," Benítez said.

A tour around Santa Ana, Santa Cecilia, San Miguel and Tapia streets in the old area, built in the 1930s, shows that all the roads that once led to the beach are now bounded by the vast Atlantic Ocean.

On San Miguel Street, for example, a couple heading to the beach, carrying their summer kits and ready to enjoy the hot sun saw their plans broken when a warning voice made them change direction. "Don't go in there. There is no beach," Álvarez Gutiérrez told them.

"Do you see how this problem affects everything? The beach is getting narrower and narrower and so are the ways for people to find entertainment and enjoy themselves. Turtles lost their nesting areas,  vegetation is disappearing, the water reaches the houses and then what are we going to do?" he said.

"After Hurricane María, the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and federal emergency agencies came here to study beach erosion and told us that the results could take up to three years. This won't last a year in this situation," she said.

State of emergency

For Maritza Barreto Orta, geologist and oceanographer at the University of Puerto Rico, erosion in Ocean Park is a public safety issue.  

"The beach is the best protection we have from the sea. The loss of sand in that area is significant and a sign that we have a serious problem that needs to be addressed," she said.

"If we consider that Hurricane María produced a swell that impacted residents and businesses significantly there and that they did not have a serious erosion problem back then, imagine what the effects would be now that they do not have that natural barrier. It would be a major disaster," she warned.

She said municipal and state authorities must take this issue seriously.

"Residents and those close to Ocean Park must establish a concrete plan to protect their lives and property and examine current laws on that particular issue because their lives are always at stake in case of a hurricane, tsunami or any atmospheric event that no matter its intensity, will seriously affect the area,” Barreto Orta said.

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