Emergency Funds Spent To Replace Beach Sand
By Gilbert M. Gaul
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2004; Page A01
EMERALD ISLE, N.C. -- The morning after Hurricane Isabel hit last September, Town Manager Frank A. Rush Jr. dashed off an e-mail.
"The town of Emerald Isle was extremely fortunate, and sustained very little damage," Rush wrote on Sept. 19 to town officials. "Beach erosion . . . is minimal."
Yet Emerald Isle turned to the government for help. After the beach resort was declared part of a federal natural disaster area, the Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded the town nearly $1.5 million for street signs, tennis court lights and sand for the resort's carefully manicured beaches.
"I have a great deal of difficulty using FEMA for wealthy beach towns getting money for sand," said Emily Farmer, the former mayor of the town of 3,500. "Emerald Isle basically uses FEMA as an insurance policy."
It is not alone.
Dozens of wealthy beach towns and coastal communities turned to the federal agency after Isabel and received tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded disaster relief, records obtained by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act show.
The bulk of the money was used to clear debris and pay for emergency workers' overtime. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, however, were used to repair flagpoles, signs, bike paths and ball fields. And, in what some environmental groups and regulators say is a troubling development, the federal agency is paying for an estimated $15 million worth of sand.
Emerald Isle "was a declared area and they were an eligible applicant and they were funded," said Paul Wilson, a disaster recovery specialist in FEMA's Atlanta office. Agency officials did not respond to requests for additional comment.
Why is the nation's disaster relief agency paying for sand? Under FEMA's policies, beaches such as those in Emerald Isle are viewed as part of the public infrastructure, similar to a water plant or an electric utility. As long as the beaches are maintained and there is a federally declared disaster -- such as a hurricane -- a community can apply for funds to replace any washed-away sand.
The rationale is that the FEMA-funded beaches and sand dunes protect property and reduce storm damage. But some environmentalists say that FEMA, by paying for sand, is encouraging risky development in the very places that people should be avoiding, and exposing the federal treasury to an endless cycle of bailouts in the process.
"There is no emergency if you stay out of harm's way," said Orrin H. Pilkey, a Duke University geologist and longtime critic of federally funded beach fills. "It's only when people build on the shoreline that it becomes dangerous and you get all of these other problems."
FEMA's growing role in the sand business comes as several important developments are reshaping the economic and political landscape of North Carolina's coast. In the past two decades, beach towns have undergone an unprecedented building boom, transforming sleepy fishing villages into modern resorts. Land values have doubled and tripled, with oceanfront lots selling for $1 million or more. Quaint shore cottages have been replaced by hulking rentals with 10 bedrooms, game rooms, elevators, whirlpool bathtubs and pools.
At the same time, some sections of the North Carolina shoreline are running out of sand, leaving local officials to scramble for replacement sand and the money to pay for it.
In the past, many of these towns would have turned to the Army Corps of Engineers for help. Although better known for building bridges and dredging harbors, the Corps has also served as the largest source of federal sand dollars for eroding beaches. Since the mid-1950s, it has spent an estimated $1.5 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars on sand.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company