Where's the Beach?

The true story behind the beach erosion explosion is politics as usual

Veteran observers present at the December 21, 1994, Miami Beach City Commission meeting may have known the mayor was about to erupt. His characteristic tics -- the unconscious shoulder shrugs, the merry gaze triangulating from the audience in the commission chamber to the speaker to the documents in front of him -- had ceased. Mayor Seymour Gelber gathered up his gangly limbs from his customarily slumped posture and bent toward a microphone.

Maybe Commissioner David Pearlson noticed. Probably not, for he had launched into an explanation of why the commission should pass a resolution calling on Gov. Lawton Chiles to declare a state of emergency concerning beach erosion. That the beaches were in bad shape was not in question: The perpetual blender of wind and waves had chopped away long swaths of sand; in some spots where the beach was once hundreds of feet wide, the surf now licked close to the dunes and wooden boardwalk. At certain locations high tide blocked the path of emergency vehicles along the beach, and the city had been forced to dismantle a handicapped access ramp to the sand because it now deposited people in the water.

Everyone worried about the loss of the dunes, constructed during an extensive beach renourishment project in the mid Seventies and early Eighties to protect oceanfront property from storm-surge flooding (see sidebar). And the economic ramifications of a de-beached Miami were unthinkable. Tourism officials say the beach is the number-one attraction for Dade's multibillion-dollar vacation industry. Miami Beach has more than twice the number of tourist visits than Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite national parks combined. As the beach goes, so go the visitors.

To make the situation even more critical, a federally sponsored beach renourishment project to provide some temporary relief to the worst sections of Miami Beach had been brought to a halt by a federal court injunction. The tiny yet wealthy town of Golden Beach had sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees beach renourishment for the federal government. Town officials feared that sand dredging for the project about two miles off their shoreline would cause environmental damage and exacerbate erosion of the town's beachfront. The dredging site -- a submerged sandbar-- was one of the two last known sources of obtainable and federally approved sand in South Florida. The other site had been reserved for other projects. Without the Golden Beach site, there was nowhere for Miami Beach to go.

So the question was, What action should the City of Miami Beach take to save its greatest natural resource? Pearlson, with the backing of the city's administration, thought a declaration of emergency was the answer. In conjunction with similar resolutions from other municipalities, it would encourage the governor to help the city navigate the "bureaucratic morass," Pearlson explained.

Gelber's squeaky voice, edgy with irritation, pierced the stale bureaucratic air. "Well, has your group contacted the governor or members of his staff and asked him to do A, B, C, and D, which will take you through the morass?" he inquired.

Pearlson went silent for a moment, then ventured on another explanatory path. "We believe the process for contacting him is first to declare an emergency for the cities, then contact him," the commissioner began. He explained that the governor might be able to help expedite the federal approval process for an alternative source of sand in the Bahamas, thereby relieving the burden of the Golden Beach lawsuit, and -- "I don't have a problem with this at all," Gelber interrupted, "but has anyone contacted [Lt.Gov.] Buddy McKay and said, 'Look, we need your help and do this: A, B, C, and D'? Passing resolutions is fine, but all we do is sign this, send it up, and that gets lost in the morass rather than directly asking for whatever help is necessary."

Then-city manager Roger Carlton, another proponent of the resolution, took over for Pearlson. "Mayor, let me explain if I might," he said, launching into a windy and vaguely condescending discourse about the problems of sand dredging, governmental process, the pending litigation.

"I know all about those things!" the mayor screeched, fixing his glare on Carlton seated halfway around the semicircular dais. "All we're talking about is how to get some help outta Tallahassee! And I'm tellin' you, if you pick up the phone and get someone that can do something, isn't it a lot more [effective] than passing these wonderful resolutions to just get your story in the newspaper?"

Carlton: "We think the resolutions will help us --"
"Then why didn't you call someone in Tallahassee to do something?" Gelber was aflame. "You want something to happen in Tallahassee that involves the federal government, you call someone like Buddy McKay who does that all the time! You pass this resolution and it will go up there in somebody's files and it'll be filed in that big cabinet that says 'Emergency Resolutions' and that'll be the end of it!"

The resolution eventually passed, as did similar ones that came before the commissions of Bal Harbour and Dade County. Still, Gelber's critique was fitting then, and it is today. While local officials have made a lot of noise about Dade's ever-diminishing beaches, it hasn't done a whole lot of good. Efforts over the past two years to solve the problem have been hampered by profound government inertia. Yes, Chiles got around to declaring an emergency, and in recent months frustration and desperation have finally driven local authorities to decisive action. But a single cupful of new sand has yet to be deposited on Dade's beaches.

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