Wanted: Tons of Sand To Fill Miami Beaches

Sun and sand are the calling cards of Miami's coastal resorts. For even the most energetic boosters, though, selling the paradise becomes difficult when parts of the 15-mile-long beach blow away.

Wind storms brought the hurricane season here to a howling close in November, pushing waves over sea walls and burying sidewalks with sand. When the gales finally died down, many resort owners were left wringing their hands.

While erosion is a natural function of the ocean, requiring constant maintenance for Miami's artificially wide beaches, it has become a much greater concern recently because of dwindling suplies of sand and limited funding for restoration work. Conservation issues are also being raised. Environmentalists express concern that dredging for extra sand, for example, can harm live coral habitat.

"I lost most of my beach," says Harvey Rosenberg, general manager of the Radisson Aventura Beach Resort in Sunny Isles, a popular European tourist destination in the northeastern corner of Dade County. "I just gave a tour to a German tour operator. When we got outside, he said, "Where's the beach?' "

The high-tide line now stops only three feet shy of the hotel's sea wall. At the hotel next door, tourists enjoying the small beach don't even know there's a problem. Bibinur Askabylova of Kazakhstan says, "It's beautiful. I like it. I'm just afraid of the big ocean."

But natural order doesn't figure with Jean Baron, lounging in a sandlot next to the pool with an unsightly fence between her and what's left of the beach. She says, "I'm disappointed. I think they should build it out again."

That's exactly what the US Army Corps of Engineers was scheduled to do after hurricane Andrew, the devastating storm of 1992, chewed up $18 million worth of beach that had just been restored. Then beach restoration for Sunny Isles was halted by a lawsuit two years ago when the neighboring town of Golden Beach and environmental organizations objected to the Corps' plan to dredge sand near a coral reef off its shore.

In 1988, a dredge that ran off-course chewed up part of a reef off Sunny Isles beach. Reefkeeper International, an environmental group involved in the lawsuit, and Golden Beach maintain that the Corps' 150-foot buffer between the reef and the dredge was not sufficient and sued to increase its width.

The lawsuit went from an annoying roadblock to an emergency situation with the onslaught of November's winds. Soon after the storm, the injunction that had immobilized the Corps dredges was lifted. Work on the $8 million project could begin this month, and the 150-foot buffer stands. Tourist dollars, to the tune of over $9 billion a year, have spoken loudly.

"Are we relieved? Yes," says Bill Lone, executive director of Sunny Isles Beach Resort Association. "They'll come for the weather first, then the beach, then the shopping. But take the beach away and they won't come at all. I will never take this resource for granted again."

Mr. Lone says that 1995 was the best year for tourism so far, despite the twin blows of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the highly publicized murders of tourists in 1993. But, while most of Miami Beach does not suffer from acute erosion, he and other tourism professionals are concerned about any degradation of this profitable stretch of land.

Last year the Clinton administration tried to cut a $1 billion appropriation for coastal restoration and make states responsible for the costs, but Florida and other coastal states have lobbied heavily to keep the funding, arguing that 85 percent of the US tourism revenues comes from coastal states.

Miami's erosion problems won't stop after the Corps pumps the Golden Beach sand onto Sunny Isles beach, however. The end of offshore sand supplies in southeastern Florida may soon be at hand.

Sand shortage in a state with hundreds of miles of beaches may be surprising, but 17 major renourishment projects in the area in the past 20 years have reduced the region's natural resource. South of Sunny Isles in the city of Miami Beach, trucks are bringing in crushed rock from inland quarries in an emergency restoration project. Other sources of sand may be the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos islands, and even mines in central Florida.

In an alternative to simply dumping sand on the beach, Miami's Metro-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) is studying the role artificial reefs might play in preventing erosion by blocking currents and wave action.

Another option, restoring the natural 20-foot-wide beach, is out of the question. Phalanxes of towering hotels and condominiums and dozens of construction sites advertising ever taller and more opulent buildings attest to Dade County's unslaked thirst for revenue-producing development.

But vast, flat expanses of sand are needed for sunbathers. In addition, says Brian Flynn, DERM's chief of restoration and enhancement, wide beaches are necessary to block storm damage. "The engine for our economy is basically tourism," he says. "And our beaches are the biggest part of our tourism industry."

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