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Miami Beach's Shoreline Under Siege : Sea swallowing the sand, and officials see threat to tourism. Long-term solution in doubt.

National Perspective / ENVIRONMENT

December 17, 1996|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI BEACH — What's Miami Beach without sand? It's Los Angeles without movie stars, Chicago with no wind. It's New York sans skyscrapers and attitude. It's nowhere.

Exactly. It's not there.

Try to walk along some stretches of this famous beach between Collins Avenue and the Atlantic Ocean at high tide and you're in surf up to the knees.

How bad is it?

After a strong Nor'easter raked the coast last month, hotelier Victor Farkas says he had nearly as much sand in the pool as on the oceanfront. "What we're selling in Miami Beach is the beach, and we have no beach," laments Farkas, owner of Chateau by the Sea.

As for the tourists staying at his resort, many of them from Europe, Farkas says: "We give them free lunch, provide them with cocktails--just try to satisfy them any way we can."

To be sure, most of Miami Beach and the sandy apron on the Atlantic Ocean that runs for miles north of this city is intact and dotted, as usual, with sunbathers. The white sand along the popular South Beach end of this barrier island--restored 20 years ago as part of a $55-million project--remains high, wide and inviting.

But wave action has badly eroded some sections of the shoreline in Miami Beach, Sunny Isles and other Dade County cities over the last two years as a scheduled $7-million replenishment has been blocked by a federal court. The town of Golden Beach and two conservation groups sued the county, contending the plan to pump offshore sand onto the beach would cause harm to coral reefs and sea turtle nesting sites.

But last month, U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages decided to lift the temporary injunction barring the Army Corps of Engineers' dredging project, which now could begin in March. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit have appealed the judge's ruling.

Conservationists recognize the tourism industry's need for sand. But they argue that the current corps plan does not provide for enough of a buffer between the dredging site and the fragile reef. "The reason we're so adamant on this point is that it's happened before, in 1990, in this same area," says Alex Stone, a spokesman for the American Littoral Society, one of the plaintiffs. "A dredge went off course, and they wrecked the reef."

A larger issue shadowing sea-walled, developed barrier islands all along the East Coast--including those in hurricane-battered North Carolina--is what geologist Orrin H. Pilkey sees as the long-term obligation and ultimate futility of replenishing sand that is destined to be carried away by waves. "The situation is moving into crisis state in terms of sand supply on the East Coast," says Pilkey, a Duke University professor and critic of the corps. "And I wonder why we, the federal taxpayers, are paying for it."

Geologically speaking, Pilkey explains that barrier islands are ever-changing buffers and not suitable for homes and hotels. But it's a little late to do much about Miami Beach.

So last week, at a cost of about $500,000, Dade County began to haul in 50,000 cubic yards of sand from central Florida quarries as a stopgap measure. Even as tourists waded in the surf and spread their towels, huge yellow trucks rumbled by to dump new beachfront. "This should get us through the winter," said Brian Flynn, a beach-restoration specialist for the county's department of environmental resources management. "But we really need to move on this."

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Indeed, tourism officials say that South Florida has enough problems with its image, what with the city of Miami teetering on financial collapse, three top officials facing federal prison time for corruption and a reputation for street crime that seems unshakable. Money magazine recently listed Miami among the Top 10 of America's most dangerous places to live.

"The beach is the most important resource we have. This is the attraction we market," says Bill Lone, executive director of the Sunny Isles Beach Resort Assn. He estimates that eight of 41 association members have severely eroded beachfronts.

"Here's the risk and the fear," explains Lone. "Do we want tourists coming here and then moving on to Orlando because they couldn't enjoy their stay? Do we want areas of the beach roped off? Is that attractive? No, it is not."

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