FEMA to the Beach Rescue… Again

It’s somewhat ironic that a hurricane named “Sandy” is washing away beaches up and down the East Coast this week. Let’s hope that the storm isn’t a killer, and that everyone gets out of harm’s way.

It will take some time to determine just how much damage Sandy causes. But we already know that many re-nourished beaches have lost a lot of sand, and it is inevitable that beach communities will ask the federal government to pay to rebuild their lost beaches.

All these funds come out of a program that is designed by Congress to help local and state governments repair damage to “public infrastructure” that they own. It is often used to rebuild schools, water and sewer systems, courthouses and parks.Last year when Hurricane Irene hit North Carolina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, approved more than $12 million for five coastal communities to repair their beaches. A lot of this work still hasn’t happened, so there is likely to be requests by these same communities for even more money after Sandy.

However, FEMA has also adopted rules based upon the federal Stafford Act that define beaches that are re-nourished as “public infrastructure.” This allows it to pay to repair beaches that are damaged by a federally declared natural disaster. Thus, after each major hurricane or northeaster, communities submit requests for FEMA dollars to rebuild their beaches. They have figured out it’s a good way to make the federal government pay for their beaches without having to get authorizations and appropriations through the administration and Congress.

It isn’t at all clear, however, if Congress ever intended for taxpayers to pay disaster aid to rebuild oceanfront beaches washed away by storms. The local governments that are getting these disaster funds have previously re-nourished their beaches with local or state funding. The upper beach is still private property, and the lower beach is owned by the state. This means FEMA pays local governments to repair beaches owned by private landowners and the states.

Congress designed the Stafford Act so that it would not have to pay repeatedly to repair the same “public infrastructure” after each storm. It requires flood insurance for infrastructure located in a “special flood hazard area.”

Last year this insurance requirement was very costly for two fiscally struggling counties in North Carolina. Schools in Pamlico and Tyrrell counties were flooded by Hurricane Irene, and FEMA refused disaster aid to help these counties repair their schools because they weren’t insured. The counties had dropped coverage because it was too expensive for their budgets. Aid was eventually forthcoming in the form of federal loans, and now these counties have purchased flood insurance for their schools.

Beaches are obviously in areas subject to flooding, but re-nourished beaches aren’t eligible for flood insurance coverage. This means that FEMA has committed taxpayers to repeated claims for disaster aid after each storm, and this commitment is inconsistent with the Stafford Act’s requirements.

Congress and the past few presidents have resisted intense lobbying efforts by beach communities to increase the federal funds for beach re-nourishment. However, FEMA is routinely providing this funding by allowing disaster aid to pay to rebuild beaches.

Whether the federal taxpayer should pay for beaches is a debate that should be waged openly in the halls of Congress. Lacking such a clear legal mandate from lawmakers, it is inappropriate for FEMA to stretch its legal authority to provide this financial aid.

About the Author

Todd Miller

Todd founded the North Carolina Coastal Federation in 1982. A native of Carteret County, he was selected in 2013 as a distinguished alumni of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he received his undergraduate and masters degrees. Todd also received The Old North State Award in 2007, the National Wetlands Community Leader Award in 2012 and the Peter Benchley Ocean Awards' Hero of Seas Award in 2015. He is a founding board member of Restore America Estuaries, a member of the Board of Visitors for the UNC Institute for the Environment and chairman of the Policy Committee for the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary Partnership. As executive director, Todd formulates the federation’s goals and policy positions, serves as the federation’s spokesperson and provides staff and operations oversight.