WASHINGTON — Tropical Storm Debby was still tearing at Florida when U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young got to work. He called the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and checked in with a powerful ally in Congress.
Driving the urgency was not what the storm brought but what it stole. Overnight, miles of Pinellas County beaches were washed away, victims of rapid erosion. Pass-a-Grille's disappeared entirely.
This is the story of politics and sand, an inseparable relationship that has for decades kept an iconic feature of Florida alive at great taxpayer expense while revealing how Washington really works. It is also a tale of a changing Washington gripped by populist politics and fears over debt.
No one embodies it more than Young, R-Indian Shores, who has brought more than $100 million in federal budget earmarks to Pinellas for beach renourishment. He has overcome objections from presidents, budget watchdogs and environmentalists who see the millions for sand as wasteful, unfair or enabling of development in areas on which man was not meant to build.
Now Young, first elected in 1970, faces a new challenge. Fellow Republicans made good on a 2010 election promise to ban earmarks. Meanwhile, concern over the national debt has put a vise on what funds are available.
"There will be a lot of people arguing we have to do this," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group that opposes budget pork. "It all comes back to the age-old question of what is the federal role in beach replenishment? From our perspective there should be less of one, if at all. These projects have predominately local benefits, not national ones."
Young, mindful of how important the beaches are to his home district, is already working the angles to deal with Debby.
"With all the cutbacks, it's going to make me work a little harder," he said.
Florida, which has 61 coastal counties out of 67 total, is still in a better position to grab federal funding for beaches than any other state, said Deborah Flack, president of the Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Association, a group formed in 1957 to find ways to counter beach erosion.
Its advantages are twofold, she said: Florida has a statewide beach program, unlike other states where beaches are not so integral to the economy, so it's not seen as trying to grab money for just one area. And Florida and its local governments have always agreed to share the cost with federal taxpayers, which makes funding projects here more palatable for Congress.
Florida's beaches have reaped the greatest number of federally funded renourishment projects. Thirty-five counties have used taxpayer money to artificially enhance their beaches. Pinellas County's beaches have been renourished repeatedly since 1966.
Coincidentally, Debby just ran smack into the final earmark Young secured — nearly $12 million for the Pinellas coast. Crews pumping hundreds of tons of sand near Clearwater last week had to abandon the work as wind and rain slashed the shoreline. Much of the effort has been undone, prompting Young's urgent phone calls.
At Young's request, four employees of the corps traveled to Pinellas on Friday to assess Debby's damage and propose ways to fix it.
The pounding from a storm surge of 2 to 3 feet and sustained winds of 23 mph "induced severe and widespread beach and dune erosion along the Pinellas County beaches," according to University of South Florida geology professor Ping Wang.
He found, for instance, that parts of Upham Beach had eroded 20 to 30 feet, and at the northern end of Indian Shores, he found an 8-foot-high dune that had been sliced in half.
Young wants to use what is left of the funding to shore up the north Pinellas shoreline, from Clearwater to Indian Shores. However, that could deplete funding for the second half of the project, including hard-hit Pass-a-Grille and St. Pete Beach, so Young is hoping the corps can tap unused money in its budget or an emergency fund. Doing that could require action from Congress.
So just in case, Young has already called Rep. Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, to give him a heads-up about the situation.
The corps may need a federal emergency declaration for immediate funding. That would require a request from Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who has built a reputation rejecting federal money, including $2.4 billion for high-speed rail. Scott, though, said Friday that disaster aid is a different question.
"It all depends on the issue," he told the Times. "This is what you pay your tax dollars for. We're a big tourism state. Our beaches are very important to us."
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Since 1998, Florida has spent $489.78 million on beach renourishment projects on 218 miles, but it has struggled to keep up the flow of sand dollars from state taxpayers.
The Legislature more than a decade ago voted to provide up to $30 million for beach renourishment. But the funding was tied to the sale of documentary stamps applied to real estate transactions, which withered with the state's real estate collapse. In the past few years only $15 million has been budgeted.
"The last couple of years, we've had some cutbacks," said state Rep. Jim Frishe, R-Belleair Bluffs, a staunch defender of renourishment funding.
When Scott took office in 2011, he didn't seem to catch on to the political value of sand. His initial budget proposal that year included no money for repairing any of Florida's 825 miles of beaches. That sparked complaints from local officials that this was hurting Scott's avowed goal of boosting the economy and jobs.
The Legislature put $16 million into the renourishment pot anyway, a necessary amount to claim $60 million in federal funds, and Scott did not veto it. This year, Flack said, Scott and the Legislature, boosted state funding to $27 million.
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Ever since Coney Island began eroding in the early 1920s, engineers have been sucking sand from the ocean floor and blasting it back onto land. Even without storms, sand washes away over several years, helped along by human engineering of the oceans to help boaters or make it easier for development. Natural flows are disrupted, robbing beaches of natural sand replenishment.
At one time beachfront property owners and local communities paid for it, but in the 1970s, the federal government started picking up a larger share, about 65 percent of a project.
Competition got so fierce that beachfront towns began hiring lobbyists. "To put it in a Simpsons context, it's like they came to Springfield and said 'Hey Shelbyville has a lobbyist, if you don't have one you're going to get left behind,' " said Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
And then there is Young, the sand king. He has made Florida the top recipient, using his longtime perch on the appropriations committee (including a six-year stint as chairman from 1999-2005) to great effect. Records show he has pulled in more than $100 million in beach earmarks alone.
Outside of beach states, the money has never been popular, seen as a handout to rich landowners and developers that strips money needed for more vital projects.
"Many Americans are unaware that their government has spent billions of dollars on beach projects knowing they will simply wash out to sea," U.S. Sen Tom Coburn, R-Okla., wrote in a 2009 report condemning the practice.
Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton tried to cut sand money but found themselves outmatched by Young, the lobbyists and their allies.
The 2010 earmark ban hasn't stopped the sand flow, either. It only put the Army Corps in charge of cutting up its budget, rather than Congress. No one doubts that a powerful lawmaker such as Young has pull, but the corps also has put in place a system to evaluate projects on their merits.
"In some ways, it's better. Instead of every member getting a piece of the pie, the corps does its best to prioritize needs," said Howard Marlowe, the top sand lobbyist in Washington.
Florida, of course, has another trump card to play in the Washington sand game: It's a vital election-year battleground. Indeed, President Barack Obama was quick to reach out to Gov. Scott last week to offer any help, a gesture the White House press office publicized.
But the problem is acute on a longer-term basis. The earmark ban and frenzied focus on cutting budgets could threaten to close off the spigot of money for beach renourishment and other needs.
A budget deal Congress approved last year to deal with the debt ceiling crisis will force $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts in defense and domestic spending starting in January, though Republicans and some Democrats are trying to undo that.
"If we get sequestration," said Young, using the technical term for the cuts, "we're in a heap of trouble."