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Beach Front

Mises Daily: Wednesday, May 19, 1999 by

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Two winters ago back-to-back Nor'easters slammed the mid-Atlantic coast in Maryland and Delaware, causing significant beach erosion and damage to vacation homes, boardwalks, and businesses.

Being the owner of a condo in Ocean View, Delaware, I went down to check on any damage. Although it was the middle of February, the ocean resort towns were packed -- not with tourists or anxious property owners, but with bureaucrats from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).

I had a long wait to get a seat at my favorite restaurant, which is usually empty at mid-week in February. On that day it was filled with briefcase-toting FEMA bureaucrats anxious to pass out applications for "federal assistance" to any and all "qualified" persons.

This was not a major earthquake or hurricane, but just a little beach erosion. No one got hurt. Mother Nature would take care of the eroded beaches if given enough time; private flood insurance would take care of property damage for those who were insured; and any damage to "public" property would rightfully be the responsibility of local governments in these coastal areas.

That would be the case in a normal world, but not in the world of FEMA, and especially not on the Delmarva peninsula. For that is where the Washington establishment (including FEMA bureaucrats) spends its beach vacations.

(One of the shadier characters in Washington is Tony Coelho, who helped orchestrate the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s, resigned from Congress after being exposed as part of the House of Representatives bank check-kiting scheme, and is currently in charge of Al Gore's presidential election campaign. A recent Washington Post puff piece about Coelho mentioned that he's done so well as a lobbyist after leaving Congress that he recently purchased several vacation homes, including "a sprawling home in Bethany Beach in Delaware.")

The beach season was barely three months away, and FEMA was bound and determined to pour as many taxpayer dollars into the area as it would take to assure a pleasant summer season for the Washington establishment or, as Richard Vedder describes it, "The Parasitic Class." According to Vedder's research, the average annual pay of residents of Washington, D.C. is 48 percent above the national average. Per capita income in the nation's capital exceeds that of every state.

In the Virginia and Maryland suburbs of Washington, where most federal employees now reside, per capita income is 26 percent above the U.S. metropolitan average. We taxpayers are being fleeced to pay for a "parasite economy" of lawmakers, lobbyists, and bureaucrats in Washington -- even to the extent of being forced to subsidize their beach vacations.

Knowing this, the local governments in the region barely lifted a finger, nor did private conservation groups. They knew they could rely on FEMA to coerce taxpayers in Alabama, Texas, Massachusetts, and elsewhere to pay for their beach rebeautification projects. The affluent owners of "sprawling" beachfront homes like Tony Coelho's were subsidized with federally-subsidized road repair and other projects, while the biggest and most expensive project was to spend millions of dollars pumping sand back onto the beaches.

The sand that was washed off the beaches by the storms created a large sand bar just a couple of hundred yards from the shore and would eventually wash back onto the beach in due time. But the Army Corps of Engineers swung into action and commenced pumping sand from a mile or more out to sea back onto the beaches at a cost of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.

Thanks to this Rube Goldberg-like waste of tax dollars the Parasitic Class was happy; its beaches were ready for summer. Kind of. There was one little problem: vacationers began digging up live artillery shells on the newly refurbished beaches. It turns out that the ocean off the Delaware coast was a practice firing range during World War II and that some of the unspent shells that had laid dormant for over 50 years were dredged up by the feds and deposited on the beaches.

Not that this was any secret. Any visitor to these beaches cannot help but notice that all up and down the coast are large cement towers with slits facing the ocean where heavy guns once guarded the coast against Nazi submarine attacks. One would think that the Army Corps of Engineers, which is part of, well, the U.S. Army, would have made this connection.

After spending millions searching for artillery shells, an extra $300,000 was recently spent in Bethany Beach alone to scan a mile or so of the beach with special, heavy-duty metal detectors. Three more live artillery shells were found, after which Bethany Beach town manager Glenn Hudson declared the beach "safe for summer visitors." Safe enough for government work, anyway. In an interview in the local paper he noted that "a ban on digging deeper than two feet on the beach will be in place" for the next two years, as will a ban on "all metal digging instruments."

In case that makes anyone nervous, government employees -- most likely teenagers with federally-funded "Americorps" jobs -- "will check the beach regularly throughout the summer." Perhaps that will provide them with the appropriate training and experience for future employment in Yugoslavia, the latest U.S. Army firing range.

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Thomas DiLorenzo is Professor of Economics Loyola College in Maryland.


The Mises Institute has had its own run-ins with FEMA. Read about an alarming sequence of events in 1) A Phone Call From the Idea Police and 2) Life With Morrie.

You can also buy Thomas DiLorenzo's newest book, The Food and Drink Police from Amazon.com