Hurricanes

Federal Ban on Foreign Sand Rubs Florida the Wrong Way

Hurricane Irma sheds light on the hidden costs of yet another protectionist measure.

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Andy Brown/Dreamstime

Despite what certain economists and Federal Reserve officials say, the loss of life and property in hurricanes does not stimulate the economy. And they are never a winner for federal taxpayers, Congress having appropriated $36.5 billion for disaster relief in October alone.

The one thing that can be said for hurricanes however, is their uncanny ability to highlight the normally hidden cost of protectionist policies. Take, for instance, sand.

That's right, sand.

Thanks to an obscure provision of the 1986 Water Resources Development Act, the federal government and the South Florida communities hit by Hurricane Irma have been prohibited from procuring foreign sand for their beach replenishment projects until all other feasible domestic sources have been tapped.

Foreign companies have offered to contain these costs by importing white sand from the Bahamas by barge at as little as half the cost of domestic sand. But thanks to current federal law, these battered communities have had to tell these willing sand suppliers to take a hike, hamstringing local recovery efforts.

Irma washed away 170,000 cubic yards of sandy beaches in Miami-Dade County. North Myrtle Beach reported losing 200,000 cubic yards of its sand. Garden City and Surfside collectively lost 252,000 cubic yards of sand.

Local officials estimate it will cost $6 million for Garden City and Surfside to restore their beaches. As recently as August, the Army Corps of Engineers spent $8.6 million to ship in 140,000 cubic yards of sand to Miami-Dade, and while likely have to so again thanks to Irma.

"The fact that we're not allowed to get a fair and open competition for sand is un-American. It's just so important for the economy of South Florida," said Paul Voight, a Miami-Dade official working to restore the county's coastline to the Miami Herald.

Back in February, Rep. Lois Frankel (D – Fla.) introduced a bill that would undo the prohibition on importing foreign sand. Despite attracting the support of both Florida senators and its entire South Florida House delegation, the bill has yet to make it out of committee.

A similar bill submitted in September of last year also went nowhere, thanks in part to the pro-protectionist lobbying of domestic sand dredging companies.

That's bad news for the residents of South Florida who will have to wait longer and spend more money to bring their communities back to their pre-Irma glory. It's also bad news for taxpayers everywhere, as the federal government normally picks up a half to two-thirds of the cost of these beach replenishment projects.

The unusually active hurricane season washed away the cover for other protectionist gambits. Reason's Scott Shackford demonstrated how the Jones Act—which requires that ships traveling between American ports be built, owned, and operated by Americans—has jacked up the price of getting supplies to Puerto Rico after Maria, contributing to the ongoing suffering there.

The costs of Trump's tariffs on Canadian lumber have become more apparent as communities in Texas and Florida been forced to pay artificially inflated prices to repair and rebuild their storm shattered homes.

Hurricane Irma washed away much of Florida's sand barriers. Unfortunately, the storm left damaging trade barriers intact.

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  1. Perhaps they could substitute sugar.

    1. Has anyone told them to go pound sand?

  2. The reason people say that hurricanes increase economic activity is because it does, but only because government spending is included in the calculation of GDP, i.e. Y = C + I + G + NX, where G is government spending.

    It’s technically correct but extremely misleading.

    1. Now if we could just get the hurricane to break more windows, we’d be on our way to riches!

      1. I keep tweeting Trump telling him to instigate super sonic flight tests above major cities. This will both break their glass AND stimulate military spending. It is so obvious that it is clearly treason that Block Insane Yomomma didn’t do it first.

    2. Including government spending is not what makes this misleading. Government spending can clearly create economic value, although usually not nearly as much as the purported amount (when a third party spends someone else’s money that tends to happen). The purpose of the GDP calculation is to show the increase in wealth due to the value of goods and services produced. There is an implicit assumption that wealth wasn’t destroyed in the process, and thus the formula doesn’t account for that. The net increase in wealth due to the occurrence of a hurricane is not only the value of goods and services produced afterward but also the amount of property destroyed. Some economists – and Krugman always comes to mind – are too dimwitted to consider the value-destroying aspect of natural disasters.

      1. Government spending can clearly create economic value, although usually not nearly as much as the purported amount

        I believe this is primarily because it’s difficult (if not impossible) to estimate or calculate value destroyed by the wealth removed from the economy to facilitate the increased government spending.

        1. Actually it’s easy to measure the wealth removed from the economy, if I understand what you mean by that. It’s what the cost is to taxpayers. Not necessarily totally accurate, but close. The difficulty is in measuring the value of what is produced. Just because the government spends $600 million on a bridge doesn’t mean it was worth anything near that amount.

    3. I also suspect that massive borrowing, by both individuals and businesses, to fund repairs does indeed provide a short term boost (perhaps at the cost of spending in the future).

  3. Like sands in the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.

  4. And so castles made of sand, melts into the sea eventually.

  5. So should we build a wall to keep those foreign sands from naturally washing up on ‘Murican beaches? Who will think of all the beaches in Northern Maine that are literally being overrun by those job-stealing sands from New Brunswick? My god, there may even be RUSSIAN sands invading parts of Alaska as we speak!

  6. Import sand? But Florida pretty much is a gigantic sandbar.

  7. Hurricane Irma washed away much of Florida’s sand barriers. Unfortunately, the storm left damaging trade barriers intact.

    Ka-boom. You’ve just been Britschgi’d.

    1. That name didn’t need another consonant.

  8. The costs of Trump’s tariffs on Canadian lumber

    Thanks, NAFTA!

  9. I wonder if Rep. Frankel has ever introduced legislation to remove restrictions on foreign sugar.

  10. Serious answer, from a professional geologist’s perspective.

    All beaches are “temporary”. Natural processes shift the sand around, and sometimes move or eliminate entire landforms. Mostly this happens slowly, say the decades it takes for a spit to propagate and close off a harbor mouth (if not deterred). Sometimes it happens quickly, like when a hurricance cuts a barrier island in two with a new inlet. Only fools think they can “manage” a beach.

    One of the very few libertarian policies (that I know of) in our vast federal play book recognizes this. The Coastal Barrier Resources Act of 1982 red-zoned most of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and made federal support and spending off limits. Private owners are free to develop, but without access to federal dollars for infrastructure spending today, or reimbursement with flood insurance and other recovery spending in the future. Go CBRA!

    1. I thought as much, it’s strange that they would think they could ‘rebuild’ a beach in the first place. Not that you can’t, but more like ‘it’s just going to wash away again’. It’s basically burning money.

      1. I could see very rich people having no issue, or if you lived in a place that wasn’t worth much like a shore shack. Though, ultimately, I don’t have to understand their reasoning, but we don’t have to finance it.

  11. Rampant sand protectionism has been going on in this country for a long time. The high 19th Century import duties on foreign sand are what prevented Tom Sawyer from getting rich with his Saharan sand business.

  12. Isn’t the sand that washed away just offshore? Why can’t they pump it back onto the beach?

    1. It would be cheaper to give everyone scuba gear so they can frolic on the underwater beaches.

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