COVERING THE matching funds for the $4 million Dauphin Island berm is a disappointing use of the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund.
Overall, the fund is an admirable effort by former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to raise money for hurricane relief
projects along the Gulf Coast. Some $40 million has been raised and at least $3.2 million is coming to Alabama.
But the Dauphin Island berm doesn't deserve federal and state tax dollars. The Bush-Clinton fund surely could have found causes more
worthy of the $600,000 it is contributing to try to keep privately owned houses on a private beach from falling into the Gulf of Mexico.
We've said before that the west end of Dauphin Island, where property owners would be the main beneficiaries of the berm, isn't worth the
investment of any more public money. Because of erosion and because that end of the island is so narrow, the pilings of some of those houses
literally now stand in the Gulf.
The last berm cost $1 million and washed away in 27 months. The cost estimate on this new berm is up to $4 million, and people involved
in the project emphasize that the estimate is just that. Of the $4 million, $2 million is expected to be spent just laying down enough
sand on which to bill the berm.
In addition, Scott Douglass, professor and coastal engineer at the University of South Alabama, has advanced a plausible theory that the
migration of Sand Island might end up renourishing Dauphin Island's west end naturally. Because of Hurricane Katrina, Sand Island shifted
so close to Dauphin Island that beachgoers are getting into trouble trying to swim to it.
Dr. Douglass theorizes that Sand Island will eventually merge with the middle of Dauphin Island and that tides will push hundreds of
thousands of cubic yards of sand to both ends of Dauphin Island.
Granted, property owners on the west end of Dauphin Island would rather not have to bet their homes and rental houses on what nature will
do -- hence the berm. And they have contributed $250,000 of their own money to the project. But everyone involved with the project
admits that it's only a temporary fix.
And even if the Sand Island theory holds up, Dr. Douglass believes that Sand Island has moved around before. Should anyone build or
rebuild on what are literally shifting sands?
If private property owners want to risk it, they can, but they shouldn't expect taxpayer help. The Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund is private
dollars, not public money, but it only covers a piece of the full cost.
A spokesman for the Bush-Clinton fund says the berm would have an important economic impact on Dauphin Island, which was hit hard by Katrina.
One third of the houses on the west end were destroyed and another third received significant damage.
But it's also true that the beach on the west end is still private, not public. And while it may not be fair to characterize every west
end property owner as rich, it's safe to say that a large majority are in pretty good shape financially.
The Bush-Clinton fund is doing many good works, including paying for the removal of grounded shrimp boats in and around Bayou La Batre.
Encouraging people to rebuild on a spit of sand that's subject to erosion and floods (even when there's a higher-than-normal tide,
let alone a hurricane) is not a good decision.