Four years ago this week, Superstorm Sandy struck the Atlantic Coast, causing more than 100 deaths in the United States, destroying thousands of homes and devastating coastal communities. There has been healing and recovery, but the memory of Sandy lives on – especially for the many people who are still struggling to rebuild homes and put their lives back together.
Today, Sandy serves as a reminder of the past and a lesson for the future. Science tells us that future will include more intense hurricanes and tropical storms predicted with a changing climate, causing more damage to coastal ecosystems and communities. In fact, a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences predicts disastrous floods like those seen during Sandy may hit New York City 17 times more often in the next century.
Hurricane Matthew is a recent reminder of how these storms threaten lives and result in millions of dollars in property damage. They also expose the vulnerability of beaches, sand dunes, and coastal marshes that not only provide habitat for fish and wildlife but protect local communities from flooding.
In the aftermath of Sandy, federal, state and local groups have stepped forward in an unprecedented effort to strengthen natural defenses along the Atlantic Coast, protecting communities and wildlife from future storms. At the heart of this effort is one key concept: resilience.
Resilience means being able to bounce back from stress or damage and return quickly to a functioning state. We want to raise resilient kids. We want to be resilient in our careers. Ideally, we want our health and finances to be resilient.
And we want nature to be resilient in the face of damage, stress and unpredictability. A resilient coastline is one that can weather a hurricane without being destroyed, one that can adapt to rising seas and an unpredictable climate, one that can support the wildlife and people who call it home.
How do we make coastlines resilient?
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other Department of the Interior agencies are investing $787 million in federal funding for Sandy recovery for hundreds of projects to clean up and repair damaged refuges and parks; restore coastal marshes, wetlands and shoreline; connect and open waterways to improve flood control; and increase our scientific understanding of how these natural areas are changing.
These investments support the goal of President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan to make communities more resilient to increasingly intense storms predicted with a changing climate. They also create jobs and provide opportunities for fishing, hiking, wildlife watching and other recreational opportunities.
In Delaware, the Fish and Wildlife Service and partners completed a $38 million project to restore 4,000 acres of tidal marsh at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most complex marsh restoration efforts ever attempted on the U.S. East Coast. The project used state-of-the-art science and computer modeling to explore multiple restoration approaches before settling on the one that can make this coastline more resilient to the impacts of climate change. By stabilizing marshes and beaches, restoring wetlands, and improving the resilience of coastal areas, Prime Hook exemplifies how strengthening natural defenses can help protect local communities from powerful storm surges and devastating floods during intense storms.
The completed project has already shown signs of success – including record numbers of horseshoe crabs, migratory birds such as least tern, American oyster catcher and the refuge’s first-ever piping plover nest. Even before work was finished, staff noticed that the restored beach areas held up better under winter storm Jonas in January 2016 – which caused higher tides than Sandy – than nearby non-restored areas.
If there’s a silver lining to Sandy, it’s that it has helped galvanize natural resource protection efforts around the issue of resilience. With anticipated rising sea levels, more frequent and intense storms, shifting seasons and higher temperatures, we need to continue to work together to better understand and adapt to changing conditions. Strong natural defenses will help all of us better weather future storms.