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In the Wake of Sandy, Thinking About the Future

Posted On October 31, 2012 by

Credit: AP Photos / Alex Brandon

Like many of you, many of Ocean Conservancy’s staff have lived through hurricanes and other natural disasters. We know how much damage hurricanes can cause, and our hearts go out to those of you affected by Hurricane Sandy.

For our staff working along the Gulf of Mexico, June through November is a time to remember how to “live with the water,” as Bethany Kraft, our director of Gulf Restoration put it at the start of this year’s hurricane season. When Hurricane Isaac hit last month, Gulf residents experienced hard winds, massive flooding and oiled shorelines that reminded us that we are still in the grips of responding to and recovering from the BP oil disaster.

Hurricane Sandy, which pounded the East Coast on Monday, was a wholly different storm. Our immediate concerns are always with those in the path of such devastating storms, especially those on the New Jersey coast and New York where the damage was especially acute. We send our gratitude to NOAA for the warnings and the time to prepare and to the first responders, who are not only saving lives but are leading communities’ recovery efforts.

As we shift from rescue to recovery, we are confronting a cleanup and rebuilding effort with an extraordinary price tag and an unforeseeable timeline. And while we can’t control such a massive storm, we can help strengthen our nation’s best defense against this force of nature.

Coastal and marine habitats such as barrier islands, beaches, oyster reefs and sea-grass beds can help buffer shorelines and protect coastal communities from wind and rising water. But when these natural sentries are weakened by climate change, development, pollution, overfishing and other human impacts, our communities are at even greater risk when disaster approaches.

With this in mind, we must ask:

  • How can we step in to help coastal areas affected by the storm?
  • What can we do to ensure that our coastal areas are ready and resilient, so they can better handle extreme weather events?

While any one storm — particularly one this complex — can’t be solely blamed on climate change, we know we can expect a greater frequency of stronger storms like this one. In addition to addressing climate change, we need to increase funding for restoration of our coastlines’ natural defenses.

In the Gulf of Mexico, we already know that restored wetlands and oyster beds can help sap the energy of an incoming hurricane and protect the shoreline from storm surge.

As Paul Greenberg, author of “Four Fish,” notes in The New York Times this week, oyster beds “once protected New Yorkers from storm surges, a bivalve population that numbered in the trillions and that played a critical role in stabilizing the shoreline from Washington to Boston.” While a small recovery of that population is underway, it could not have protected New Yorkers from the incredible strength of Sandy.

Going forward, we must focus attention on solutions for better protection of our increasingly vulnerable coastlines, from ongoing research and monitoring to smart, integrated planning in the coastal zone.

For now, our thoughts are with those recovering from Sandy, but as restoration gets underway in the coming weeks and months, Ocean Conservancy will be a leading voice in the call for comprehensive planning efforts to shore up our natural defenses before the next storm.