Strength after Sandy
Watching the coverage of Hurricane Sandy from half a country away in the comforts of my small college town, I wondered how both my friends and colleagues on the east coast were fairing in the days following the storm. Living in the Midwest, I’ve never experienced the wrath of a tropical storm or hurricane.
On the afternoon of Nov. 2, as I tracked the day’s headlines, reading stories shared online by my old journalism school colleagues now based in New York and New Jersey, I received a text from my supervisor.
“Can you go to the Northeast this weekend?”
I packed my bags. Eight hours and one connection later, I landed at Bradley International Airport, just outside of Hartford, Conn. I had never been to New England, and immediately realized how big this seemingly small region really is.
In the days following Hurricane Sandy, the Northeast Region Office of External Affairs, just like the entire Northeast workforce, had been working around the clock. It was the responsibility of the region’s public affairs specialists to keep people informed of impacts to coastal national wildlife refuges, while documenting the destruction by photographing and recording footage on the ground and in the air.
I headed to Rhode Island to pursue a developing story about Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, home to the only undeveloped coastal freshwater pond in the state. The closer I got to the coast, the more I saw Hurricane Sandy’s impacts, from shingle-less roofs to downed power lines and trees.
I met Janis Nepshinsky, the outdoor recreation planner at the Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex and Rhonda Smith, one of the complex’s wildlife biologists. As we walked on a trail towards an outdoor education display, Janis explained the uniqueness of Trustom Pond, the donation to the Service in the 1980s, and its importance to local Rhode Island residents and visitors.
“Here’s an aerial image of what the pond used to look like,” Janis said as she pointed to an aerial image of a 160-acre freshwater pond butting up against the Atlantic Ocean, a thin strip of beach separating the two. “Wait ‘til you see what it looks like now. Pockets of the pond are completely dry. It’s like you unplugged a bathtub and drained out all the water,” she said.
Following the storm surge, water levels dramatically decreased. In under two weeks, the pond went from freshwater to saltwater to nearly no water. As I walked further into the mud, I saw one, two, then three dead fish.
I could not help but beg the question, what does this transformation mean for the wildlife, especially the large number of waterfowl and other migratory bird species that frequent the refuge, and thus local residents and visitors who know and love Trustom Pond for its diversity of wildlife?
“It’s not just the fish that this change is impacting. It’s also the birds that use this habitat,” said Rhonda.
Trustom Pond is a popular destination for birding enthusiasts and nature photographers. Rhonda said ongoing assessments will be necessary to observe the long term impacts of the storm surge including monitoring the pond’s salinity and conducting bird surveys and wildlife assessments. As we continued along the path, we passed piles of debris and vegetation, which had been cleared from the trails by sawyers assisting with clean-up on the refuge.
“See this vegetation washed up here?” Janis said. “It’s all from the ocean. This should not be here.” She picked up a handful of bright green plants that appeared to be a type of seaweed, when a visitor to the refuge approached us along the trail.
“This is devastating. This is my home. I come here every day to just walk and be at peace,” he told us. He went on to describe his memories of Trustom Pond, and how the natural setting helped him deal with many challenges he’s faced in life, including multiple battles against cancer. “This place has kept me alive,” he said.
On the way back to Massachusetts that evening, his story stuck with me. The linkages between people and places, people and wildlife, and thus people and conservation, are undeniable. How we work together in the face of natural disaster impacts everything and everyone. And how we care for our natural resources impacts both our future, the future of those natural resources and thus, future generations.