How Natural Defenses Can Help Us Prepare for Hurricane Season


NASA Earth Observatory, natural color image of Hurricane Sandy. (Credit: Robert Simmon with data courtesy of the NASA/NOAA GOES Project Science team)

Hurricane season began June 1, but these days it seems like we’re on storm watch year-round.

Most hurricanes and tropical storms occur between June and November, but in recent years storms have emerged earlier in the season. And Nor’easter season (September to April) can pack a powerful punch as well, as we saw this past winter when storm after storm pummeled the East Coast with heavy rains, snow, strong winds and high storm surges.

After the catastrophes wrought by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017, and the intense Nor’easters that followed, coastal residents are rightfully feeling nervous as we look toward a new hurricane season.

Aerial photo of Casino Pier amusement park in Seaside Heights after Hurricane Sandy Photo credit Greg ThompsonUSFWS

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath, the Casino Pier Amusement Park in Seaside Heights, N.J. is left in shambles in shambles. (Credit: Greg Thompson/USFWS)

So what can we do to help coastal communities prepare for extreme weather? One strategy is to work with nature to build a stronger coast.

A stronger coast is one where marshes act like sponges to absorb rising water; where free-flowing rivers help reduce flooding to nearby communities; and where oyster reefs and other living shorelines buffer coastal zones from wave erosion.

It’s a coast built to last over time, serving as a natural defense in the face of storms. It improves water and air quality while generating recreational opportunities and ecotourism dollars. It provides a home to wildlife in the marshes and connected rivers that feed into them.

And the good news is, we are well on our way to building such a coast.

Coastal marshes at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Credit: Kelly Fike/USFWS

Coastal marshes at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, Massachusetts. (Credit: Kelly Fike/USFWS)

After Hurricane Sandy hit in October 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set out to restore and rebuild coastal areas better than before. In partnership with other agencies and groups, the Service implemented more than 70 projects up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Much of this work has been completed, and the Service is now monitoring the projects to see how they stand up against future storms and how they benefit people and wildlife.

We’re already seeing promising results at many project sites. Fish are returning to rivers where dams have been removed. Restored marshes and beaches are holding up under heavy rains, winds and snow. Protected areas are buffering communities from flood damages. And each project teaches us a little bit more.

Mantoloking, NJ aerial view after Hurricane Sandy CREDIT Greg Thompson (2)

An aerial view of coastal damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in Mantoloking, NJ. Credit: Greg Thompson/USFWS


Here are a few of the projects making a difference in communities in the Northeast:

  • New Jersey: Wreck Pond Restoration Withstands Powerful Nor’easters
    A new box culvert at Wreck Pond in coastal New Jersey is improving water quality and fish passage while reducing flood risk to nearby communities. Despite numerous Nor’easters this winter, Wreck Pond did not overflow into the surrounding neighborhoods and no properties were damaged. Fish are returning, particularly alewives, which used to migrate into Wreck Pond by the hundreds to spawn in the pond’s tributaries.
  • Rhode Island: The Pawcatuck River Runs Free
    Removal of White Rock and Bradford dams on the 34-mile Pawcatuck River is helping wildlife and people in Rhode Island, where commercial fishing and water-related recreation contribute billions of dollars to local economies. Now fish can migrate up the river for the first time in centuries. Early surveys have found shad, blueback herring and alewife above the site of the former White Rock Dam, which was once all but impassable. Restoration of the river is also leading to more recreation opportunities, especially for paddlers and wildlife enthusiasts, and reduced risk of flooding to nearby communities.
  • Delaware: A Dramatic Recovery at Prime Hook
    Beach and marsh restoration at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware has produced incredible results in just two years. Hundreds of acres of open water have been transformed into healthy stands of salt marsh grasses, and the refuge saw its first piping plover nests. The restored marsh buffers private property and public infrastructure such as roads from storm surge. Already, residents of the adjacent communities have benefited, with no road closures or impact on agricultural areas due to flooding from Nor’easters. Fishing, crabbing, birding, hiking and other recreational opportunities have also improved.
  • Massachusetts: Restored Mill River Reduces Flood Risk
    The near-failure of a dam on the Mill River in 2005 cost the city of Taunton more than $1.5 million in emergency response and flooding damage, but it also energized a local movement to restore the river and prevent similar crises in the future. Since then, the Service has helped remove both the Whittenton and West Britannia dams and install a fish ladder, allowing river herring and other migratory fish to once again migrate to their historical spawning grounds.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (Credit: USFWS)

Recent studies also show that natural defenses make good economic sense. One study found that wetlands prevented $625 million in additional damage during Hurricane Sandy. Another found that green infrastructure (nature-based projects, such as wetlands restoration) provides $3.50 or more in benefits for every $1 spent. Gray infrastructure, man-made projects such as seawalls and levees, often doesn’t earn back its initial investment.

Natural defenses won’t stop the next storms from coming. But they can help minimize the damage, and do a lot of good along the way. These natural defenses, used alone or in combination with gray infrastructure, can help communities recover more quickly from storms.

Let’s make natural defenses a part of every community’s preparedness plan. Is your community ready?

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