Author Archives: Darci Palmquist

About Darci Palmquist

Darci Palmquist leads communications and outreach for Hurricane Sandy recovery projects, and has worked for more than a decade in environmental communications. When not found writing at her computer, you can find her exploring the outdoors with her family.

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?

Aerial view of Long Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Highlights from America’s Biggest Conference on Coastal Restoration

There’s nothing a scientist likes more than sharing information – seeing the latest developments and getting feedback on their own work. And the recent Restoring America’s Estuaries Summit delivered just that.

In December 2016, 11 members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast Region attended the Restoring America’s Estuaries Summit in New Orleans. Together with partners, they chaired three full, oral sessions – an entire day’s worth of presentations – dedicated to showcasing Hurricane Sandy resiliency projects.  Topics covered sediment enrichment, wildlife impoundments, living shorelines, ditch legacies, our largest coastal resilience project and more.

Two FWS biologists – Laura Mitchell and Susan Adamowicz, Ph.D. – explain why this conference matters and what the future of coastal restoration looks like.

Aerial view of Long Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Aerial view of Long Island National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: USFWS

Q: Why is the Restoring America’s Estuaries Summit important?

Smiling faces at RAE summit 2016

USFWS staffers Paul Castelli, Laura Mitchell and Kevin Holcomb at RAE 2016. Credit: USFWS

Laura: Restoring America’s Estuaries (RAE) provides incredible networking opportunities as well as concurrent sessions jam-packed with cutting-edge coastal research, innovative restoration techniques and policy discussions.  The summit brings together a host of professionals involved in conserving and improving estuarine resources across the United States.

Susan: In 2014, USFWS biologists from the Northeast Region introduced our Hurricane Sandy Resiliency projects to the RAE community as concepts or early plans. This time we returned to the 2016 RAE Summit as leaders of some of the largest and most innovative salt marsh projects on the East Coast.  We had lots of practical experience to share, and we were also eager to hear feedback and lessons learned from other projects. In addition to our three oral sessions, we had a number of posters that provided additional information on our projects.


Dredging at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: USFWS

Q: What are some of the coastal resiliency projects that you find particularly exciting?

Laura: The Prime Hook NWR resiliency project is exciting, for a number of reasons.  First, it is the largest marsh restoration project on the East Coast. Second, the project combined multiple coastal restoration techniques, including barrier beach/back barrier platform restoration, thin-layer deposition of dredge material for marsh restoration, and restoration of miles of formerly blocked tidal marsh channels. Additionally, the refuge used innovative planting techniques, such as aerial seeding of native tidal marsh plants and using seed drills to restore native dune vegetation.

Susan: We have a total of 31 Hurricane Sandy-funded resiliency projects from Virginia to Massachusetts. This includes innovative work across the region, such as salt marsh integrity assessments, which are helping establish a baseline of current conditions for salt marshes across 15 different wildlife refuges. This is the first time we’ve had a single protocol to evaluate salt marshes. Through assessments like this, we can identify high quality salt marshes in order to protect and maintain them into the future.  We are also looking at where the future footprint of salt marshes might be and are exploring ways to facilitate marsh migration.

RAE 2016

USFWS staffers Matt Whitbeck and Susan Adamowicz at RAE 2016. Credit: USFWS

Q: Are there any new trends, topics or research in coastal restoration that you’re keeping an eye on right now?

Laura: I’m excited about the development of rapid assessment methods (including remote sensing) to determine which marshes are keeping pace with sea-level rise and which are not. There’s also thin-layer deposition of dredged material to enhance tidal marshes that are suffering elevation deficits, to extend their longevity – for instance, we’re using this technique in Rhode Island to raise marsh elevations.

Susan: We are always on the lookout for new restoration/resiliency techniques that may be useful to salt marshes in the Northeast. We also are looking for ways to reduce “human-induced stressors” such as excess nutrients, stormwater runoff, or low-lying roads that act as dikes.  Removal of these stressors, either alone or in conjunction with resiliency techniques, will provide salt marshes with a better chance at self-sustainability given low or moderate rates of sea-level rise.

RAE 2016

USFWS biologist Susan Guiteras at a poster session for RAE 2016. Credit: USFWS

Q: What do you think will be the top priorities for restoring coastal areas in the next few years?

Laura: I think enhancing “green infrastructure” at the water’s edge, such as living shorelines, permeable surfaces and bioswales, and relocating hard infrastructure will be hot topics.

Susan: Since Hurricane Sandy, we’ve come to understand that barrier islands and coastal marshes are naturally designed to be resilient and to protect our shores.  Continuing to remove prior alterations and restore more natural processes such as tidal flow, sedimentation and healthy vegetation will help maintain good quality marshes.  Where coastal systems have been highly altered, we see the need for larger/more extensive resiliency efforts.

Just as we, as a nation, are turning to the restoration of our built infrastructure (roads and bridges), we also need to be mindful of the natural infrastructure – coastal wetlands and barrier islands – that protect our shores and coastal communities.

Chafee NWR salt marsh restoration USFWS

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Jen White

(Click on an image above to launch the photo slideshow.)

Protecting coastal resources – for the people and wildlife that depend on them – has to be a priority when you’re a state with 400 miles of coastline and one of the highest ratios of coastline-to-land in the country.

In Rhode Island, one such effort involves restoring coastal marshes.

“Having a marsh is good because it can slow down waves that would be heading toward homes,” says Jen White, a USFWS biologist in Rhode Island. “If we lose the marsh, that will all turn into open water basically and you won’t have any protection.”

White is looking out at the Narrow River estuary, where FWS and partners are working on a marsh restoration technique called “thin-layer deposition,” which has been used widely in Gulf Coast states but is just recently gaining traction in the Northeast. Last year the partners used the technique on 11 acres at Sachuest Point NWR, and now are working on 30 acres along the Narrow River at Chafee NWR.

The objective is to dredge sediment from the estuary and spray it onto the marsh, raising the elevation of the marsh enough to allow it to keep better pace with sea-level rise.

“What we’ve seen here is a switch from high-marsh grasses to low-marsh grasses, so we’re losing the high-marsh habitat in this area,” says White. “By adding material we’re hoping to bring it back to high-marsh elevation and that will hopefully allow it to last into the future.”

The partners are aiming to add six inches of elevation to the marsh, which should allow the high-marsh grass to grow through. They will also re-plant the area with about 35,000 plugs of marsh grasses in the spring.

To achieve this delicate balance of elevation, the dredging and spraying machines are equipped with computer sensors that precisely monitor the process.

“The sand will be contoured so there will be hills and valleys — the hills will be where the high marsh will grow and where water will be able to drain off the marsh so we’re not creating any impounded water anywhere,” explains White.

Marshes are widely considered valuable assets for coastal protection – they buffer wave energy and absorb water. But they also harbor an amazing diversity of species. One important creature that depends on them is the saltmarsh sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus).

“Saltmarsh sparrows breed in the high-marsh elevation grasses, so that’s informed the restoration planning we’re doing. Willets (Tringa semipalmata) also breed at that elevation,” says White. “Sea-level rise is going to be a big issue for the saltmarsh sparrow. As sea-level rise increases, these birds will have fewer and fewer breeding opportunities. By raising the marsh we hope to provide salt marsh nesting species habitat into the future.”

White notes that researchers (Field et al. 2016) estimate the sparrow may go extinct as early as 2035, with populations having dropped sharply since the 1990s according to the Saltmarsh Habitat & Avian Research Program (SHARP), a group of academic, government and nonprofit researchers along the East Coast.

“Sea-level rise is really the main issue for marshes, whether you’re talking about the habitat they provide for the saltmarsh sparrow or their ability to protect coastal communities from inundation.”

This is the fifth in a series of photo slideshows highlighting the people who have been working to defend their coastal ecosystems against storms in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. In previous weeks we have looked at Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons, combating climate change in the Chesapeake BayJulie Devers, assessing fish barriers and culverts in Maryland,  Kevin Holcomb and Amy Ferguson building living shorelines at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and Eric Schrading and Katie Conrad building living shoreline oyster reefs at Gandy’s Beach in New Jersey.