Hurricane Sandy’s landfall on Monday, Oct. 29, 2012 was marked by record levels of storm surge in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, and tropical storm force winds impacted an area about 1,000 miles in diameter. A federal impact assessment in 2013 estimated that Sandy damages exceeded $50 billion, with 24 states impacted by the storm. In addition to the extensive loss of life, livelihood and property, the region’s natural areas were greatly impacted. National wildlife refuges suffered loss of habitat, refuge staff productivity and visitor opportunities. Rain washed out roads, trails and dikes, hindering habitat management and reducing visitor access. Storm surge left miles of debris and hazardous materials on beaches, in coastal marshes and forests, degrading habitat and endangering staff and visitors. High winds damaged buildings and caused power outages across refuge properties.
With the coming hurricane season set to begin on June 1, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues working hard with partners to enhance and strengthen coastal areas by restoring beaches, dunes and marshes, removing or replacing obsolete dams and damaged or undersized road culverts and building innovatively designed breakwaters and water control structures. These efforts are designed to benefit fish and wildlife resources, and at the same time protect people and communities from flooding and increased storm surge from future weather events.
Repair and Prepare
In May 2013 the Service received $65 million in initial Hurricane Sandy funding from the Department of the Interior, through the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013. Since then, the Service has been working extensively to make refuges safer and healthier for visitors and staff by cleaning up damage dealt to National Wildlife Refuges and upgrading facilities to withstand future storms. Later that year the Service received an additional $102 million from the Act for 31 resilience projects which focus both on protecting coastal communities from flooding and future storms and addressing more long-term concerns, including sea level rise and preservation of habitat for vulnerable species.
Completed projects, those in progress or projects that are projected to launch later this year include:
Restoring Refuges: Since October 2013, the USFWS has removed nearly 500 tons of debris from beaches and coastal marshes at Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge and the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, at the heart of Hurricane Sandy’s impact zone. Debris fields along the New York-New Jersey coasts have contained roofs, docks, boats, barrels, fuel tanks, drums and household chemicals, as well as a few items of interest. When completed, the debris cleanup will restore thousands of acres of coastal marsh habitat and provide visitors opportunities for safe and healthy outdoor experiences at these natural areas once again.
Bringing Back the Beach: March of 2014 was a busy time on the Delaware Bay, where the Service worked with partner organizations to restore five beaches that were severely eroded by Sandy. In under a month’s time, 45,000 tons of sand were spread over storm-scoured shores, finishing just in time for returning horseshoe crabs to spawn. For migratory shorebirds like the red knot, which depend on horseshoe crab eggs to make it to the arctic, this was a lifesaver, and early reports on crab and bird rebounds have been very encouraging thanks to these efforts. Restored beaches will also add a layer of protection for coastal communities in New Jersey and promote recreational beach use and ecotourism.
Power Up: Sandy knocked out power in 15 states where an estimated 6 million customers were still without electricity days after the storm hit. Some areas—including some national wildlife refuges—remained without electricity for weeks. In places where USFWS stations were already equipped with emergency, self-powered electrical systems, refuges served as invaluable resources to their surrounding communities during the blackout. To prepare for future storms and equip many more refuges to serve their own communities in a similar capacity, the Service has invested more than $10 million in backup and solar power systems at 18 locations that will assure auxiliary power during future emergencies. Where solar PV arrays are installed, facilities’ carbon output will be reduced and thousands of taxpayer dollars saved on annual refuge utility bills. Installation at most locations is expected to be in full swing by mid-summer.
It’s Alive: Funded projects in Maryland and Virginia are developing living shorelines in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, at places such as Martin National Wildlife Refuge’s Fog Point, and Hail Cove at the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge. These undertakings involve ongoing efforts to restore coastal habitat and native plant species, control erosion through dilution of wave energy and enhancement of submerged aquatic vegetation, and will provide flood mitigation in vulnerable communities. More than 25,000 feet of living shoreline will be constructed between the two projects, which collectively received more than $10 million of Hurricane Sandy resilience funding.
Staying Connected: Across the Northeast there exist scores of aging, obsolete dams. Once vital parts of industrial communities across the region, these dams can be hazards to human safety and impediments to natural aquatic connectivity. Even before Sandy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has overseen dam removals, and is now funding several more planned for dams in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Dam removal projects can reduce flood risk from storm-swollen rivers and dam failure, restore access to spawning grounds for fish and eels and promote the return of natural sediment flow, which can help rebuild eroding coastline downstream.