Tag Archives: storm damage

Improvements of culvert designs can increase the safety of surrounding communities and commuters. Credit: Steve Droter

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Julie Devers

Just outside of Centreville, Maryland, you can find Julie Devers waist deep in water on the side of the road. With measuring tape in hand, she is assessing one of more than 30,000 road-stream crossings in the state.  The particular culverts she is examining are known to be a severe barrier to fish passage. Safety for people and connectivity for fish and wildlife can be enhanced by simply repairing and redesigning these crossings.

Devers is a fish biologist with the Maryland Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. By partnering with the Maryland State Highway Administration, NOAA Fisheries and Maryland Department of Natural Resources, they have been assessing road-stream crossings to develop recommendations of which culverts and crossings should be prioritized for repair. “Highways have a maintenance schedule,” says Devers, and through their recommendations, “the SHA could replace [the culverts] when they redo the highway.”

Entire roads can be wiped out if they are undersized or poorly designed.  “What we saw in the Northeast during Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee is that undersized culverts really caused a lot of damage,” says Devers. Flooding from storm surges are not able to pass through these barriers and can cause thousands of dollars of damage to roads and property. As we mark the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation of the Atlantic Coast, it is important to keep in mind the impact that these climate events can have on our communities.

For species of river herrings like alewife, blueback herring and American shad the difference between a fish-friendly passageway and a severe barrier is more than a safety concern; it’s about life or death. These species are vital to the food web. Alewife have been known to be eaten by nearly anything throughout their transition in habitat; ranging from cod, halibut, fox, and eagles.

These migratory species travel from saltwater to freshwater to lay their eggs. If there are blockages along the way, they won’t be able to complete their journey. Even for nonmigratory species, such as brook trout, the inability to travel upstream could leave entire populations separated causing a genetic bottleneck. The brook trout stream near her home, one of the last in Anne Arundel County, says Devers, is considered a “relic” to the locals.

Across the whole Northeast, there are an estimated 210,000 bridges, culverts, and dams spanning 280,000 miles of river. Many of them, you are passing on your morning commute and are throughout your community. While many of these dams and bridges serve important purposes, old and inadequate designs make them a risk.

After Hurricane Sandy, funding through the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 has supported dozens of projects to restore rivers and streams and remove barriers to connectivity. With this funding, projects throughout Maryland have been able to better protect their communities and coastline through increases resiliency. Groups like the North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative were able to utilize this funding to create a map and database for biologists like Devers and for the public to use. These tools provide information about the assessed barriers in a region and rates how bad they are for fish passage or safety.

Through the work of biologists like Devers, we are able to make our communities more resilient. By working to identify the features in our communities that could pose a risk to people and wildlife, she is giving stakeholders the tools to create the change needed to make us #StrongerAfterSandy.

This is the second in a five part series of photo slideshows highlighting the people who have been working to defend their coastal ecosystems against storms in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Last week, we looked at Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. You can view the continuation of this series and other news regarding our restoration and recovery projects on our website.

Repairing What Jonas Has Washed Away

When winter storm Jonas barreled up the eastern coast last weekend, it wasn’t just the snow that left a path of destruction behind; it also caused serious coastal flooding along the mid Atlantic shoreline. The storm happened to coincide with a full moon, which in itself leads to extreme high tides. Add 80 mph hurricane force winds blowing water toward the coast, and freezing cold floodwaters move ashore.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, located on the coastline of Virginia and Maryland, was one location affected by the wind-driven tides. Their beach parking lot, consisting of sand and crushed oyster shells over a clay base and managed and maintained through a special agreement with the National Park Service’s (NPS) Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, was mostly washed away.


A view of the eroded beach parking lot at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. What remains of the clay base layer is visible on the right side of the image. Credit: USFWS

This damage, though expensive and unsettling, has become a frequent occurrence due to the vulnerability of the extreme southern end of Assateague Island. The parking lot was built on unconsolidated sand deposited by the Atlantic Ocean since the 1850s. Because there is no supporting landmass to anchor this ​portion of the island ​in place, ​it ​​has slowly been moving west into Tom’s Cove (see image below). This dynamic movement of sand ​on a barrier island is natural but ​makes the parking lot vulnerable to erosion, especially during storms.

When there are storm surges or extreme high tides, seawater over-tops the beach and flows into the parking lot, sometimes causing damage as it did with this storm. Although the USFWS and NPS have tried various resiliency techniques (sand fence placement, dune construction, etc.) at this site over the past 50 years, at great cost to taxpayers, all attempts have failed because the site is constantly shifting.


Pictures of the current beach parking lot, before and after the storm.

In recent years, global climate change has led to an increase in the number and intensity of major storms affecting the shoreline at Chincoteague NWR, making the location of the current parking lot even more worrisome. For this reason, the refuge has approved a plan to move the parking lot to a more stable area one and a half miles north of the current location. The supporting land mass to the west of the new recreational beach and parking lot site and large man-made dunes  on the ocean front, add to its resiliency to storm damage.


The new recreational beach and parking lot location was virtually unaffected by the storm, further supporting the need to relocate. Unfortunately, winter storm Jonas hit before this new lot was in place.  Although uncertainties exist with regard to the severity of future storms, the amount of resulting damage, and the availability of federal funding, the FWS and the National Park Service have committed to maintaining the current lot until the new beach and parking lot is open and ready for use.  Therefore it seems likely that the parking lot at the current site will be rebuilt, a project that could cost taxpayers as much as $800,000.

“What this really comes down to is economic and environmental sustainability,” says Kevin Sloan, Project Leader of Chincoteague NWR Complex. “Over the past 50 years, taxpayers have been burdened with repetitive beach parking lot repair costs – an estimated $6-8 million since 2003 and now another $800,000.  And, another storm could be just around the corner.”

Sloan says continuing on that course and in the face of climate change and sea-level rise would be “fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable.”  Once the beach recreation infrastructure is relocated to the resilient site, he says, natural processes will continue to reshape the beach, providing tremendous habitat for migrating and nesting shorebirds.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responds to Sandy in West Virginia

Greg Titus, division fire management office on assignment to respond to Superstorm Sandy in West Virginia. Credit: Catherine Hibbard/USFWS

Greg Titus, division fire management office on assignment to respond to Superstorm Sandy in West Virginia.
Credit: Catherine Hibbard/USFWS

“This is more snow than I’ve seen in my entire life!” said Greg Titus while on assignment in West Virginia to respond to Superstorm Sandy.

Titus, a division fire management officer from St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, was one of several U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees deployed to snowbound West Virginia as members of the interagency Southern Area Red Type 1 Team.

Their direction from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was to help clear roads blocked by fallen trees and to work at National Guard airports in Martinsburg and Charleston, W.Va., where tractor trailers brought food, water and generators for storm victims.


Josh O’Connor, a fire management specialist at the Service’s Southeast Regional Office in Atlanta, Ga., was a division supervisor helping manage and track relief supplies at Yeager airport in Charleston. He worked side by side with workers from FEMA and the West Virginia Air National Guard. 

“It’s not the most glamorous job,” O’Connor said, “but it’s helping people out.” 

Tony Farmer

Tony Farmer, an information technology specialist on the Red Team. Credit: Catherine Hibbard/USFWS

The team also helped residents of Randolph, Tucker and Preston counties, where more than two feet of snow fell in blizzard conditions.

Within 30 minutes of Greg Titus’ arrival to snow he had only seen in movies and postcards, the division supervisor and his chainsaw crew began working with the National Guard to clear a road to a water tower in Tunnelton, a West Virginia town of 300 residents.

“They restored water supply, helped get electric crews access, and were overall great help,” said Captain Donnie Weaver of the West Virginia National Guard at Camp Dawson, where Titus’ crew was based. “Without their help, we’d still have only 40 to 50 percent of our secondary roads open.“

Crews in all three counties cleared more than 200 miles of road.

It’s that type of work that attracted Tony Farmer from the Service’s Southeast Regional Office to the Red Team, a “type 1” overhead team that manages people and equipment for the most complex incidents.

Incident commander Tony Wilder. Credit: Catherine Hibbard

Incident commander Tony Wilder. Credit: Catherine Hibbard

An information technology specialist at home and on the team, Farmer said, “I enjoy working with people and being a part of the service of what we do in this country.”

Although the Red Team was one of two teams established in 1985 in the Southern Area fire management geographic area, members are from local, state and federal agencies from other parts of the country, including the Northeast. Catherine Hibbard, an employee of the Service’s Northeast Regional Office in Hadley, Mass., is a Red Team public information officer.

The team is led by Tony Wilder, incident commander and fire management officer at Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge

“I’m proud of what my team has accomplished,” Wilder said. “I’m also proud that my agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, supports team members who step up to help fellow Americans when they need it most.“

See other U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service updates for Superstorm Sandy.

Submitted by Catherine J. Hibbard, wildlife refuge and public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.