Tag Archives: storm response

The science behind a stronger coast

A worst-case scenario. That’s how the National Weather Service described the timing of Hurricane Sandy’s track toward the stretch of coastline from New Jersey north to Connecticut.

It was close to high tide when the storm came ashore near Atlantic City, bearing down with sustained winds of 75 miles per hour that extended 175 miles beyond the eye — about the distance from Manhattan to Providence, Rhode Island. There were 32-foot waves in New York harbor, and a storm surge of nearly 14 feet in Battery Park. Homes were destroyed; roads were flooded; the power was out.

When Hurricane Sandy hit Rhode Island in October 2012, it breached the beach at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge for the first time in 10 years. Credit: Greg Thompson, USFWS

It’s hard to imagine how it could have been worse, but in the wake of the storm, we had a unique opportunity to figure out how it could have been better. With support from Department of Interior funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery and resilience projects, dozens of scientists were put on the case investigating the storm’s effects across the entire Northeast. The hope was that by connecting the dots between impacts and responses of different systems, species, and habitats, we could help communities understand how to strengthen their natural defenses against natural disasters.

Five years later, the research and restoration projects that were launched by the record-breaking storm are producing some astonishing figures of their own:

  • 10,000 coastal sites evaluated for their ability to migrate in response to rising sea levels.
  • 31,164 road-stream crossings assessed for their vulnerability to flooding during intense rainfall.
  • Millions of cubic yards of sand dredged from channels to restore tidal flow to historic salt marshes.

The stats are impressive, but they just scratch the surface of a meaningful body of work comprising reports, partnerships, models, decision-support tools, and more, developed to help us prepare for the worst, and hope for the best, as we face future storms.

Here is a snapshot of the scientific resources made possible by funding from Hurricane Sandy that are now available to support our collective efforts to build a stronger coast for people and wildlife.

Aquatic systems – Connecting partners to connect rivers and streams

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Flooding in Norton, Massachusetts, after heavy rains washed out an undersized culvert on a tributary to the Taunton River. Credit: Mass Audubon

The problem: Tens of thousands of outdated, damaged, and poorly designed road-stream crossings fragment rivers and streams across the North Atlantic region, creating flooding risks for communities during intense rain events and preventing aquatic species from moving up and downstream.

The response after Sandy: The North Atlantic Aquatic Connectivity Collaborative (NAACC) — a network of partners in 13 states working to improve road-stream crossings — provides a central database of road-stream crossing infrastructure, protocols, and trainings for assessments, and web-based tools for prioritizing upgrades. Since the launch of the NAACC in 2015, more than 30,000 road-stream crossings have been assessed for vulnerability to flooding using standard regional protocols.

In action: Partners in a low-lying coastal watershed in Massachusetts, where communities face increasing risk of flooding from sea-level rise, used data from the NAACC to develop strategic guidance for upgrading bridges and culverts to prevent road washouts during intense rain events. Designed with municipal officials in mind, the report co-authored by Mass Audubon and the Taunton River Watershed Alliance identifies priority road-stream crossings in the watershed based on the potential ecological gains and associated public safety benefits that would result from upgrades.

In words: “There are all kinds of reasons to look at road-stream crossings. We want to convey that functioning natural systems provide quality of life and economic value, protect infrastructure, and protect property. More than just documenting road-stream crossings, we wanted to be able to move toward setting priorities and getting work done.” — Heidi Ricci, Senior Policy Analyst, Mass Audubon

Learn more: New report will help towns prioritize road-stream crossing upgrades in coastal watershed

Beaches – The sands of time

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Structures along the coast in Atlantic City, New Jersey, alter the natural dynamics of the beach. Credit: Google Earth

The problem: Sandy beaches and dunes provide important habitat for wildlife and economic benefits to communities, but they are dynamic systems by nature, constantly changing in response to wind and wave action. Actions that “harden” beach habitat, such as building seawalls, create weaknesses in these systems by interfering with natural processes, which can worsen impacts during storms.

The response after Sandy: Using imagery from Google Earth, Google Maps, state agencies, municipalities, and private organizations from three distinct periods — before Hurricane Sandy, immediately after Hurricane Sandy, and three years after post-storm recovery efforts — coastal geologist Tracy Rice documented modifications along 1,650 miles of sandy coastline. This inventory gives managers a baseline for understanding how artificial changes to beaches and inlets affects their resilience to storms and their sustainability over time.

In action: Using the inventory, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s lead biologist for the recovery of the threatened red knot discovered that a site at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey is one of only two unmodified inlets in a 350-mile span of shoreline. Equipped with new insight about the importance of this habitat, staff can act strategically to protect an area that is not only of high value to at-risk species, but also regionally rare.

In words: “We knew these species favor these kinds of inlet sites, and we knew most of them were altered, but we didn’t know it was all but two. The data provided a landscape perspective that enabled us to say Little Egg Inlet is unique.” — Wendy Walsh, Shorebird Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Learn more: Bird’s-eye view reveals priority habitat for threatened shorebirds

Tidal marshes – The places they’ll go

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Partners are targeting outreach opportunities to communities and landowners in the path of migrating marshes. Credit: USFWS

The problem: Tidal marshes across the region are threatened by changes from development, ditching, invasive species, and rising sea levels that undermine the irreplaceable benefits they provide to communities, such as protection from storm surge and nurseries for commercially important fish species. But the approaches, tools, and challenges to protecting these systems vary by state and scale.

The response after Sandy: The Environmental Law Institute (ELI) and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO) developed a report that offers a comprehensive look at wetland prioritization activities and tools — from vulnerability mapping to policies that support living shorelines — in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, giving managers a sense of best practices and appropriate strategies for increasing marsh resilience in the places they work.

In action: With guidance from ELI and MARCO, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources developed outreach strategies to help direct support and funding to efforts that will minimize impacts on coastal communities and agricultural producers in the path of marsh migration.  By knowing what kinds of resources are available for properties in the transition zones between current and future marsh, Delaware was able to share relevant planning tools and funding mechanisms with agricultural landowners and municipal officials.

In words: “It’s not just about telling people what’s going to happen in the future, but about providing guidance to landowners on how they can plan for it today. We are trying to explain that things are going to change, and it’s better to think and plan now than to have to react later.” — Mark Biddle, Environmental Scientist, Delaware Department of Natural Resources

Learn more: Partners identify resources for landowners in the path of marsh migration

Credit: NASA

Strong After Sandy

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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:

Before and after: A coastal marsh area at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge just after Hurricane Sandy, and then about 18 months later after cleanup effort. Credit: Ryan Hagerty (before); Virginia Rettig (after)/USFWS.

Before and after:
A coastal marsh area at New Jersey’s Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge just after Hurricane Sandy, and then about 18 months later after cleanup effort. Credit: Ryan Hagerty (before); Virginia Rettig (after)/USFWS.

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.

The Service and its partners moved 45,000 tons of sand over three weeks to restore Delaware Bay beaches just in time for horseshoe crabs and migrating shorebirds.Credit: Eric Schrading/USFWS.

The Service and its partners moved 45,000 tons of sand over three weeks to restore Delaware Bay beaches in New Jersey just in time for horseshoe crabs and migrating shorebirds.Credit: Eric Schrading/USFWS.

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.

 

The Service is installing backup and solar power systems at 18 locations across the Northeast region.

The Service is installing backup and solar power systems at 18 locations across the Northeast region.

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.

 

Hail Cove, at the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, is part of a $10 million living shoreline effort to restore coastal areas on the Chesapeake Bay. Credit: USFWS

Hail Cove, at the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland, is part of a $10 million living shoreline effort to restore coastal areas on the Chesapeake Bay. Credit: USFWS

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.

 

The Flock Process Dam, which poses a flood risk to both the Merritt Parkway and a major Amtrak rail line in Norwalk, Conn., is one of many slated for removal as part of a region-wide effort to protect adjacent communities and restore natural river and stream connectivity. Credit: Steve Gephard/CTDEEP

The Flock Process Dam, which poses a flood risk to both the Merritt Parkway and a major Amtrak rail line in Norwalk, CT, is one of many slated for removal as part of a region-wide effort to protect adjacent communities and restore natural river and stream connectivity. Credit: Steve Gephard/CTDEEP

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.

 

Best of 2012: 3) Service prepares and responds to Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy impacted Service facilities from Maine to Virginia in late October. This photo is of Wells Beach in Maine.

Hurricane Sandy impacted Service facilities from Maine to Virginia in late October. This photo is of Wells Beach in Maine.

We’re bringing in the new year with a look back at our milestones for 2012. Check back each day for featured events and activities from across the Northeast!

Hurricane Sandy began her tear up the east coast on October 29, 2012, affecting millions in her path. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took precautions to prepare for the superstorm and evaluate impacts to Service staff and facilities afterwards.

Refuge staff board up the Kettle Pond visitor center in Rhode Island to prepare for Hurricane Sandy.

Refuge staff board up the Kettle Pond visitor center in Rhode Island to prepare for Hurricane Sandy.

Before the storm made landfall, national wildlife refuges, national fish hatcheries and other Service field stations prepared for the heavy winds, rain, flooding and erosion that were predicted. Field stations activated hurricane action plans before the storm hit by securing boats, equipment and facilities, lowered water levels in freshwater impoundments to prepare for coastal flooding and relocated staff if necessary. Additionally, several offices closed to the public until the storm passed and damage could be assessed. These measures kept preventable damages to our infrastructure to a minimum.

After the storm, the Service quickly established an incident command center in Philadelphia as a central base of operations for storm recovery. As part of the emergency response, 45 trained Service specialists were deployed to help clear downed trees, open trails and roads, or provide law enforcement support on refuges to ensure public safety. Agency employees also delivered equipment and fuel to areas lacking these resources after the storm. A Service-operated helicopter flew aerial surveys along the coast during the week after Sandy to document damages.

Sawyers clearing the road at Target Rock National Wildlife Refuge, part of the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Sawyers clearing the road at Target Rock National Wildlife Refuge, part of the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

The Service sustained an estimated $78 million in storm damages from Hurricane Sandy. After two storms impacted Service facilities and operations, Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy, the Service plans to rebuild impacted structures to be more resilient to future storms.

North Hollow Road culvert before Tropical Storm Irene (left) and after it was replaced with an open arch culvert (right).

North Hollow Road culvert before Tropical Storm Irene (left) and after it was replaced with an open arch culvert (right).

The North Hollow Road culvert on Marsh Brook in Rochester, Vermont, blew out during Tropical Storm Irene. With funding from the National Fish Passage Program, the Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Resource Office worked with partners to replace emergency replacements with a single open arch culvert designed to pass future storm flows, sediment and debris. The replacement creates improved resilience for the road and native brook trout.

In Rhode Island, Hurricane Sandy washed out the only public road to Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. The Service is working with the Federal Highway Administration and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation to repair the road with structures that will help shield it against future storms.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Hurricane Information Center