Tag Archives: Strong After Sandy

monitoring tides at Prime Hook Delaware

Four Years After Hurricane Sandy

This week marks the 4th anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, an event that lives on in the minds and hearts of many of us who call the East Coast home.

In the wake of Sandy’s destruction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received $167 million in federal funding to strengthen natural defenses and protect communities and wildlife along the Atlantic Coast from future storms.

Four years later, here’s a by-the-numbers look at what we’ve done to build a stronger coast as of October 2016:

  • 3,500 tons of hurricane debris removed from refuges;
  • 5 badly eroded beaches restored on Delaware Bay;
  • 7 refuges installed with solar and back-up power;
  • 20 refuges repaired for visitor and staff safety;
  • 6 dams removed to improve river flow and reduce flood risk;
  • 4,000 acres of invasive species treated;
  • 30,000 feet of living shoreline developed;
  • 1000s of native plants planted to restore wetlands, rivers and marshes;
  • 4 breaches fixed, 9,000 feet of shoreline restored, 500,000 plugs of beach grass planted, 1,000 acres of marsh seeded, and 25 miles of channels dredged at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge – one of the largest coastal restoration projects on the East Coast.

Some highlights of our 2016 work:

Removal of the 150-foot-long Hughesville Dam on the Musconetcong River in New Jersey to restore fish passage and reduce flooding risks for the local community – a project that caught the eye of Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who toured the site in September.

Sally Jewell at Hughesville

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visits Hughesville Dam removal in New Jersey. Pictured with Beth Styler Barry (left) and Eric Schrading (right). Credit: USFWS


Completion of a 21,000-foot living shoreline  at Glenn L. Martin National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland’s Eastern Shore to protect tidal wetlands that support a crab fishery essential to Smith Islanders – and that help buffer this island community from storms and sea-level rise.

living shoreline work

At work creating the living shoreline at Fog Point in Glenn L. Martin NWR on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Credit: USFWS


Removal of the Pond Lily Dam in New Haven, CT, where local community members and politicians mobilized to bring attention to the flood risks of this dam. In April 2016, volunteers planted native vegetation at the dam site to help stabilize the riverbanks and create an urban nature park for the community.

volunteer planting day at Pond Lily dam

Volunteers planting native vegetation along the river banks following removal of Pond Lily dam in New Haven, CT. Credit: USFWS


Completion of a $38 million marsh and beach restoration and resilience project at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. The work is already showing signs of success — including helping to absorb impacts of storms and heavy rains to attracting record numbers of wildlife such as horseshoe crabs and migratory birds.

beach grass plantings Prime Hook

Recently planted beach grass at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Citizen Racecar


Engagement of dozens of student volunteers to help build oyster reefs – along Delaware Bay in southern New Jersey and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia – that will filter water and buffer the shore from wave energy.

East Windsor Middle School students and families helped build oyster reefs

East Windsor Middle School students and families helped build oyster reefs at Gandy’s Beach, NJ. Credit: Project PORTS


The staff, community and partners collaborating with us across the region from Virginia to Maine, people who are dedicated to making their communities #StrongAfterSandy – people like FWS staff Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons who are working at the front lines of climate change in the Chesapeake Bay.

When coming up with habitat management solutions, it is vital to think of a holistic approach. Credit: Steve Droter

“We spent a lot of time thinking about what management actions we can employ that will increase the resiliency of the salt-marsh community to sea-level rise, to storm impacts and how can we do that in a way that really maximizes the benefit to the wildlife that depend on it,” says Whitbeck. Credit: Steve Droter


Science tells us that the future will include more intense hurricanes and storms like Sandy, causing more damage to coastal ecosystems and communities. In fact, a recent study predicts disastrous floods like those seen during Hurricane Sandy may hit New York City 17 times more often in the next century.

With anticipated rising sea levels, more frequent and intense storms, shifting seasons and higher temperatures, we need to continue to work together to better understand and adapt to changing conditions. Strong natural defenses will help all of us better weather future storms.

When coming up with habitat management solutions, it is vital to think of a holistic approach. Credit: Steve Droter

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons

Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons are on the front lines of dealing with climate change. Where they work along the coastline of the Chesapeake Bay, scientists say sea levels are rising at rates three to four times faster than the global average. The cause is a combination of rising waters due to global climate change and sinking land, also known as subsidence.

As the supervisory wildlife biologist at the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Whitbeck oversees the diverse habitats of Blackwater, Glenn L. Martin, Eastern Neck and Susquehanna National Wildlife Refuges.

While many may see the impacts of climate change as a looming event in the future, Whitbeck disagrees, saying, “It’s very real here.” Sea-level rise has continually shaped the landscape, turning marshes into lakes and forests into marsh grass. At the predicted rate of sea-level rise, nearly all of Blackwater’s marshes could be permanently inundated by 2100.

That could be disastrous for the refuge’s habitats, plant and animal species. Many of the species found here are uniquely adapted to survive in the refuge’s forests, marshes and shallow water habitats. “All the major taxonomic groups have a species or two that has found a way to exist in a saline environment,” says Whitbeck, such as the salt marsh skipper and the Diamondback terrapin.

“In the spirit of maintaining biological diversity, it is important to conserve salt marshes. So strictly from a conservation biology standpoint, a fish and wildlife conservation standpoint – maintaining all the parts is really the first order of business. Ensuring all these species have all the habitat they need to exist is critical,” says Whitbeck.

Yet the community benefits are equally important, especially as the threats of climate change become more evident. Salt marshes provide huge benefits as nurseries for fish, sponges for soaking up flood waters and reducing coastal erosion, and buffers from storm surge and strong waves.

Miles Simmons, a biological technician at the refuge, grew up on the Eastern Shore and has experienced the effects that storms can have on the environment, but also what kinds of effects a healthy marsh can have.

“Marshes – wetlands in particular – are critical in mitigating the effects of large storms,” he says.

When Hurricane Sandy struck the Atlantic coast in 2012, there was a lot of infrastructure that was damaged, but it could’ve been worse – specifically for the communities around Smith Island, located just south of Blackwater.

Having the healthy intact marsh systems of the Glenn L. Martin NWR along the northern part of Smith Island helped to stop shoreline erosion that was taking place on the western and northwestern shorelines. This “really helps maintain that buffer and give the community a small measure of protection,” says Whitbeck.

In June 2016, Whitbeck and team completed construction on a 21,000-foot living shoreline at Martin NWR that will dynamically benefit the surrounding local area and the environment into the future.

Following Hurricane Sandy, efforts to repair and build resiliency around these coastal communities were aided with the help of federal funding from the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013. Refuges and communities all throughout Maryland received over $13,096,841 to put towards recovery and resiliency.

At Blackwater, as the shoreline elevation begins to shift, biological technicians like Simmons are conducting vegetation surveys to monitor the changing landscape. This is some of the first opportunities that Blackwater has had to examine the ecological changes that result from elevated water levels.

By continuing to work on the Chesapeake Bay coastline, Matt Whitbeck and Miles Simmons are not only ensuring that Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is #StrongAfterSandy, but continue to make it resilient in the face of climate change.

This is the first in a five part series of photo slideshows highlighting the people who have been working to  defend their coastal ecosystems against storms as we approach the four year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. You can view the continuation of this series and other news regarding our restoration and recovery projects on our website. 

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

Nature as protection for coastal towns in Massachusetts

The Great Marsh is a diverse ecosystem of barrier beaches, dunes, and bodies of water aptly named to recognize its nearly 10,000 acres of salt marshes — making it the largest marsh system north of Long Island, New York. Some of the largest migratory fish runs make their way through these shorelines, and the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is a vital stop along the Atlantic Flyway Migratory route for numerous rare birds.

For surrounding towns, the marsh also provides critical protection for people and property.

The Great Marsh borders five Massachusetts coastal towns: Essex, Gloucester, Ipswich, Newbury, and Rowley. This coastal wetland acts as a natural buffer against the sea, and the towns surrounding it are recognizing the value the marsh has for public safety, tourism and revenue.

These towns have come together, joined by scientific experts, nonprofits, and partners, to create a community resiliency planning effort to facilitate strategic meetings as they work to create a long-term plan to mitigate the marsh’s vulnerabilities to flooding, storm surge and sea-level rise.

The Great Marsh

Scientists are looking for answers on how climate change will affect tidal estuaries in the Plum Island Estuary, also known as the Great Marsh.

The need to address these vulnerabilities is becoming increasingly necessary as the predicted threats of climate change begin to shape the coastline. Many coastal residents came face to face with these vulnerabilities in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy made landfall.

“A challenge,” said Taj Schottland of the National Wildlife Federation, “or area of opportunity, is the complex ownership and management [of the] landscape. All of the surrounding towns and partners own or manage land in the Great Marsh.” In order to work on the multiple projects being funded to increase resiliency in the marsh, they “had to reach out and engage stakeholders and investors.”

The integration of community planning alongside risk assessment of predicted increased future climate impacts is setting the Great Marsh community apart by linking ecological resiliency with community resiliency and emphasizing the use of nature as protection.

The Great Marsh, and other communities along the Atlantic Coast, are using nature-based measures to enhance their coastline.

Take, for instance, the challenge of erosion — one of the biggest threats to the local barrier beaches. Sea-level rise and increased storm surges are causing higher tides, leading to salinity problems in the marsh system. The deterioration of barrier beaches also threatens the security of the local community — according to Schottland, many of the neighborhoods that are built along this marsh will become inundated by 2030 if sea levels continue to rise as anticipated.


Salt marsh erosion is affecting communities all along the coast, including in Delaware Bay (pictured) as a result of sea-level rise. Extreme storms and floods are predicted to increase in the Northeast as a result of climate change. (Credit: Katie Conrad/US Fish and Wildlife Service)

A common solution to these sea-level changes would be to install gray infrastructure such as a man-made bulkhead. That could lead to “bad consequences as it degrades over time,” said Schottland. As an alternative, wildlife managers at Great Marsh are using nature-based measures such as beach nourishment and the planting of native vegetation.  By using sustainable solutions and working collaboratively, the entire North Shore community is able to benefit.

The creation of the community resiliency planning effort is only one example of the innovative solutions being brought to the Great Marsh. The restoration and reinforcement of over 325 acres of stable marshland and eelgrass vegetation is nearly complete through the use of beach nourishment and the planting of native plants.

Additional projects include the creation of a hydrodynamic model which will collect data usable by all the surrounding towns and partners to better understand sediments, salinity, and waterflow. Another collaborative effort will result in a risk analysis of the nearly 1,500 hydro-barriers such as dams and bridges in the area.

While many of the goals for restoration and resiliency are expected to be met by June 2017, these nature-based solutions and collaborative efforts will require monitoring and continued commitment from the community.

This strategy of adapting nature-based solutions in coastal resiliency extends outside of the planning done by the task force and has become a tool for innovation in the surrounding towns.

In Essex, one defining asset is the Essex River which leads to the Essex and Ipswich Bay. When the town was faced with having to dredge the river and remove the buildup of silt, the common practice was to dump the silt far offshore.

But Essex town administrator, Brendhan Zubricki — who has been an active part of the community planning effort since its inception — went in search of a nature-based solution. He and the town have been working with the Army Corp of Engineers and Massachusetts Coastal Zoning Management to create a feasibility study on how to reuse the organic material to build up new and current marshes.

As a town, he said that they “are most interested in using the natural environment to mitigate these natural effects [of coastal storms] by not having to build anything except green infrastructure.”

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