Hurricane Sandy projects strengthen local community resilience
Recovery efforts generating ecological and socioeconomic benefits to wildlife and local communities
Sweet Sue’s Bake Shop sits just two blocks from the Chesapeake Bay. The bakery, named for its founder but now owned by Jonathan and Megan Di Iorio, serves up treats and coffee for the locals in North Beach, a small town in southern Maryland. The bakery also does brisk business making wedding cakes for out-of-towners celebrating bayside nuptials.
“We have two resorts within a mile of our shop, and they’re both wedding destinations,” Jonathan said. “The town has begun really marketing itself that way – for beach weddings, outdoor weddings. They even rebuilt the fishing pier to accommodate a tent setup out at the end, just for weddings."
As small-business owners and residents of nearby Chesapeake Beach, the Di Iorios know that life along the coast can be risky, as well as rewarding. Major storms such as 2012’s Hurricane Sandy periodically roll in from the Atlantic Ocean, disrupting commerce, damaging homes and generating costly repairs to roads and other infrastructure. Shoreline erosion is a growing problem; over the past 20 years, 40 to 50 feet of shoreline has disappeared into the Bay at a marshy cove just a few blocks from the bakery. Storm surges now threaten Maryland Route 261, a main thoroughfare and critical emergency route that runs along the shifting shoreline.
Like thousands of others in coastal communities, the people of North Beach face a dilemma. They know storms won't stop coming. They know there’s a chance these events could get even more intense in the future. But they also aren't willing or able to wall themselves off from the resource that drew everyone there in the first place.
“North Beach is a very outdoorsy town, with lots of tourists and residents who like that coastal marsh aesthetic,” Jonathan said. “They like having that physical connection to the bay. If we start putting up walls and other infrastructure to protect us from the Bay, then we’d lose that natural connection.”
The need to address this seemingly intractable challenge has come into sharp focus in recent years as enormously damaging storms rocked the Eastern United States. In 2003, Hurricane Isabel smashed into North Carolina’s Outer Banks and surged up the Chesapeake Bay, wreaking havoc in North Beach and other bayside communities. Then Hurricane Sandy walloped the Eastern Seaboard on Oct. 29, 2012, killing more than 70 people and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage, much of it in highly developed areas of New Jersey and New York but also in North Beach and small towns throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England.
Rallying for resilience
In Hurricane Sandy’s wake, a number of federal, state and nongovernmental recovery efforts formed to strengthen coastal resilience along the northeastern U.S. coast. As part of that effort, the Department of the Interior (DOI) teamed with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to reduce communities’ vulnerability by strengthening natural ecosystems that also benefit fish and wildlife.
Now in its third year, NFWF’s Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant Program has funded 54 projects across 12 states. Projects funded will create or restore more than 6,600 acres of wetland, marsh and beach habitat while reducing urban runoff by more than 132 million gallons. The work is expected to benefit more than 210 communities while engaging more than 5,300 young people, veterans and volunteers.
Projects range in scope from enormous efforts to reduce tidal surge impacts and runoff in major metropolitan areas to relatively simple projects in smaller communities to replant native marsh vegetation and create breakwaters to reduce wave energy.
“The day you build a wall or bulkhead is the best day of that structure’s lifespan – it only degrades from there,” said Rick Bennett, Northeast Regional scientist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who leads the agency’s Hurricane Sandy recovery program. “But when you restore a wetland or build a living shoreline, it just gets better and better as time goes on.”
In 2014, NFWF awarded the Town of North Beach $540,000 to create 670 feet of living shoreline, restore 3 acres of existing degraded wetland that will also help protect an emergency route, and improve tidal flushing in a stagnant pond surrounded by homes.
The project is expected to improve water quality and enhance habitat for wildlife common to that part of the Chesapeake Bay, including herons, blue crabs, shellfish, game fish, and waterfowl. This is especially important for species in Maryland that are being threatened by habitat loss, such as the black ducks that use North Beach’s salt marsh as a stopover.
Perhaps more importantly, a healthy marsh and tidal bay system will reduce the town's vulnerability to storms by channeling water away from homes and businesses and absorbing wave energy.
Gene Slear, senior vice president at Environmental Concern, a nonprofit company hired by North Beach to design and then construct the project, said the growing sophistication of coastal resilience projects such as the one in North Beach highlights a shift from “traditional engineering to natural resource engineering.”
“The concepts surrounding resiliency and sea level rise are still very young,” Slear said. “Just a few years ago, if a storm destroyed a beach and washed out a house, we simply put the house back, rebuilt the beach, and said, ‘OK, that won’t happen again for 100 years.’
“Property owners were convinced that higher was better – just put up a wall. Engineers were telling them, ‘Vegetation is good, but rocks are forever.’ Then these big storms came through, and the water over-topped the rocks, washed away the earth behind it, and all the rock structures collapsed.”
The current crop of Sandy recovery projects are helping communities develop innovative techniques to reduce risk from storms and quicken recovery times, Slear said. Homes can be built with break-away first floor walls. New aerial mapping technologies can produce highly accurate storm surge models, so community planners know where to discourage new construction. Bioswales, “green streets” and other pieces of green infrastructure can protect marshes from polluted runoff.
“Technology has proved that hard engineering won’t suffice, that we really need to improve and sustain these tidal wetlands," Slear said. “If you can just protect the leading edge, the plants can really take a beating during big storms. When the tides go back down, we'll find boats and pieces of docks up in the marsh, but the marsh is still there. Not like rock walls and bulkheads.”
Though many of the projects funded through the Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant Program remain in early stages, communities and wildlife along the Northeast coast are already reaping benefits.
In New Jersey, a $4.7 million grant will restore 5 acres of Delaware Bay’s wetlands and 6 miles of beach in Cape May and Cumberland County. The project will improve horseshoe crab spawning, provide a critical stopover area for imperiled shorebirds, and improve ecological and economic community resilience. In just three years, a small army of volunteers and U.S. military veterans have already tagged almost 10,000 horseshoe crabs and built a series of new oyster reefs during annual community “Shellabrations.”
In Norfolk, Virginia, a $4.6 million grant will support eight shoreline restoration projects, develop a green infrastructure plan and engage more than 160 high school students in hands-on projects and 40 military veterans in green infrastructure training.
In the city of New York, a $990,000 grant will strengthen Coney Island’s resilience through the installation of 11 green streets. The project is expected to mitigate flooding, filter more than 2 million gallons of stormwater runoff annually, and serve as a model to other communities.
And in North Beach, Hurricane Sandy recovery work has already produced a brand new section of marsh. Local school children and other volunteers pitched in to seed the site with native plants.
“We’ve finished the shoreline, and it’s functioning as it should be,” Slear said. “We opened up the tidal inlet, and now, what was once a smelly, dead body of water is flushing twice daily."
The area is not flood-proof, Slear notes, but the town now has a much better chance at bouncing back quickly after a storm. The project funded by NFWF and DOI will give water from tidal surges and storm flooding new places to go – other than toward roads, homes and businesses like the Sweet Sue’s Bake Shop – and faster, cleaner ways to drain into the Chesapeake Bay.
“It's all about working with the elements rather than trying to overcome them,” Slear said.