Hurricane Sandy started a tidal wave of resilience

six people work together moving large bricks
Using oyster castles to build a living shoreline at Gandy’s Beach in New Jersey. Credit: Mary Conti/TNC

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy ransacked the East Coast. And, while bigger storms — with even more devastating impacts — have certainly come along, Sandy was unique because it helped start a movement toward resilience and nature-based solutions.

What does this mean?

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. Department of the Interior did something unusual — it provided more than $300 million in funding for resilience projects. Not just recovery — the building-back of damaged areas or the clean-up of debris — but the strengthening and restoration of vital natural systems like marshes, wetlands and rivers that can actually help protect people and wildlife from storm impacts.

an aerial view of a marsh with several machines launching sediment
Marsh restoration at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Richard Weiner

This work was not limited to national wildlife refuges and parks — more than 160 projects, funded primarily through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, were implemented in collaboration with hundreds of local nonprofit and state partners at small and large scales up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

“This really was an investment in the future,” explains Rick Bennett, who coordinated the Hurricane Sandy resilience effort for the Service. “It wasn’t just about fixing what was damaged by Sandy, but figuring out how we can improve environmental conditions so that fish, wildlife and people can be more resilient to flooding and storm impacts.”

Here’s how this investment in nature is paying off:

Free-flowing rivers: More than 370 miles of river habitat were restored through the removal of dams and culverts. Free-flowing rivers are healthier — they are less polluted, can maintain better temperatures and oxygen for fish and other aquatic species, recharge groundwater, and allow for the transport of sediment downstream, where it nourishes beaches and marshes. Communities benefit from a reduced risk of flooding caused by the failure of aging dams — a widespread problem on the East Coast — and from new outdoor recreation opportunities such as fishing and paddling.

Restored marshes: Marshes are the first responders of the coast — when tides and storm surge come in, they soak up water like a sponge, protecting homes, roads, and businesses from flooding. In their day jobs, marshes quietly provide vital services by storing carbon, filtering pollutants so the water is cleaner, and supporting fish and birds. In all, 190,000 acres of marsh habitat (equivalent to 300 square miles) were restored, creating a protective buffer between the ocean and coastal communities.

a marsh landscape with brown grasses and water
Surf meets marsh along Delaware Bay at Gandy’s Beach, NJ. Credit: Steve Droter

Coastline protection: More than 80 acres of beach and dune habitat were restored along 11 miles of the coast. An additional 10 miles of living shorelines, primarily oyster reefs, were installed at 29 sites. Beaches, dunes, and living shorelines reduce shoreline erosion and protect coastal communities from storm surge. These areas also drive eco-tourism in many coastal communities and provide vital habitat for wildlife. The beaches along Delaware Bay, for instance, are some of the most critically important stopover sites for migratory shorebirds like the threatened rufa red knot; without safe harbor and plentiful food — in the form of horseshoe crab eggs — these birds wouldn’t make it on their long-distance journeys. Restored beaches and new living shorelines along the bay are protecting coastal communities and wildlife habitat.

two people inspect an oyster structure
Service biologists Eric Schrading and Katie Conrad inspect a newly-installed oyster reef living shoreline at Gandy’s Beach, NJ. Credit: Steve Droter

More fish: Speaking of wildlife, fish are pretty happy about those restored rivers. “As soon as you restore a river by removing an obsolete dam, the fish come back quickly,” explains Bennett. River herring and American shad have returned to rivers and streams that had been blocked to them for hundreds of years. Restored marshes also help — marshes are nurseries for menhaden and other fish that provide a tasty meal for large ocean creatures like sharks, cod, and tuna. And don’t forget living shorelines, which create new habitat for oysters, crabs, and more.

a woman in waders smiles and holds a fish
Service biologist Katie Conrad holds an alewife during fish monitoring at Wreck Pond. Credit: USFWS

Better science and planning: The science of resilience and resilience planning is a burgeoning field as people grapple with the impacts of climate change. Sandy-funded science projects contributed new knowledge and tools — such as models of storm impacts, methods for identifying vulnerable areas, analyses of storm surge dynamics, and data collection of coastal elevation changes. In addition, 289 plans, assessments, or engineering designs were developed for communities to improve their resilience. This collection of new knowledge and tools, along with best-practices and lessons-learned from project implementation, are helping communities become more resilient.

Economic returns: As climate conditions continue to change and the risk of natural hazards rises, there will inevitably be an increase in spending for recovery and mitigation efforts. Studies suggest that investing in nature-based solutions makes good economic sense. For instance, wetlands saved $625 million in flood damage, according to one study. And nature improves human well-being and provides financial benefits in numerous ways. A 2011 study found that every mile of river opened can contribute more than $500,000 annually in local social and economic benefits once fish populations return to their full productivity.

“The great thing about nature-based solutions is how much they give back to people and wildlife, year after year,” says Bennett. “Rivers, marshes, beaches, and dunes help reduce storm flooding and erosion, while at the same time providing habitat for wildlife and outdoor recreation for people. You just can’t say the same about a concrete sea wall or bulkhead.”

Hope: If there’s any silver lining, it’s how this new era of nature-based solutions is providing hope as we look toward an uncertain climate future. Up and down the Atlantic Coast, communities are coming together around conservation projects that help make people and nature more resilient.

a lush green marsh and waterways under a colorful and cloudy sky
A restored marsh at Chafee National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Ayla Fox

“No one seemed to care about the beach before,” says Harry Bailey of Reed’s Beach, NJ, which sits along Delaware Bay. “Storms came and destroyed the beach and no one came to fix it. These organizations came in, now the beach is built up, the horseshoe crabs are back, and birders from all over the world come here to see the birds.”

Al Modjeski of the American Littoral Society, who led much of the restoration along the Bay, agrees.

“Restoration restored Bay-wide faith and hope. In the face of despair, the Bay community saw it had not been forgotten and people’s lives could be restored and even improved,” says Modjeski.

And the power of hope, like a hurricane, can never be underestimated.

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We conserve nature in the northeast U.S. for the benefit of wildlife and the American people. Love your natural and wild places! Explore the world around you by hiking, fishing, hunting, and volunteering. More info at fws.gov/northeast

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