Stronger coast, stronger partners: Patty Doerr

Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners began to rebuild the Atlantic Coast after Hurricane Sandy, it’s been impossible for any one group to stand alone. Agencies partnered to bring relief to stricken areas, communities came together to share and pool resources, and many, many organizations dedicated themselves to repairing the coast — and preparing it for the future.

Over the last six years, using funding for Hurricane Sandy resilience projects, we’ve worked with dozens of partners across the Northeast to fortify the coast against future storms. Their expertise, community relationships, funding, and other support have taken these projects off the page and into the world.

In this miniseries, we recognize a few of those partners.

Patty Doerr, left, helps to assemble the living shoreline. (Credit: Mary Conti/TNC)

Patty Doerr: director of marine and coastal programs, The Nature Conservancy | Gandy’s Beach living shoreline

Of all the places in the Northeast hit by Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey may have suffered the most. Iconic boardwalks were swept into the ocean, towns were flooded, docks full of boats were sunk, and thousands of people’s properties were damaged. The storm also laid bare something the coast was sorely missing: natural defenses.

This was especially clear at Gandy’s Beach, where erosion threatened to carve away the base of the salt marshes, swallowing important wildlife habitat. The solution was a to build a living shoreline: a series of block frames covered in oysters. It might sound like a band-aid for a gunshot wound, but these modest structures can actually reduce wave energy reaching the coast by 40 percent or more, giving the beach a much-needed break from erosion.

“Within the first year we were able to see how the beach changed,” said Patty Doerr, director of marine and coastal programs for The Nature Conservancy, which managed the project.

The project saw over 3,000 feet of living shorelines erected along the beach. By simply breaking up incoming waves, these natural barriers disperse that energy and give the salt marshes at Gandy’s a reprieve from the ocean’s constant battering. Best of all, though, they largely sustain themselves: the oysters recruit more oysters over time, which allows the living shorelines to keep growing.

The team stacks “oyster castles,” the foundation for the living shoreline. (Credit: TNC staff)

“One of the things we love about the Gandy’s project is that it has so many benefits for both people and nature,” said Doerr. “It’s a great win-win.”

Saving coastal marshes saves habitat for species like saltmarsh sparrow, which need marsh grasses for nesting. It can also improve conditions for certain fish species. According to Doerr, a Rutgers University team monitoring the sites has seen an increase in fish diversity since the shoreline went up.

But the greatest value to Doerr might be the relationships built during the project, and the way all the players learned from each other and the work.

“Everybody has something different to bring to the table, and it’s always important to be able to leverage that collective brainpower,” said Doerr. “What’s really great is that after such a traumatic event in Hurricane Sandy, so many partners across the state have come together to achieve great things.”

This year’s severe storms underscore the power of nature and the vulnerability of our coasts. While nature can destroy, it can also defend. Supported by federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery, we’re working with partners to restore and strengthen natural systems that provide not only habitat for wildlife, but also protection against rising seas and storm surge. This miniseries is part of a larger series of stories highlighting results of our ongoing efforts to build a stronger coast.