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The Calm before the Storm: Getting Out in Front of Coastal Restoration

October 30, 2017


The 2017 hurricane season in the Atlantic has been record-setting—with Irma’s sustained 185 mph winds, two category 3 or stronger storms, and Maria’s attack on Puerto Rico’s power grid. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria battered the coasts, causing devastating loss of life and leaving untold damage in their wake. These events make evident the critical need to restore and protect our coasts – the last line of defense against mega storms.

How can we protect our fragile coasts while balancing the needs of surrounding communities? How exactly do we measure success, and what have we learned from past mega disasters like Katrina? These questions have never been more pressing. We hope to shed light on these issues with some of the nation’s leading experts as part of our Bold Thinkers series discussion -- Coastal Restoration: Will we know it when we see it?

Why Coastal Restoration Matters

Coastal ecosystems are vital natural resources. The benefits from protection and restoration go far beyond the coasts – affecting economies and the health and welfare of surrounding communities. Almost 40 percent of the U.S. population lived in counties along our shorelines in 2010. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy became the second most costly hurricane after Hurricane Katrina, and exposed significant vulnerabilities. This super storm affected the entire eastern seaboard triggering significant coastal flooding in parts of New Jersey and New York and leaving millions without power, access to the subway, or a home.

The aftermath of Sandy has brought these vulnerabilities and lessons to the forefront of discussion. Since 2015, Abt has been supporting the Department of Interior (DOI) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) on their Hurricane Sandy work. Examining how we measure our restoration efforts is critical part of our work.

The 2013 Sandy Supplemental bill appropriated approximately $780 million for the DOI to rebuild and repair coastal assets and make strategic investments in future coastal resilience. This last part is unique in that the DOI was not only simply repairing damages from the storm, as is typically associated with disaster appropriation funds. "They allocated funds to also reduce future vulnerability from growing risks to climate-related threats, including coastal storms, sea level rise, flooding and erosion."

These were big goals, and evaluating them are no small tasks.

How Can We Measure Success?

Resilience is not a concrete concept with an obvious framework to compare across locations and hazards. Similarly, success might be defined differently for places or coastal features based on the key needs of the area. A successful marsh restoration project might be determined by completion of planned acres and according to design, or success could be measured by the restored marsh function – return of species for breeding habitat.

Abt has been providing technical services on these questions to look across a large number of resilience projects spread across the Northeast to begin to answer these and other questions such as:

  • To what extent are projects individually, or collectively, reducing estimated or actual storm risk to coastal and inland communities?
  • What is the lag time between implementation of resilience activities and the realization of benefits?
  • Are communities with projects taking additional action to reduce risk and increase resilience?
  • Under what conditions and context are resilience activities most cost-effective?
  • Does the knowledge gained from the portfolio of projects support better understanding of resilience project benefits, planning, and implementation?

These questions are important because people, entire populations, depend on the answers. In our work on the Sandy program, we know that long-term monitoring and investments can make a difference in understanding the science, and for programmatic and policy decisions. As we move forward, another component of our work involves sharing the data so that information can be used and other professional planners and administrators can begin to answer questions such as how to balance coastal protection and resilience with community development, and how to best improve policy for coastal resilience projects that offers benefits for many.

Since Sandy, we have seen Harvey, Irma and Maria devastate communities along the Gulf, the Caribbean and Southeastern seaboard.

The stakes have never been higher. Please join us in person or online at #RestoringTheCoasts for this important and timely discussion.

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