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Stewardship of Living Marine Resources in the Wake of Natural Disasters

By Diane Rusanowsky, Milford Field Office, Habitat Conservation Division

Cedar Beach after the storm.  Photo credits: before (NERO Frontpage image) and after (shown here): NOAA

Long Beach, NY.  "Before" image captured by Google.  "After" image captured by NOAA's Geodetic Survey.

Coastal communities in the Northeast U.S. are dominated by heavily urbanized areas extending from Washington, D.C. to the northern suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. This region supports about 50 million people, almost 15% of the total population concentrated in less than 2% of the total U.S. land area. Centuries of human intervention have taken their toll on local habitats, which are increasingly susceptible to storms and other natural events. Despite the highly altered watersheds typical of this region, local coastal waters support surprisingly diverse aquatic communities. The close proximity of fishery resources and heavily urbanized human population centers potentially places the needs of living aquatic resources at odds with conflicting human uses. NOAA Fisheries Habitat Conservation Division’s mission is to evaluate threats and make science-based recommendations and conservation measures to avoid adverse impacts to these resources where practicable, and to otherwise protect, restore, or enhance public resources for which we are responsible.

Changing Habitat Conservation Division Role

Recent NOAA Fisheries assessments for the greater New York City metropolitan area suggest that mean sea level has been rising disproportionately in low-lying coastal areas[1] for decades.  At the same time, trends show increasing incidences or severity of tropical and Nor’easter storms. Based upon this information and observations from the field in the wake of recent declared disasters, it is likely that these communities will become increasingly vulnerable to natural events.  As the coastal barrier beaches, island and dune complexes further erode shoreline homes and businesses won’t be as protected from storm surges and flooding. Last October’s Super Storm Sandy, a classic late season cyclone, is a case in point.  The sheer size and strength of the system were unprecedented and produced a sustained storm surge of up to 14-15 feet above normal. The resulting chaos incurred many billions of dollars of damage to public and private property, including: 1) flooding of portions of the New York City subway and tunnel systems with millions of gallons of seawater, 2) choking of entire neighborhoods and navigation channels with mountains of debris deposited by the storm surge, and 3) leaving over 8 million customers in 17 states without power, heat or other essential utilities for extended periods of time. Some neighborhoods remain uninhabitable.

After Sandy passed through, our Habitat Conservation staff worked closely with other agencies to respond to the disaster. While the most immediate issues of restoring essential services have been addressed in all but the hardest-hit areas, we must now begin attending to the next tier of impacts. Recovery will take years and entail finding many millions of yards of beach fill, rebuilding dunes, and rethinking coastal development standards for hundreds of miles of coastline. Impacts to and recovery of other aquatic resources such as fish stocks and subtidal habitats are not yet known due to our inability to easily assess them.  It is a time to think out of the box to develop creative and economically viable ways to restore ecological resilience in damaged coastal areas.  We can do this through designs that befit both natural resources and human communities while we anticipate and take steps to reduce foreseeable risks so we are better prepared when natural disasters occur.