#StrongAfterSandy—A Congressional Briefing Hosted by the U.S. Geological Survey, September 19, 2014
Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 devastated some of the most densely populated areas of the Atlantic Coast. The storm claimed lives, altered natural lands and wildlife habitat, and caused millions of dollars in property damage. Hurricane Sandy is a stark reminder of our nation’s need to better protect people and communities from future storms.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has received $43.2 million in supplemental appropriations funding to conduct post-Hurricane Sandy scientific investigations—the largest amount of post-disaster funding the bureau has ever received (see “USGS Research to Support Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Gets Boost from Supplemental Funds”).
“As we work to implement the Hurricane Sandy Science Plan, the USGS is committed to being responsive to stakeholder needs, improving and facilitating access to predictive tools to protect coastal communities and resources, and enhancing our nation’s capabilities to respond to the next hurricane,” said Suzette M. Kimball, USGS Acting Director, in a new USGS fact sheet, “Using Science to Strengthen our Nation’s Resilience to Tomorrow’s Challenges—Understanding and Preparing for Coastal Impacts.”
The USGS effort is part of an integrated response to Hurricane Sandy by its parent agency, the Department of the Interior (DOI). On September 19, 2014, the USGS hosted a formal briefing for Congress entitled “#StrongAfterSandy—The Science Supporting the Department of the Interior’s Response,” the latest installment of the USGS Congressional Briefing Series dating to 1999. Speakers included Claude Gascon, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) executive vice president and chief science officer, who served as emcee for the briefing; Neil K. Ganju, research oceanographer with the USGS Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center; Mary Foley, chief scientist for the National Park Service (NPS) Northeast Region; and Eric Schrading, field office supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) New Jersey Field Office. The briefing was attended by bipartisan congressional staff from the House and Senate, along with representatives of the Congressional Research Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and other agencies. The event was also tweeted live from @USGSLive to #StrongAfterSandy.
“In the aftermath of the storm, Congress reacted quickly with emergency funds for addressing the immediate needs,” said Gascon during his opening remarks. “Under the vision of Secretary Jewell of the Department of the Interior (DOI), part of the emergency resources were directed toward rebuilding coastal environments that would be more resilient to future storms and, more importantly, protect people and their livelihoods against the types of devastation that we saw 2 years ago.”
Gascon noted that over this time, the DOI science team, and in particular the USGS and its leadership, have demonstrated the value of the department’s commitment to science-based conservation, restoration, and adaptive management.
“Putting money to good use on the ground and using science to inform those investments was a key principle of this approach,” said Gascon. “As a fellow scientist, I am also convinced that using science as a guide to planning and a tool to measure success is key to ensuring a brighter future. As we at NFWF were asked to support the DOI in the rebuilding efforts, we relied on USGS and the DOI’s science to develop a framework for resilient coasts and communities and support the DOI in the investment of the emergency funds.”
USGS research oceanographer Ganju emphasized that understanding landscape change is key to determining the likely impacts of future storms on human infrastructure and natural habitat. He said that USGS scientists are working to fill scientific gaps in our understanding of how storms alter estuaries, marshes, waves patterns, and coastal flooding. To do so, they are mapping, measuring, and modeling the processes that affect coastal areas.
Ganju showed how comparing maps of Assateague Island National Seashore made in 2009 and 2013 reveals overwash of marsh areas and movement of the bay shoreline toward the mainland. He noted that while mapping can give us a long-term perspective on landscape change, we need continuous measurements of things like storm surge, waves, and sediment movement to understand the processes by which change occurs. As examples of measurement, he said the USGS uses rapid-deployment storm tide gages to capture extreme water levels and waves during storms, and they have deployed acoustic altimeters that will measure changes to the bottom of the bay between Assateague Island and the mainland—for example, whether it is getting deeper or shallower—for a full year. Additional long-term measurements—of waves, water level, sediment movement, and water quality—are being made by instruments deployed on the bay floor. Using the data they have gathered, the scientists run computer models to tie changes in landscape to impacts on human infrastructure and habitat. “The USGS science provides vital information for informed decision making … by policy makers, land managers, and coastal communities,” Ganju said.
NPS scientist Foley shared how national seashores and recreation areas in New York and New Jersey provide a natural defense for coastal communities and how these areas demonstrated natural, physical, and ecological resiliency by recovering quickly after Hurricane Sandy. She discussed how the NPS and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are investing in large marsh-restoration projects and explained that Hurricane Sandy actually created substantial new habitat for shorebirds such as the endangered Piping Plover.
“The greatest impact from the storm to natural resources was from debris washing up on shore,” said Foley, who also noted that research is continuing with the goal of building predictive models for the recovery of beach systems. “NPS believes it is critical to understand coastal-resilience processes and how the undeveloped coastal national parks can continue to provide natural defenses to adjacent coastal communities while providing outstanding recreational opportunities.”
USFWS field supervisor Schrading discussed the specific example of how Hurricane Sandy devastated Delaware Bay and its beaches, which support the largest spawning population of horseshoe crabs in the world and represent an important stopover for migratory shorebirds like the Red Knot.
“Horseshoe crabs are a valuable animal used as a source of food for shorebirds and are also critical to the pharmaceutical and medical-device industries,” said Schrading, who explained that there is a need for immediate recovery of beaches to restore critical habitat for the crabs. “Impacts include a 70-percent decrease in optimal horseshoe crab habitat, loss of land, exposure of debris, and threats to marshes and infrastructure.”
Schrading indicated that investments in coastal restoration are as important as investments in infrastructure or any other industry, because local communities and economies rely on this natural resource for a variety of uses, not the least of which is ecotourism.
Concluded Gascon, “As we have just seen, scientists are generating and sharing critical information to help the recovery of our natural coastal areas and the associated communities that have suffered from Hurricane Sandy. There is a firm belief that science and its application to real-life needs can and will make communities more resilient to future extreme storms.”
The scientists collectively addressed questions posed by the congressional staff and explained how decision makers can use science to address storm impacts to ecosystems, fish and wildlife, habitats, and water quality; locations along the coast that are forecast to be most vulnerable to future hurricanes; restoration of marshes; and the importance of undeveloped coastal lands as a storm buffer.Hurricane Sandy website.
in this issue:
#StrongAfterSandy—A Congressional Briefing Hosted by the USGS