Some thoughts inspired by Hurricane Matthew:
Coastal recovery and research already well under way.
Almost as soon as the winds and waves subsided, coastal managers were heading to the coast to assess the damages and weigh a response. In almost every post-storm community, coastal managers are looking at the damage (or lack thereof), calculating the time the coast may need to naturally recover (if it can), and considering the options available to fix storm-damaged coastlines to speed recovery and ensure they will be ready to protect upland property, infrastructure and habitat when the next threat arises.
Coastal researchers are also headed to the beach to assess damages and gather data, since storm can be an invaluable informational asset to coastal scientists. By analyzing the storm’s impact on coastlines that have been well studied in the past, scientists can look at what did (and did not) work in coastal preservation measures, chart changes in both the coast and the storm that attacked it, and spark new research and discoveries that can shape coastal preservation efforts in the years to come.
Both groups are there to see how the coastline performed in the face of extreme natural forces, to learn how to better prepare for the next onslaught, how to spur natural recovery and prevent future damages, and to ensure the coast is healthy and ready to tackle the myriad tasks we ask of it.
Your battered post-storm beach is showing it did its job.
Your post-storm beach likely looks very different from the shoreline you saw before the winds and waves attacked. The dry beach is probably much smaller, the dune system has been chewed up, and upland structures and infrastructure is probably a lot closer to the wave zone now. All signs that your beach did its job in the storm.
The dry beach is smaller because a lot of that sand has been scoured into the offshore beach, the one beneath the water that supports the dry beach and interrupts waves before they can carry away even more sand. That offshore beach will eventually migrate back onshore if enough sand stayed in the littoral system to make a return; the sand that was washed further away will eventually have to be mechanically returned to the dry beach during a restoration project.
The dunes, which probably have less vegetation and more escarping than before, also did what they were designed to do – hold back storm waves and surge from upland property. The escarpment will eventually smooth out, the vegetation will recover and, if nature can’t do it alone, the dune system will be enhanced as part of a beach restoration so they can be ready for whatever the next storm (or rising tides and increased intensity in storms) will throw at them.
And those upland properties and habitat? If they were built a distance away from the wave zone and up above the flood zone, they probably did OK. If they were damaged by Matthew, they can be repaired or rebuilt to meet newer standards that reflect our evolving understanding of potential storm risk and response. And if the wide beach and high dunes are allowed to recover and return, they will also offer a higher level of protection for the next disaster.
Coastal protection and risk assessments must move beyond the sandy beach.
A lot of storm preparedness and post-storm recovery focused on the sandy shoreline – and rightly so, as it is the first and main line of defense against winds and waves. But we need to learn from the numerous lessons in recent storms, and realize that protecting our coast and the people who live there does not stop when the sand does.
Specifically, we need to foster protection and assess risk in two crucial areas:
We’ve seen storms where the sandy coast does well, but the bayside coast is flooded for days. We’ve even seen storm that carry almost no coastal risk but generate such extraordinary (but becoming more ordinary) rainfall amounts that residents far from the coast are pushed from their homes and businesses and put at severe risk from widespread flooding.
These instances should spur a new look at protection efforts and risk assessments, including a better understanding of flood risks and weaknesses, the need to encourage property owners to take preventive actions and carry reasonable insurance, and the importance of proper flood management, as well as the need to carry the “build higher and stronger” mantra inland from the sandy coast to enhance survivability.
If it looks like the nature of coastal storms and protection is changing – from being a coastal threat to being a watershed-scale threat – then our way of preparing to face it and fight it must change to reflect that as well.
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