Hurricane Katrina anniversary serves as reminder of need for increased storm protection

By Alisha Renfro, Ph.D., National Wildlife Federation

While the Atlantic hurricane season started June 1, the time period between the end of August and October 1 is typically the most active part of the season. It was during this window that some of the biggest and most destructive hurricanes made landfall along the Gulf Coast, including Betsy (1965), Camille (1969), Katrina (2005), Rita (2005), Gustav (2008) and Ike (2008). As waters in the Gulf of Mexico warm – providing fuel for hurricanes – and sea levels continue to rise, the threat to coastal communities of more powerful and destructive storm increases.

The destruction in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina, only nine years ago, serves as a tragic reminder of the danger of relying on levees alone for protection at the same time as the barrier islands, marshes and swamps that once provided a buffer against storm surge disappear.

The idea that coastal environments can provide protection against storm surge and sea level rise is not a new concept, but moving toward truly integrating coastal habitats and coastal restoration with more traditional engineering options, such as levees, has been slow.

A recent article in Ocean & Coastal Management, “The role of ecosystems in coastal protection: adapting to climate change and coastal hazards,” outlines steps that need to be taken to improve our understanding of the storm buffering benefits that different coastal habitat types have to offer and how this information can be integrated into planning and development processes and coastal management decisions to help reduce costs brought about by sea level rise and storms.

The authors of this paper suggest four critical steps that need to be taken to integrate the benefits of coastal habitats in light of sea level rise and storm event protection to coastal communities:

1)      Building a case for considering the benefits of natural coastal protection. This includes having enough evidence and understanding to build computer models that can capture the various coastal habitats – barrier islands, oyster reef, marshes and swamps – and their shape, size and health in order to calculate the protection they offer to nearby communities and infrastructure. This also means calculating the economic value that these coastal environments provide as fishery habitat, timber production and recreational space to further justify their protection into the future.

2)      Including ecosystems as a fundamental component to decision-making processes. This means including the future loss of the protection provided by nearby coastal habitat when assessing how vulnerable a particular community is and the predicted risk to a community from rising sea levels and future storms. It also means factoring in the social, economic and cultural changes to a community that happen in the future as coastal habitats change or are lost. To help planners, managers and community members visualize what the future environment may look like, decision support tools need to be developed to help people understand what the future may be and identify communities and infrastructure that may become more vulnerable.

3)      Using tested management tools to justify and maintain coastal environment protection. This includes the establishment of marine protected areas, coastal restoration efforts to re-establish protective coastal habitat, planned retreat in situations where the fight against erosion and storms is being lost and the incorporation of coastal habitat with planning and design of engineering structures.

4)      Implementation. This includes putting in place policy tools that encourage the integration of coastal habitat with engineered solutions and access to the relevant information needed by planners and managers at the local and national levels.

As land loss continues in coastal Louisiana, we become more and more vulnerable to storms. And we’ve seen firsthand that faith in hurricane protection levees is not enough. Why do we continue to live in such a vulnerable place? Because while it is vulnerable, it is also beautiful, rich with resources that benefit the entire nation and home to some of the largest ports in the U.S. It is also home to people, communities, culture and a way of life not found anywhere else.

Engineered structures are important and will continue to be important for the future of many communities in coastal Louisiana, but protection and restoration of coastal environments is also absolutely essential. Understanding the full range of benefits provided to people by coastal habitats is essential to integrating those benefits with engineered structures to help us visualize what our future will look like and plan accordingly.