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Fairfield County's Coast Can Heed Lessons From Hurricane Sandy

Focusing our attention on our natural infrastructure might help protect our environment — and ourselves — in future storms.
Focusing our attention on our natural infrastructure might help protect our environment — and ourselves — in future storms. Photo Credit: File: Rich Pittera

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. — As politicians and homeowners grapple with rebuilding and restoring our shoreline communities after Hurricane Sandy, what did we learn and what should we do to protect ourselves and our environment in the future?

Audubon scientists say building communities around natural infrastructure helps to reduce the effects of storms. For example, Sandy hit Stratford’s Long Beach West with force. But the barrier beach — functioning as it should — absorbed the worst of the storm, protecting the salt marsh and human community behind it from even worse damage and flooding. The dunes were severely altered, but barrier beaches are naturally dynamic and will recover.

The storm brought significant to extreme over-washing of most dune and barrier beach systems and islands throughout Long Island Sound and along the Eastern seaboard. This will have a serious impact on beach-nesting and other coastal waterbirds, but the dunes may have saved the coastal communities behind the beach.

One of the most important services that natural habitats provide is protection from storms and flooding. We need to redouble our efforts to protect and restore barrier beaches, tidal marshes and floodplains, which act as natural buffers to the devastating effects of coastal storms. We also should think twice before hardening the shoreline with seawalls or bulkheads or suspending vital coastal protections, such as altering shoreline habitats, during recovery efforts.

In the long run, development must proceed in a different direction, in coastal areas, floodplains and other flood-prone areas.

Arriving a week before Election Day, Sandy hit at the height of a campaign season when clean water, clean air and climate change were hardly mentioned. The storm reminds us that we ignore nature at our peril and at great cost. Although it is foolish to attribute any one meteorological event to global warming, the increased frequency and intensity of coastal storms is exactly what we would expect in a changing climate. Add to this rising sea levels and such storms will only be more devastating in the future.

We must start now to invest in the health and future of our natural infrastructure in the same way we invest in energy, transportation, buildings and other essentials of modern society. When it comes to coastal restoration, what makes good habitat for birds makes good storm protection for us.

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