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As hurricane season ends, now is the time to take local action to rebuild and recover (commentary)

  • As the 2019 hurricane season comes to an end, now is the time to consider action on the local scale, in spite of the helplessness we may feel in the face of global change.
  • It’s no coincidence that the islands most devastated by Hurricanes Matthew and Dorian were Grand Bahama, Abaco, Andros, and New Providence. Recently published coastal risk maps show these are the islands most exposed to flooding and erosion — which is critical information for recovery and rebuilding efforts.
  • In our built world, we often forget about the natural defenses that kept us safe before we started tearing them down. Mangrove forests, coral reefs, and seagrass beds naturally envelop islands, weakening waves and storm surges. Protections are needed for coastal habitats that are still intact, and restoration is needed for degraded shorelines. As developed countries like the United States have learned, it costs millions of dollars more to restore natural defenses than to conserve them wisely in the first place.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Most of us have places where we feel safe — a tree in our backyard, a den in our house, a beach in our town. But these days, some “safe places” may no longer be safe.

Recent events, such as the unprecedented destruction of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, are grim verification of what climate science predicted. Fortunately, this same science also holds the key to changing our trajectory.

As the 2019 hurricane season comes to an end, now is the time to consider action on the local scale, in spite of the helplessness we may feel in the face of global change.

In 2016, I saw firsthand how the devastation of a hurricane challenges our assumptions about safe places. I was in the Bahamas just after Hurricane Matthew, visiting my Bahamian colleagues and conducting fieldwork on coastal resilience. Community members showed me their flattened homes, saying, “We thought the shallow water meant we were safe.” But what the community had assumed about their safety could not have been further from the truth. Living nearby shallow waters actually put them more at risk, not less.

It’s no coincidence that the islands most devastated by Matthew and now Dorian were Grand Bahama, Abaco, Andros, and New Providence. Recently published coastal risk maps by Stanford’s Natural Capital Project in collaboration with Bahamian scientists, government partners, The Nature Conservancy, and the Inter-American Development Bank, show these are the islands most exposed to flooding and erosion. Their low-lying shorelines are situated along wide, shallow expanses of the continental shelf. Water doesn’t stay put, like it does within the steep walls of a bathtub. Instead, when a storm rolls in, the ocean piles high onto shore. There’s nowhere else for the water to go.

Mangroves buffer the shoreline of the Bahamian islands from storm waves and surge. The shallow water of the Bahama banks can be especially dangerous during a storm; with nowhere else to go, the ocean piles high onto shore. Photo courtesy of Jaclyn Mandoske.

In our built world, we often forget about the natural defenses that kept us safe before we started tearing them down. Mangrove forests, coral reefs, and seagrass beds naturally envelop islands, weakening waves and storm surges. Years before Hurricane Matthew, a coastal road was built on Andros. Coastal development cleared the mangroves that had once lined the shore, securing sediments and buffering the coast from pounding waves. In place of these natural bulwarks, a one-and-a-half-foot seawall was constructed. It was no match for Hurricane Matthew.

After Dorian, a Bahamian friend shared a story of how mangroves provided safe haven for two brothers during the hurricane. They anchored their fishing boat in the heart of a mangrove forest and waited out the storm. While the remaining forests and reefs were not enough to fully protect Grand Bahama and Abaco, recent research suggests that, without them, the destruction would have been much worse. Even more sobering is that without the healthy natural barriers that do exist, the number of people at risk from coastal hazards in The Bahamas would triple. Degradation of ecosystems is happening at a rapid rate around the globe, with more than half the mangroves disappearing from some regions.

As Bahamians move into the next stage of recovery, I am hopeful that this small island country will show the rest of the world how rebuilding can be done better, for greater safety and greater resilience. There is a Bahamian saying: “It’s always better in The Bahamas.” But what does that look like after a storm?

For one, protections are needed for coastal habitats that are still intact, and restoration is needed for degraded shorelines. As developed countries like the United States have learned, it costs millions of dollars more to restore natural defenses than to conserve them wisely in the first place. Protecting ecosystems that can reduce risk also makes logistical and economic sense for a country of more than 700 islands; rather than building and maintaining expensive seawalls, The Bahamas can leverage natural defenses already at hand.

These natural defenses are also a source of local sustenance and economic recovery. Healthy coastal habitats support abundant fisheries — a resource especially important in the aftermath of a storm, when food supplies are low and shipments unavailable. Beautiful marine areas can also help communities get back their financial footing by supporting key industries like tourism and commercial fishing. Cutting-edge data and software, from institutions like the World Resources Institute, the Natural Capital Project, and NASA, are now available to estimate nature’s value to coastal communities.

Mangroves and other types of coastal forest serve as natural buffers for vulnerable shorelines and communities. Their roots trap sediments to prevent shorelines from eroding and their trunks and canopy attenuate waves, reducing flood waters. Photo courtesy of Jaclyn Mandoske.

Bahamians are using these new technologies to inform recovery and rebuilding efforts. A Bahamian colleague texted me on the Monday night of Dorian: “Our northern islands are underwater. Didn’t you model this?” We had. With a pit in my stomach, I sent her the data showing Grand Bahama and Abaco are two of the islands most at-risk from coastal hazards — not only because of low elevation and the wide continental shelf, but because of the islands’ high populations.

Other countries are successfully implementing programs that avoid development in the most flood- and erosion-prone places. In the Netherlands, the Room for the River program is buying out communities along high-risk riverbeds. Densely populated urban areas such as Boston, San Francisco, and New York are siting recreational parks and open spaces along shorelines to buffer storm waves and accommodate intermittent flooding. With strategic and smarter recovery, Bahamians can rebuild away from the extensive shallow banks and recover alongside nature.

Fortunately, some of the pieces to these solutions are already in place. In 2017, the Inter-American Development Bank and Bahamian government agreed on an innovative loan for $3 million to fund a green infrastructure approach to coastal resilience. This loan came out of a development planning process on Andros to strategically direct investments in roads and infrastructure to low-risk areas and to safeguard natural defenses. More finance mechanisms like this are needed for inclusive green growth. Integrated planning efforts can be conducted throughout the Bahamas and beyond.

When I was last in the islands, I stopped to ask some construction workers what they were doing. “Digging culverts,” they said, pointing to big pipes under the road. When I asked them why, they explained that they were making pathways for clean ocean water to get to mangroves on the other side of the road. The small act of installing culverts so mangroves can thrive represents a shift in consciousness that can lead to big changes. And these changes are urgently needed before the 2020 hurricane season begins.

I imagine a future road in Andros, or Abaco, or Grand Bahama: This road is set back from shore, elevated to allow room for flood waters and to ensure water circulates to mangroves that stabilize sediments and shield homes. Homes are set back too, up small hills or on stilts, away from shallow coastal waters, and following the advanced building codes Bahamians have already put in place. In this future, the global community has put the brakes on climate change through meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In this future, communities are much, much safer. It can be better in the Bahamas.

Damaged homes in the Bahamas in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Photo Credit: Iain Mill, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

CITATION

• Silver, J. M., Arkema, K. K., Griffin, R. M., Lashley, B., Lemay, M., Maldonado, S., … & Verutes, G. (2019). Advancing Coastal Risk Reduction Science and Implementation by Accounting for Climate, Ecosystems, and People. Frontiers in Marine Science, 6, 556. doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2019.00556

Katie Arkema, PhD, is Lead Scientist of the Natural Capital Project, Stanford University.