Seven short weeks ago, after days of storm warnings and evacuation orders, Hurricane Sandy slammed into the United States. The entire eastern seaboard, from Florida to Maine, was affected, as tropical force winds extended roughly 900 miles at their widest. In Texas, I sat transfixed like most others across the country, praying for the safety of those in Sandy’s path.
In the days after, millions mourned their losses and city leaders did their best to return to business as usual. We all knew the clean-up would cost money, but it wasn’t until weeks later that we had a figure—leaders in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut announced that they needed a collective $82 billion in federal disaster relief funds, including more than $15 billion to protect against future storms. But as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg framed his request around actions like moving electrical transformers in commercial buildings to upper floors and creating the ability to shutter key tunnels, airports and subways during a flood, I had to wonder: Where was the discussion about natural infrastructure? Where was the acknowledgement of the importance our wetlands, oyster reefs and seagrass play in storm management? Now more than ever, such issues are vital to the national conversation.
Mounting evidence shows that rising sea levels and storm surges pose a real risk to coastal populations. The Nature Conservancy has made big investments in the science of coastal resiliency, especially along the Gulf of Mexico coast. If you don’t live in one of the five Gulf States—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or Florida—you may not think of the Gulf Coast region as much more than a flood plain. But the Gulf of Mexico supports an incredible diversity of marine life and is hands down one of the hardest working bodies of water around. It supports one of the country’s largest recreation and tourism industries, to the tune of $20 billion a year and more than 600,000 jobs, and is responsible for roughly 90 percent of all our offshore oil and gas production. The Gulf also produces more than a third of the seafood Americans eat, including 60 percent of our oysters and more than 80 percent of our shrimp.
But we are taxing this great natural resource and steadily stripping away its natural defenses. The Census Bureau projects that more than 61 million people will call the Gulf region home by 2025, and every single one of those people will need to eat, drink and turn the lights on—that means increased food production, energy exploration and development. Such stressors have already had a tangible effect on the Gulf—what is considered one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world has lost nearly 50 percent of its wetlands, 60 percent of its seagrass beds and 50 percent of its oyster reefs.
Yet, the health of this ecosystem is crucial to our collective livelihood. Oyster reefs, wetlands, seagrass and coastal marshes play an incredibly important role in protecting our coastlines; they prevent erosion and serve as natural buffers during hurricanes and tropical storms. And investing in such natural infrastructure creates an insurance policy for the future.