Consider this: Within the last decade, The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, has poured $200 billion into the Gulf Coast region in the wake of various hurricanes—that’s roughly the cost of damages incurred by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy combined. In fact, the second largest fiscal liability of the U.S. Government, behind Social Security, is the National Flood Insurance Program. And insured assets in flood prone areas along the Gulf coast represent almost half of the U.S. total.
But what if we could mitigate those insurance claims in the future? What if we could rebuild our natural storm buffers and help protect the millions of people in coastal communities? That is the Conservancy’s hope for the future. We have invested in thousands of acres of Gulf coastline, ensuring habitat for important species like whooping cranes and the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle and helping to restore precious wetlands. Dr. Jorge Brenner, associate director of marine science for the Conservancy in Texas, has developed a web portal and series of tools that will help coastal managers, scientists and the conservation community predict how hurricanes, storm surges and sea level will affect their cities and coastal habitats in the future.
And in 2013, we will begin construction on our Half Moon Reef oyster reef restoration project in Matagorda Bay. Oysters are one of the Gulf’s most important inhabitants—those little bivalves are not only delicious, they also act as a natural water filtration system. The Gulf of Mexico is the final outlet for 207 estuaries and more than 30 major river systems in this country, including the mighty Mississippi River; oysters strip nutrients and impurities from those millions of gallons of freshwater flowing daily into the Gulf. With Half Moon Reef, we plan to not only construct a viable habitat for oysters (and various other marine life), but to help restore the Texas Gulf Coast to ensure protection against hurricanes and tropical storms well into the future.
My thoughts on coastal resiliency echo a speech given by Mayor Bloomberg on December 6 of this year. New York City cannot “just rebuild what was there and hope for the best,” he said. “We have to build smarter and stronger and more sustainably.” Without question, that should be our goal.
Every single person in this country has a vested interest in the viability of our coastal communities—they are home to a growing number of Americans, support our food and energy needs, and contribute millions to our annual economy. The coast also serves as cultural touchstones for so many of us—who can forget their first time seeing the ocean or wriggling their toes in the sand? So let’s not wait for disaster to strike; let’s make coastal resiliency part of the big picture discussion on storm preparedness. By ensuring the health of our coastlines we can help protect ourselves and invest in a bright future for our children and grandchildren.
Laura Huffman is the director of The Nature Conservancy of Texas. A native of Austin, Huffman has a long and distinguished record of public service. She earned a master’s of public affairs from the University of Texas at Austin and a bachelor’s in political science with a minor in history from Texas A&M University. She makes her home in Austin, with husband Kent and their four children.
[Hurricane Sandy comes to shore in Marblehead, MA. Photo credit: Flickr user Brian Birke via Creative Commons]