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Can Nature Make a Less Intense Hurricane Season a Less Risky One Too?

Satellite image of Hurricane Sandy approaching the east coast of the United States. Photo © NASA
Satellite image of Hurricane Sandy approaching the east coast of the United States. Photo © NASA

By Kathy Baughman McLeod, Director of Climate Risk & Resilience, The Nature Conservancy

Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) predicted a below average hurricane season this year for the Atlantic. Hearing their projections, the immediate reaction is a sigh of relief.

But we know that it’s not just the intensity of storms, but also their location that can cause severe harm to people and damage to property. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was a category three storm when it made landfall in Louisiana.

Bottom line: a less intense hurricane season does not mean a less risky one.

And when it comes to protecting ourselves, more and more planners, insurers and communities are thinking about these three words: Nature. Reduces. Risk.

Last week, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel hosted by The Norwegian Consulate of New York to discuss the role nature can play to help reduce storm risk — through the lens of a post-Superstorm Sandy New York.

Joining the discussion were representatives from Mayor De Blasio’s office, EPA’s Clean Water Division, CUNY s Institute for Sustainable Cities and the Managing Director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Program on Resilience. The conversation reaffirmed that strengthening resilience is multifaceted and complex. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. And the optimal blend of solutions will always be uniquely local.

That last point set up the big takeaway from the meeting: to increase a community’s resilience, the community must lead.

It’s about working with the people who might be initially skeptical of changing how they think about and live with risk, and inspiring them to be the agents of change.

It was an affirming takeaway. This is the model the Conservancy and the cross-sector partners we work with apply to our efforts — whether it’s participating in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2100 Commission focused on better protecting New York, bringing our Coastal Resilience mapping tool to risk planning in the Gulf of Mexico, or working with the fishers, businesses and local leaders in Grenada to strengthen the natural systems that help protect their lives and property.

It’s a simple but all-to-often overlooked fact: nature protects people. Marshes, reefs, mangroves, dunes, floodplains and other natural systems can play a much larger part in increasing resilience around the world than we allow for today.

CoastalProtection_InfoGraph

For example, our scientists have determined that a healthy coral reef can absorb a full 97 percent of a wave’s power that would otherwise hit the shore.

Further, we have also determined that natural breakwaters such as reefs and marshes, are often times more cost effective than traditional sea walls. When healthy, they grow over time, unlike a seawall that erodes over time. And an expanded natural defense system can offer other benefits to communities that traditional engineered solutions simply can’t, including improved water quality, fish production and new ecotourism opportunities.

Importantly, we also know that nature cannot give us all the coastal protection we need on its own. Often the best solution for communities is a blended one that integrates natural barriers alongside engineered ones. Ultimately, it’s about optimizing a community’s defenses for the long run at the most efficient cost possible.

As we begin this year’s hurricane season, we know that preparing for natural disaster is complex and so is recovering from it. Beyond a community’s big coastal infrastructure decisions, there’s still plenty to think about: early warning systems, fortification of structures, evacuation planning and providing for essential services when normal service is unavailable.

But, coastal communities — and the industries that protect and insure them — should also remember these three words: Nature. Reduces. Risk.