We must rethink the way we reduce and manage the risks to our vulnerable coastal and river communities. As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, “We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns." He called for not only rebuilding the city, but using this opportunity to "build it back smarter."
What would "smarter" development look like?
In some places like lower Manhattan, engineered solutions – levees and seawalls – may well be necessary. Such structures have saved countless lives and reduced property damage in many communities across this country.
When it comes to protecting lives and property, shouldn't we use every tool available? As New York, New Jersey, the Caribbean, and other areas affected by Sandy begin the rebuilding process, one of their smartest investments may be in protecting, enhancing, and restoring the natural systems that provide a first line of defense against natural hazards.
Nature can and should play an important role alongside engineered solutions. Natural infrastructure such as oyster reefs, healthy salt marshes, and intact sand dunes help reduce wave intensity and moderate the impacts on shorelines from flooding and erosion. Further inland, wetlands soak up excess water, helping to protect downstream communities from floods and filtering harmful agricultural runoff. And forested watersheds slow the rush of storm water heading downstream.
A good example of this approach is Cape May, N.J., where three communities have banded together to restore coastal dunes and wetlands to reduce flooding. While at the center of Sandy, this restored beach and wetland system appears to have spared the nearby communities from the kind of flooding they experienced before the restoration was completed.