I live in a world where time is marked by the storms that alter the face of the landscape and change people’s lives: Betsy, Camille, Frederick, Opal, Ivan, Katrina, Isaac. Hurricanes are a fact of life in the Gulf, and I feel confident in saying that folks on the Gulf Coast are sending their thoughts and prayers to those most severely affected by Hurricane Sandy because we understand the extent of the work and time it will take to recover. We will nod our heads in understanding when you start a sentence five years from now with “Before Hurricane Sandy” because that’s how we speak, too.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there was a lot of talk about the city of New Orleans and its vulnerability to hurricanes and flooding. Some people even said that the city shouldn’t be rebuilt, that it would be a waste of resources to build back in a place hanging on by a fingernail to the last fringes of marsh that are losing ground every day to a hungry and unforgiving sea.
Perhaps people will say the same of the coastal communities devastated by Sandy. Then again, in a year marked by devastating droughts, wildfires and other disasters, it seems like there is no place left to run. We may as well stand our ground and fight for the places we love. And so, when the shock has worn off, when the debris has been cleared away, when the news cameras are gone, people will begin the long task of rebuilding in the wide swath of destruction Sandy left behind. And we will continue with the task of rebuilding here along the Gulf, creating a kinship and solidarity across geographic divides and thousands of miles. We are all in this together.
If there is anything that living along the coast has taught me, it is that we are tiny and powerless in the face of something as untamed as Nature, and that despite our best efforts to engineer her into submission over the last 100 years, we can never fully engineer the wild out of wildness. Levees, seawalls, jetties and bulkheads–these engineered structures may provide some measure of protection and help us to feel safe and secure, but we would do well to remember that sometimes Nature has already figured out the solution, and we just have to let it work.
Rebuilding will happen. It has to happen. But we need to rebuild more than our homes and schools and roads. We need to rebuild the wetlands and the oyster reefs, and protect the dunes that protect us when the waters rise and the winds howl. I don’t believe in restoration of our natural resources because it’s nice to have trees and beaches. I do it because
- wetlands protect us from storm surge,
- oyster reefs prevent shoreline erosion and break down wave energy, and
- barrier islands protect the mainland as a first line of defense.
I do it because restoring our natural resources is a life or death proposition. Without them, we are building castles in the sand. And we’ll have to keep building them over and over. Out of the tragedy of storms like Katrina and Isaac and Sandy comes an opportunity to rebuild the very things that make life on the fringes so beautiful and precious.