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Investing in Ecosystem Restoration Will Help us Weather Future Storms

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This blog originally appeared on AL.com.

Ivan. Camille. Katrina. On the Gulf Coast, these names are as familiar to us as those of close family members. But while the names of the strongest hurricanes live on in our memories, the lessons they teach us about risk and vulnerability are often lost in the post-storm chaos of rebuilding our lives to some semblance of normal.

This year we mark 10 years since Hurricane Katrina and 5 years since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Both disasters reminded us that a healthy ecosystem is critical to our protection from natural and human-made disasters.

Over the last several decades, extensive loss of protective habitats like dunes, barrier islands and wetlands have left us more open to the barrage of water that often accompanies hurricanes. As our communities grew, we treated soggy land as a worthless asset and drained our wetlands to build new homes and new shopping centers.

We built bulkheads around our yards, cutting off the water from the land in an effort to engineer ourselves to safety, losing valuable marshland in the process. Growth is necessary, but what we didn’t know then was that, far from being worthless, our wetlands play a critical role in our ecosystem and are invaluable in their ability to absorb storm surge and potentially reduce the devastating power of a large storm. We know better now what role our natural landscape plays in protecting us, and if we want to continue making our home on the Gulf, we need to put nature back to work for us.

Change is the only constant in an environment as dynamic as the Gulf Coast. Although hurricanes have altered our landscape for hundreds of years, their increasing frequency and severity, coupled with our insatiable desire to build our castles on the sand, forces us to confront an uncertain future and begin to adapt our way of life to ensure that we can continue to call this beautiful place home.

The question that remains is: what role do we want to play in shaping our collective future? What if we envisioned our communities in the context of the place we live? What if we had the funding necessary to protect our communities in ways that also grew our economy and created a model for how to prosper in an era of risk and vulnerability?

I believe the effort to restore the Gulf following the BP oil disaster presents a unique opportunity to make our communities and environment more steadfast and resilient from hurricanes and other disasters. In July, the U.S. government announced an $18.7 billion settlement in principle with BP. This money can be used for a wide variety of purposes, but if our leaders are wise, they will invest in ecosystem restoration that will make the next Katrina less devastating to us economically and culturally. Wetland buffers, living shorelines and healthy oyster reefs are just a few of the restoration projects we can undertake with BP money to provide us with a natural first line of defense against hurricanes.

Resiliency is a term that is being thrown about more and more these days. Some people define it as “the ability to bounce back from a disaster more quickly and with minimal disruption”.

I propose that bouncing back only to make the same decisions that led to your getting knocked down in the first place isn’t resiliency – it is the textbook definition of insanity. It’s time to take our future into our hands. Investing in projects that restore natural habitats and natural processes will pay dividends now and into the future.

If you care about rising insurance rates, if you care about fishing, if you care about protecting your family, then you care about restoring our natural resources. Full stop. As we remember what we lost on August 29, let’s not forget what we stand to gain if we invest in our natural resources.

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