Wetlands linked to a safer community

America’s WETLAND Foundation calls for reassessment in light of Harvey flooding

The devastation from Hurricane Harvey will have long-term impacts for Texas, the region, and the nation and here at the America’s WETLAND Foundation (AWF), our thoughts are with the victims of this disaster. Those who lost their lives and the families who suffer these storm events will be forever the personal witnesses of nature’s fury. We are grateful for the first responders and volunteers, including the Cajun Navy and so many others who have rushed into danger to help those in need.

Houston, and now many other Texas cities are under water bringing back memories of 2005 – the flooding in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Rita.

Five years ago, AWF hosted community forums across the Gulf Coast (from South Padre Island, Texas to Florida) to assess the resiliency of communities in light of rising seas occurring with climate change. Discussions based on a multi-million dollar Entergy study of at-risk infrastructure in the Gulf coastal areas quickly revealed states in the region would fall short in keeping up with damage from what the report termed, larger and slower moving storms. Fast-forward to Hurricane Harvey and the findings seem an omen of disaster now and to come.

“In all eleven Gulf Coast forums, we learned communities were neither ready nor equipped to deal with the size and scope of what was predicted,” Val Marmillion, AWF managing director, said. “The loss of wetlands due to rising sea levels across the coastal communities meant storm surge protection was minimized and where wetlands were eliminated for development, water storage was lost and would certainly impact low lying residential areas.”

Among the many findings from the earlier forums was a community’s individual self-assessment that often demonstrated the area’s lack of attention to the prime issues of resiliency. Most often noted was a lack of public awareness or political focus on adapting to changing environments. “We were concerned following the forums that big weather events were on a short term horizon,” AWF senior advisor, Sidney Coffee, said. “In the case of southeast Texas and Houston, the loss of wetlands was apparent and troublesome. In one Galveston forum, the projections for loss of the island were dramatic and not linked to the protection of estuary or lowing lying land resources south of Houston.”

AWF currently is planning a second round of “adaptation” forums for 2018, revisiting communities along the Gulf to assess changes in environment and actions needed to adapt to new land loss projections and the rising tide. “It is unfortunate to recall our conversation with forum attendees in the Houston area where attendees seemed resigned to major storm destruction in the greater Houston area due to loss of wetlands,” Marmillion said. “Our view then as now is that a strong focus on water management, securing vulnerable infrastructure, and restoring wetlands are measures that will lead to greater sustainability and biodiversity for the greater Houston and Galveston regions.”

All coastal communities can be better prepared by understanding the rules of the environment and adapting to a changing world.