Filed Under:Risk Management, Weather Risk

12 ways the U.S. is using nature to protect against natural disasters

The Philadelphia skyline is seen in the background of John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Flickr)
The Philadelphia skyline is seen in the background of John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Flickr)

Hurricane season is a reminder of the lessons insurers have learned from major events such as Hurricanes Katrina and Ike and Superstorm Sandy.

Each year, the insurance industry invests significant time and resources to prepare risk models and provide insureds with the most sophisticated crisis response plans based on those lessons — but are they doing enough?

The National Wildlife Federation and Allied World Assurance Co. Holdings teamed to find the best examples of natural or nature-based features being used to protect communities against flooding and other natural disasters. In a report titled "Natural Defenses in Action," a dozen examples from across the United States are highlighted.

According to Scott Carmilani, president and CEO of Allied World, and Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, the report is meant to motivate the insurance industry to encourage policymakers to use similar nature-based risk reduction across the United States.

For example, the report calls for the industry to encourage Congress to reduce National Flood Insurance Program subsides that incentivize development and redevelopment in high risk, environmentally sensitive areas, as well as reward communities that deploy nature-based risk reduction with lower NFIP rates.

"Together, we can work with policymakers to not only decrease risk to local communities and save taxpayers money, but also create enduring benefits for fish and wildlife, outdoor recreation and clean drinking water," says Carmilani and O'Mara.

Here are 12 ways nature is being used to protect against natural disasters in the United States:

Click here to view our full coverage on disaster risk and recovery for Hurricane Season 2016.

Dauphin Island, Alabama, after Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina. (Photo: Getty)

Preserving barrier islands on Alabama’s Gulf Coast

Found along the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines, barrier islands buffer many parts of the mainland from the power of the open ocean. However, these sand banks are also highly valued as oceanfront property — making them a risky spot for homeowners and diminishing the extra natural protection they offer to the mainland.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Coastal Barrier Resources Act to prevent additional risky development on remaining intact and environmentally sensitive portions of barrier islands. The act was passed to reduce threats to property and protect U.S. taxpayers from the burden of paying again and again to rebuild in the risky and storm-prone areas. Savings to federal taxpayers from 1983 through 2010 are estimated at about $1.3 billion, with another $200 million in avoided disaster relief estimated through 2050.

Dauphin Island, Alabama, a barrier island located three miles south of Mobile Bay, is an example of how the act — in concert with other federal, state and local policies — can be effective in avoiding risks to people and property from hurricanes and coastal storms. The western spit of Dauphin Island was designated a Coastal Barrier Resources Unit, and Alabama drew its coastal construction control line to match the boundary of the federal designation. Local officials then zoned the land as conservation and parkland, effectively prohibiting future development.

The effect is daunting. Since being designated, none of the land under the Coastal Barrier Resources Act had seen new development or required federal assistance. In contrast, between 1988 and 2014, the 1,200 residents of Dauphin Island paid $9.3 million in flood insurance premiums to the federal government and received $72.2 million in payouts for their damaged homes.

A clapper rail in the marshes of Corte Madera, California. (Photo: Len Blumin/Flickr)

San Francisco Baylands restoration

Tidal marshes and other coastal ecosystems can function as natural infrastructure in the San Francisco Bay region, providing cost-effective protection against extreme floods and sea-level rise — the latter of which, in particular, threatens the long-term survival of the marshes that serve as critical natural buffers. Restoring baylands ecosystems is a multi-benefit way to offset rising water levels and storm impacts in the future.

One effort being implemented in the region is the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, a combination of infrastructure modifications and restoration of former salt ponds to tidal marsh, as recommended under the South San Francisco Bay Shoreline Study. The project is the largest tidal wetland restoration effort on the West Coast, and aims to restore 15,100 acres of former commercial salt ponds in South San Francisco Bay to functional tidal marsh, for purposes of flood management for South Bay cities, habitat and public access. So far, 1,500 acres of functional tidal marsh have been restored.

Another project, the San Francisco Bay Living Shorelines Project, is showing how natural features like submerged aquatic vegetation and native oysters in the subtidal and intertidal zones can reduce wave energy and potentially protect adjacent shorelines from erosion and storm impacts.

Jean Lafayette Swamp, Lousiana, along the Mississippi River Delta. (Photo: Donna Pomeroy/Flickr)

Restoring flows to protect coastal Louisiana

The Mississippi River Delta is the first line of defense against the impacts of storm surge to communities along Louisiana's coast. Construction of levees for flood protection, canals for oil and gas access and channels around the river's entrance for the transport of goods have had great near-term economic benefits, but came at a grave ecological cost.

These levees and channels cut off the natural flow of freshwater and sediment into the delta, upsetting the freshwater/saltwater balance, and making conditions favorable for erosive forces. Because erosion and subsidence are vastly outpacing sediment accretion in the delta, some of the most ecologically valuable marsh and estuarine ecosystems in the world are drowning, putting many coastal Louisiana communities at increased risk from hurricanes and coastal storms.

Penalties from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are now a major source of financing for coastal Louisiana restoration through the federal Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast StatesAct. Two linked projects exemplify new approaches to putting sediment from the river back into its delta: the restoration of the Barataria Basin Land Bridge and the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion.

These projects are using sand from the Mississippi River's bottom — along with silts and clays carried in its streamflow — to build new land, nourish existing marsh and help prevent saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico from penetrating into freshwater marshes and swamps in the mid to upper reaches of the basin.

According to the report, these projects in the Barataria Basin illustrate the kind of forwardthinking and bold vision that is necessary to reverse years of decline and to rebuild the protective functions of these ecosystems for coastal Louisiana's communities.

Taulatin National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. (Photo: Darryll DeCoster/Flickr)

Partnering with ecosystem engineers in Oregon

In the Columbia River watershed of western Oregon, beavers are a valuable partner in taming floods, moderating water shortages, cooling water temperatures and restoring habitat for fish and wildlife. They also play a part in reducing flood risks to communities along the Tualatin River.

Beaver activity slows water flow and spreads water across the floodplain, helping create habitats and wetlands. Those wetlands in turn can store excess water, increase infiltration and facilitate groundwater recharge, helping to maintain summer flows.

A comprehensive survey of the Tualatin Basin revealed that many heavily incised streams no longer had functional connections to their floodplains, resulting in the decrease of native beavers and their preferred food sources to the area. To help restore the area, Kendra Smith, principal author of the "2005 Healthy Streams Plan," worked with city governments to plant native riparian vegetation, end beaver extirpation efforts and refocus trapping efforts on nutria, an invasive mammal that can cause considerable streamside erosion.

By 2014, the number of beavers in the area had almost doubled and their impact was clear: What had once been dense thickets of invasive reed canary grass had transformed into forested, healthy wetlands, improving resilience against drought, enhancing biodiversity and reducing flood risk to downstream communities.

Flooding from the Mississippi River in Grafton, Illinois, in 1993. (Photo: Liz Roll/FEMA)

Moving out of Mississippi River floodplains

The city of Grafton, Illinois, suffers from frequent floods when waters rise in the Mississippi, Illinois or the even the Missouri River. In its 150-year history the city has flooded, on average, every two years.

In 1993 flooding from the Mississippi River submerged Grafton for more than six months under floodwaters up to 15 feet deep. As the waters receded, town officials began to assess the damage: 260 structures were damaged and 100 experienced damages over 50 percent of market value and were required to be elevated or were bought out and relocated. In total, 88 properties were bought out using $2.3 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funds and $773,636 in matching funds from the state.

In conjunction with buyouts of damaged properties within the floodplain, the town purchased land on top of the bluff and made it available for purchase by those who wished to relocate to higher ground. In total, 70 homes and 18 businesses relocated out of flood-prone areas.

While relocation is often considered a measure of last resort, it has been extremely effective at reducing risk in Grafton. In 2015 the town experienced the fourth highest floodwaters in its history, but the relocations — combined with the decision to maintain the riverfront as open space — meant the impact on the town was minimal despite the absence of a levee.

 The Cosumnes River levee breach in California. (Photo: Lorenzo Booth/UC Merced)

Floodplain restoration in California’s Central Valley

The floodplains of California’s Central Valley are facing growing extremes of flood and drought in the face of climate change and population pressures on California’s highly managed water system. In light of such extremes of wet and dry, ecological floodplain management is a cost-effective strategy that stands up to the uncertainties of future climates.

According to the report, management techniques include setting back or breaching levees to reconnect the river channel to the floodplain in undeveloped locations; restoring marginal flood-prone farmland to native wetlands vegetation; using floodplain easements and water management infrastructure to reroute floodwaters around dense urban areas; and re-creating more complex floodplain topography in ways that increase the channel roughness to slow and capture floodwaters, while creating or improving fish and wildlife habitat on the floodplain.

Such actions increase the floodplain's capacity to take on floodwaters in places where people and property will not be affected, thereby reducing downstream flood risk. Ecological floodplain management techniques have the potential for reducing risks of catastrophic flood losses in developed areas while recharging dwindling groundwater resources as insurance against drought and land subsidence.

A living shoreline protected by the Delaware Estuary. (Photo: Josh Moody/Partnership for the Delaware Estuary)

Creating living shorelines in the Mid-Atlantic

Landowners in the Mid-Atlantic are increasingly taking greener approaches to shoreline stabilization, known as "living shorelines."

The Partnership for the Delaware Estuary defines living shorelines as a "method of shoreline stabilization that protects the coast from erosion while also preserving or enhancing environmental conditions." The concept of living shorelines captures a variety of shoreline stabilization techniques that use site-appropriate, native biological materials, taking ecological dynamics, tides, currents and wave energy into consideration.

The Chesapeake and Delaware bays are some of North America's most productive aquatic habitats, but they also are quite vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, sea-level rise and long-term land subsidence. In particular, the combination of extreme storm events and sea-level rise is having dramatic effects on communities lining these areas from erosion and flooding, and leading to accelerated land loss. As an alternative to the traditional methods used to slow erosion (such as sea walls), communities have been developing living shorelines to protect the shorelines.

In 2007 the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, along with the Rutgers Haskin Shellfish Laboratory, began an investigation into some nature-based armoring tactics and their applicability within the Delaware Estuary. Together they varied the configuration of ribbed mussels, coir-fiber logs and marsh grasses along the shoreline, and documented the performance of each arrangement.

In 2011, they published the results of the study and created the Delaware Estuary Living Shoreline Initiative. This approach of using mussels and vegetation to restore living shorelines has now been used for more than a dozen projects in Delaware and New Jersey.

Dry, dead trees dot Mount Eden, overlooking Flagstaff, Arizona. (Photo: Brady Smith/U.S. Forest Service)

Forest management to reduce floods in Flagstaff, Arizona

Flagstaff, Arizona, is no stranger to wildfires.

Unfortunately, fire is often just the first threat, as vegetation on the surrounding hillsides is a critical element of natural infrastructure for regulating both the quality and quantity of water flowing to the city. After a wildfire, severe rainstorm can send torrents of muddy, sediment-filled water rushing downstream toward the 70,000 residents of the Flagstaff metro region. While suppressing fires seems like the logical solution, suppression only is a short-term solution that disrupts natural fire cycles and can lead to unnaturally high densities of fuel sources.

After a particularly brutal fire-and-downpour cycle in 2010, the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project was created to help reduce the risk of devastating wildfire and post-fire flooding in the nearby Rio de Flag and Lake Mary watersheds. By 2012 the project successfully treated more than 70,000 acres of forest and had been recognized as a leader in innovative and collaborative forest management.

Sand dunes in Stone Harbor, New Jersy. (Photo: Stacy Small-Lorenz/National Wildlife Federation)

Ecological approaches to reduce risk in Cape May County, New Jersey

How can a New Jersey barrier island resort town support million-dollar beach homes, endangered beach-nesting birds and maintain a Triple A S&P bond rating, all while receiving 25 percent discounts on flood insurance?

The answer, according to Avalon, New Jersey, Mayor Marty Pagliughi is investing in natural ecosystems.

Avalon's beach and dune conservation strategy has grown into a proactive, decades-long effort toward property and environmental protection, serving as a model for other coastal New Jersey communities.

The effort of communities such as Avalon in Cape May County to preserve sand dunes and other natural wetlands have shown significant returns. After Hurricane Sandy, Cape May communities that had participated in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dune and beach nourishment projects had relatively little storm and flooding damages in places where wider beaches and deeper dune systems provided adequate buffers.

Restoring and maintaining resilient ecosystems in the surrounding landscape has brought benefits to local communities in the form of storm, flood and erosion protection.

An overhead view of the Great Lakes. (Photo: Jeff Schmaltz/NASA)

Stabilizing Great Lakes shorelines with native vegetation

Strong winds, high wave energy, occasional massive storms and seasonally thick ice make the Great Lakes a great laboratory for vegetated living shoreline projects designed for erosion and sediment control.

In places where high wave energy and ice continually disturb sediments and chew away at lake edges, vegetated living shorelines can often be more naturally durable and resilient than human-engineered hard armoring.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has partnered with the Great Lakes Commission and local communities to stabilize shorelines and restore wetlands with native habitat at a number of former saw mill and industrial sites. More than 33 acres of wetland and 13,000 linear-feet of hardened shoreline have been restored so far. NOAA says the $10 million investment in restoration efforts at Muskegon Lake project will generate $66 million in economic benefits, including:

• $12 million increase in property values.
• $600,000 in new tax revenues annually.
• More than $1 million a year in new recreational spending in Muskegon.
• 65,000 additional visitors annually.
• An additional 55 cents in the local economy for every federal dollar spent.

Marsh monitoring. (Photo: Chris Hilke/National Wildlife Federation)

Shared ecosystem and community resilience in coastal Massachusetts

Vibrant coastal communities along the Great Marsh in Massachusetts are at risk from the threats of rising sea levels and increasingly powerful coastal storms.

The Great Marsh plays a significant role in buffering nearby communities from the impact of the same coastal storms and nor'easters that threaten it.

The Great Marsh Resiliency Partnership is working to strengthen the coastal towns and the marsh itself, with support from the U.S. Department of Interior Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Program. The broad-based project partnership, which includes National Wildlife Federation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, several universities, Massachusetts state agencies and a number of local environmental nonprofits, are working together to reduce vulnerabilities and protect key assets through implementing nature-based measures designed to work at near-, medium- and long-term timescales.

To address near- to medium-term threats of sea-level rise and coastal storms, several ecological restoration efforts are being carried out, such as stabilizing existing dune systems by planting native dune flora and fencing in dunes to decrease trampling and other disturbance. Native vegetation is also being restored to hundreds of acres of marsh to help stabilize the ecosystem and bolster its capacity to provide flood protection.

Marsh restoration in Jamaica Bay, New York. (Photo: Don Riepe/American Littoral Society)

Hybrid approaches to protect New York’s Jamaica Bay

New York City's Jamica Bay faces many challeneges in the years after Superstorm Sandy, which caused 13 feet of storm surge and $19 billion in damage in the area.

As a result, building resilience in the face of rising seas and strong coastal storms has become an urgent matter in the lowest-lying part of the city.

At the request of the city, the Nature Conservancy conducted an extensive benefit-cost analysis of four resiliency options for the Howard Beach neighborhood in Jamaica Bay. The planners found that hybrid approaches of varying levels of traditional hard infrastructure along with green infrastructure by far provided the greatest risk reduction and avoided losses from a 100-year storm.

The best hybrid option considered had a benefit-cost ratio 8-16 times higher than the green infrastructure-only options, providing an estimated $662,000 in ecosystem services while avoiding $466 million in damages to Howard Beach alone. In addition, hybrid options offered reduced maintenance costs compared with only hard infrastructure.

New York City has made a significant commitment to climate adaptation, as outlined in its landmark 2013 "PlaNYC," with Jamaica Bay at the epicenter of coastal resiliency efforts. Taking into account the results of the conservancy's study, the Jamaica Bay plan includes a mix of stone bulkheads, living shorelines and restoration and creation of wetlands and reefs.

Related: Harnessing nature as a first line of defense against disasters

Click here to view our full coverage on disaster risk and recovery for Hurricane Season 2016.

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