The impacts of the huge mega-storm known as Hurricane Sandy on the Jamaica Bay environment were minimal. Hurricane Sandy was a human tragedy, but not a natural one. A day after the storm, I inspected the marshes and shorelines of the bay and found that everything was practically intact from an environmental perspective. Yes, there was debris. There was heating oil in the water. Some shorelines were changed.
Overall, however, the waterfowl and marine life survived with little loss. In fact, I didn’t see one dead bird or fish kill. The marshes were fine as they are designed to deal with flooding. At the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, the East Pond was breached (see picture, left) in at least two places and bay water poured into the pond adding to its salinity and a 50-foot channel was carved into the West Pond changing it into a tidal lagoon. As these ponds were artificial impoundments, it was just nature’s way of returning things to the way they were originally designed to be by removing the fill. My point is that Hurricane Sandy, while devastating shoreline homes including mine in Broad Channel, was nature’s way of “clearing the air” and restoring the dynamic conditions such as breaches, overwash and shifting sands that barrier islands such as Rockaway Beach have endured over the millennia.
This was no accident or unusual event. It was destined to happen; a hundred year storm. The full moon, sea level rise and global warming perhaps intensified the power of Sandy making the severe flood waters more akin to a category 3 storm, rather than the actual (almost) category 1 event it was based on sustained wind velocity.
The greatest threat to Jamaica Bay is not from hurricanes, nor’easters, syzygy* or other natural events but continued population growth and shoreline development. Barrier islands and buffering marshes should have been left intact. Unfortunately, poor planning has allowed us to build intensely populated developments in areas that should’ve been left as natural areas and parkland. Will we in the northeast experience more of these storms in the near future, no one knows for sure, but given that the oceans will continue to rise and most likely increase in temperature we had better be prepared. Hopefully, more effort will be made to restore protective salt marshes and to enact a moratorium on coastal development.
Don Riepe is the Jamaica Bay Guardian and a member of the American Littoral Society.
*Syzyzy — An unusal alignment of the sun, moon, planets causing very high tides. One such event occurred in 1989.
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