Residents in southern Florida are intimately familiar with the power of the ocean and the dangerous consequences of extreme weather. In order to bolster storm surge protection, city planners, policymakers, and community members are looking at coastal ecosystems to understand how natural features buffer the effects of storms and inspire a new wave of resilience planning.
Facing threats from powerful tropical storms and aging infrastructure such as bridges and roads, communities in Florida have taken matters into their own hands by harnessing the power of mangroves. The twisting underwater roots of these partially submerged forests are home to a diverse array of aquatic and terrestrial life. They also slow the flow of surface water and reduce waves, thereby serving as a storm buffer.
Mangroves have historically protected inland towns from the effects of powerful hurricanes, such as Hurricane Charley, which caused more than $15 billion in property damage and devastated Florida’s citrus industry in 2004. Communities that lacked mangrove buffers suffered some of Charley’s greatest impacts.
To protect coastal communities, the state of Florida is restoring natural barriers, a type of green infrastructure that includes mangroves and dune systems. In addition to weakening the effects of storm surges, these ecosystems provide important services, such as water purification, habitat creation, and regional economic opportunities through recreational fishing and tourism.
In 2005, Pine Island Sound residents Charles and Sandra Wagner piloted a community project to restore mangrove stands that were damaged during Hurricane Charley. After realizing how instrumental mangroves were in protecting their home during the storm, the Wagner’s decided to take action and inspire change in their community. The program now attracts hundreds of volunteers who replant damaged mangroves and monitor existing stands in an effort to restore the ecosystems that once played a monumental role in ensuring the safety of the island’s residents.
In addition to community-led initiatives to protect mangroves, county-wide programs such as Miami-Dade’s Environmentally Endangered Lands Program are working to conserve land that could prevent storm surges during future hurricanes. The county program has added 20,700 acres of threatened land to public ownership since 1990. Miami-Dade County is also involved in beach and dune nourishment programs along several critically eroded shorelines and has upgraded its green infrastructure programs as it improves its county-wide sewer system.
South Florida’s efforts to bolster coastal resilience by enhancing critical coastal ecosystems illustrate the importance of green infrastructure as an ecological service and a community resilience tool.
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.