Blog Post Sarah Gaines Barmeyer Jul 2, 2024

After the Storms: 9 Signs of Hope on the Coast

Above-normal hurricane activity is predicted for this summer. What does this mean for national parks? See how sustainable practices and technology-based solutions are strengthening them amid climate change. 

For 2024, the National Weather Service forecasts above-normal hurricane activity in the Atlantic Ocean, predicting four to seven hurricanes that could reach Category 3, 4 or 5 strength with winds topping 111 mph. Warming oceans from human-caused climate change, coupled with La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean, are driving this increase.

As the East Coast braces for this possibility, some national parks are still recovering from past storms. Virgin Islands National Park, for example, continues to grapple with cleanup and rebuilding of its Caneel Bay area following the back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes Irma and Maria during 2017’s hurricane season. Dry Tortugas National Park continues to make repairs at Fort Jefferson after Irma and 2022’s Hurricane Ian. Some trails in Louisiana’s Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve remain damaged or closed after Hurricane Ida in 2021.

NOAA warns that sea-level rise boosts the potential for damage from any hurricane — and the oceans are rising. The Atlantic and Gulf coasts are experiencing more severe impacts from sea level rise, storm surge and coastal erosion than many other parts of the world, according to NASA. Reasons for this in the mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states include low-lying typography, high economic value and relatively high storm frequency, while in the Gulf, the combination of low-lying topography and settling of the ground following oil and groundwater extraction exacerbate the impacts.

Storm recovery in these areas is costly. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, NPCA and coalition partners helped secure nearly $900 million for the Department of the Interior to help with recovery and to rebuild parks in smarter, stronger ways. Similarly, after the 2017 hurricanes, NPCA helped secure $207 million to rebuild park infrastructure in the Virgin Islands, Everglades, Dry Tortugas and other damaged sites, as well as $50 million for the Historic Preservation Fund.

What has the National Park Service learned from past storms, and how are they preparing coastal parks for future climate change impacts? Here’s a look at nine of its sustainable practices, technology-based solutions and positive strategies.

1. Protected wetlands and seagrass meadows

Coastal wetlands — such as marshes, estuaries, mangroves, lagoons and coral reefs — are vital to storm resiliency because they act as a buffer between land and ocean. They stabilize banks, prevent erosion and mitigate flooding because they can absorb large quantities of water. Wetlands also purify water and support diverse ecosystems of plants and animals.

More than $3 million from the Inflation Reduction Act will go toward conserving and restoring coastal marsh systems in the Northeast, including those in Acadia National Park, Cape Cod National Seashore, George Washington Birthplace National Monument and other park sites. The funding builds on a successful 2008 restoration project at Assateague Island. The federal funding also supports research from Maine to North Carolina on restoring seagrass meadows, another habitat that’s important in reducing coastal erosion and capturing carbon.

2. Climate-resilient construction in Everglades

The new Guy Bradley Visitor Center and lodging facilities in Flamingo, the southernmost entrance to Everglades National Park, have been rebuilt with sustainable and climate-resilient construction — including elevated structures. Flamingo was hit hard by hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005 and again by Hurricane Irma in 2017, forcing the Park Service to condemn its visitor facilities.

NPCA led the charge in advocating to Congress to rebuild Flamingo’s facilities with protection against storms and sea-level rise in mind. With the reopening of the visitor facilities through funding available from the Great American Outdoors Act and other sources, Flamingo is experiencing a rebirth as a visitor destination. Its namesake birds also are returning to the area, thanks to cleaner and more robust water flows created through Everglades restoration projects supported by NPCA, such as Tamiami Trail bridging and construction of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir.

Likewise, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve plans to incorporate sustainable design in repairs to trails in its Barataria Preserve, which were damaged by Hurricane Ida in 2021 — such as elevated boardwalks or removal of trail segments that frequently flood.

3. Living shoreline at Gateway

In 2012, the wind and tidal surge of Superstorm Sandy breached the West Pond within New York’s Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Gateway National Recreation Area, eliminating the vital freshwater habitat for migratory and resident shorebirds. The Park Service repaired the breach, and then the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy and various partners installed a living shoreline marsh habitat to stabilize and help protect the still-vulnerable shoreline against future storms and sea-level rise.

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In a six-month project in 2021, the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy, the Park Service and other partners added 51,000 cubic yards of sand and 5,000 breakwater structures made from bags of oyster shells to the shoreline and planted more than 200,000 native grasses and shrubs. The project restored 14 acres, created nine more acres, and allowed 6,000 linear feet of the West Pond Loop Trail to reopen. The project received a 2022 Honor Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects, New York. The Conservancy continues to monitor and steward the West Pond Living Shoreline through its Jamaica Bay Wetlands Fellowship workforce development program and other stewardship initiatives.

Also at Gateway, the Park Service invested $4 million to make the historic Riis Beach Bathhouse more resilient to storm surges and sea-level rise. The building’s post-Sandy rehabilitation includes roll-up doors and break-away fencing that allow floodwaters to flow through.

4. Moveable visitor facilities at Assateague Island

To help prevent future storm damage at its beaches and campgrounds, Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland and Virginia has transitioned to infrastructure that can be moved inland to less vulnerable locations before a storm hits.

These include changing rooms, showers, lifeguard stations, concessioner buildings and more. Some of the structures were built by outside companies, while some were designed and constructed by Park Service staff. Similar ideas are being tested at other parks. Everglades National Park has built movable “eco-tents” where lodging had been destroyed by hurricanes, and Gateway National Recreation Area has replaced its fixed food service areas located in flood zones with food trucks and mobile carts.

5. Oyster bed restoration at Timucuan

Fragile coastlines at Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve near Jacksonville, Florida, are being protected by restoring oyster beds with shells recycled from local restaurants. In collaboration with the University of North Florida and others, the Park Service is installing special structures made from the old oyster shells that give a surface for oyster larvae to cling to.

Timucuan features historic sites and relics from 6,000 years of human habitation. The structures support the growth of new oyster beds, which protect the shorelines and marshes from erosion. This also improves water quality and strengthens salt marshes so they can keep pace with rising sea levels. Funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the project also supports oyster bed restoration at Fort Matanzas National Monument near St. Augustine, Florida, and Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia.

6. Seawall repairs at Ellis Island, Statue of Liberty National Monument

Last fall, the Park Service completed a project that repaired and stabilized 6,000 feet of seawall that had been protecting this immigration landmark for more than 100 years. Since Ellis Island was created by landfill, the seawall holds it together.

The seawall’s granite blocks had deteriorated or fallen out due to pressure from waves, storms and ice. Cracks were letting dirt wash into New York Harbor, undercutting the island. The three-year, $30.8 million project incorporated engineering upgrades for the seawall and ferry berthing system that not only addressed these issues but also took into account predicted sea-level rise, tide levels and hurricane intensity.

7. Seawall repairs at West Potomac Park’s Tidal Basin

The Tidal Basin at Washington, D.C.’s West Potomac Park was built to harness the Potomac River’s tides and flush silt and sediment from the Washington Channel. People typically associate it with the city’s iconic cherry trees, a gift from Japan in 1912.

Stumpy, the cherry tree

Stumpy, the famous cherry tree slated for removal at Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin due to flooding and construction of a new seawall. 

camera icon © Mkopka |

The Park Service has begun repairs to the basin’s deteriorating seawalls, an issue compounded by rising sea levels and poor drainage. The project, which NPCA supports, includes raising the seawalls to account for the Potomac’s wind and waves. The Park Service says portions of the seawalls have settled as much as 5 feet since the late 1800s to early 1900s, with water flowing over portions of the seawall twice a day now during normal tidal conditions. No longer structurally sound, the seawalls threaten visitor safety and the basin’s historic value. Many cherry trees have had to be cut down, as a result — including Stumpy, a tree that gained notoriety for blooming despite its spindly shape and the water lapping at its base.

The Great American Outdoors Act, for which NPCA advocated, and the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund are providing the $112.76 million for the project.

8. House demolition at Cape Hatteras

At Cape Hatteras National Seashore, where the nation’s tallest brick lighthouse was moved inland half a mile in 1999 to avoid coastal erosion, the Park Service recently purchased two threatened oceanfront houses adjacent to the seashore so the structures could be demolished in a controlled way. Since 2020, six homes have collapsed into the Atlantic due to erosion, causing debris to be strewn miles down the seashore, which is hazardous to people and ocean life and must be cleaned up.

The Park Service purchased the privately owned properties in Rodanthe for fair market value with funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, using no taxpayer dollars. It then hired a private contractor in November 2023 to remove the threatened structures and restore the beach. Read NPCA’s magazine story about the conflict of rising seas, a beach community and a national park.

9. Wind-tidal flat restoration at Padre Island

Impacts from energy exploration have impaired areas of Padre Island National Seashore called wind tidal flats, which can flood as a result of wind-driven tides. The flats exist just a few centimeters above sea-level and protect portions of Texas’ largest freshwater wetland. They also provide wintering habitats for millions of migrating birds and conserve protected species.

A pilot study is underway to test various restoration techniques and measure their costs and success, with a goal of restoring the flats and coastal resources to how they were before being disturbed by energy companies. What researchers learn can facilitate future restoration efforts in these tidal flats.

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About the author

  • Sarah Gaines Barmeyer Deputy Vice President, Conservation Programs

    Sarah Barmeyer is Deputy Vice President for NPCA’s Conservation Programs where she coordinates priority initiatives for water restoration, landscape conservation, wildlife, and clean air.

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