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USGS Research to Support Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Gets Boost from Supplemental Funds

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More than a year after Hurricane Sandy collided with the East coast on October 29, 2012, the U.S Geological Survey (USGS) continues to study the changes left behind in the storm’s devastating path. Scientists are generating critical information to aid the recovery process of the coastal areas and to help communities become more resilient against future extreme storms.

The USGS’ ability to conduct these studies got a big boost on October 24, 2013, when the Department of the Interior (DOI) announced the funding of supplemental appropriations, totaling $22.4 million, for nine USGS projects to mitigate the impacts of Hurricane Sandy and support the rebuilding process (Secretary Jewell Announces $162 Million for 45 Projects to Protect Atlantic Coast Communities from Future Storms). These new projects will deliver high-resolution topographical surveys; evaluations of ecosystem resiliency; enhanced storm-tide monitoring, vulnerability assessments, and data-display capabilities; documentation of coastal processes and vulnerabilities of the Fire Island (New York) and Assateague Island (off Maryland and Virginia) regions; assessments of estuarine responses to the storm and changes to barrier islands; and forecasts of biological vulnerabilities.

Map of Long Island, New York
Above: Long Island, New York. Fire Island is the thin barrier island just south of Long Island. The inset map shows the track of Hurricane Sandy, which made landfall on the U.S. Atlantic coast on October 29, 2012. Numbered dots are sites for which the USGS has posted pre- and post-storm photographs (sites 1 through 5), and pre- and post-storm elevation maps (sites 3 and 4). [no larger version available]

These funds add to the $18.8 million in DOI supplemental funds that the USGS received in May 2013 for science supporting response and recovery activities. The combined $41.2 million in supplemental funding is the largest ever received by USGS after a natural disaster.

“The understanding we gain from these studies will provide data and information to guide recovery activities and to set the stage for better models and assessments of future hazards,” said USGS Acting Director Suzette Kimball. “It will help coastal communities be better prepared to withstand and respond to catastrophic storms.”

The USGS is collaborating with stakeholders in the affected areas and with other agencies to carry out a science plan focusing on:

Coastal Topography and Bathymetry

Hurricane vulnerability is, in large part, a consequence of coastal elevation. Accurate, up-to-date elevation data are vital to coastal communities that are preparing response strategies, anticipating impacts, or planning post-storm redevelopment.

The USGS is collecting high-resolution elevation data that will support scientific studies related to hurricane recovery and rebuilding activities, watershed planning, and resource management. It also aims to create a Coastal National Elevation Dataset, including data for Sandy-affected regions, which will compile topographic and bathymetric elevation data from multiple sources.

The post-Sandy data will be instrumental in guiding recovery activities, assessing impact, forecasting coastal vulnerability, and establishing new baselines for events and decisions. The funding announced in October will expand the geographic area being surveyed and provide more than 11,000 square miles of data, including coverage of many national parks, wildlife refuges, and tribal lands. The USGS will continue to coordinate with other DOI agencies and Federal, State, and local partners to ensure that additional data collections meet multiple agency needs.

Coastal Impact Assessments

The Nation’s coast, which is fringed by beaches, dunes, barrier islands, wetlands, and bluffs, is its first line of defense against major storms. An accurate representation of these barriers is necessary to make informed decisions on recovery and rebuilding.

Sandy has transformed the shores and barrier islands from North Carolina through New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Its waves and surges eroded and overtopped protective dunes and beaches.

The USGS will provide pre- and post-storm mapping of coastal impacts and vulnerability using photographic surveys and airborne lidar (light detection and ranging) flights, which use lasers to make closely spaced measurements of elevations of the Earth’s surface. (Read about some of the earliest of these surveys in “USGS Scientists Predict, Measure Sandy’s Impacts on the Coastal Landscape,” Sound Waves, November/December 2012.) USGS scientists will evaluate, improve, and deliver coastal-impact-forecast models that will provide information critical to identifying areas vulnerable to extreme erosion. The USGS will also provide online access to coastal-impact assessments and data.

Pre-storm elevations on Fire Island, New York
Post-storm elevations on Fire Island, New York
Pre- and post-storm elevations on Fire Island, New York, at site 3 on location map (above), derived from lidar (light detection and ranging) data. This site is within Fire Island National Seashore near Old Inlet—an extremely narrow part of the island that has undergone breaching in previous large storms. The island breached during Sandy, creating a new inlet, eroding the beach, and cutting through dunes 4 meters (13 feet) high. Images from http://coastal.er.usgs.gov/hurricanes/sandy/lidar/.
[Pre-storm larger version] [Post-storm larger version]

The new funding enables key studies for Fire Island, New York, and its surrounding region, and the Assateague Island barrier system off Maryland and Virginia. The studies will include not only beach nourishment and inlet management, but also the development of predictive models used to identify coastal hazards. Emergency responders and coastal managers will benefit from this information because it will allow them to effectively direct response and recovery resources to the areas that will be most vulnerable during future storms.

Impacts of Storm Surge

The storm surge created by Hurricane Sandy’s winds was the primary cause of destruction. The surge, which peaked at more than 19 feet, caused damage to the landscape and transported saltwater, sediment, and debris to areas rarely touched by the ocean.

Models predicting the level of the storm tide at the coast generally were accurate, but predictions of the extent, depth, and severity of the storm tide across the land surface were not uniformly accurate. In several instances, the impacts of the storm tide were higher than expected. The USGS will help improve how coastal communities respond and recover from the next coastal storm by focusing efforts on storm-tide data collection, data delivery, data networks, and data analysis.

The main goal of storm-surge response and data collection is to ensure that coastal regions are prepared for upcoming natural hazards. The USGS upped its data collection in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States, and it will increase the amount of storm-tide data transmitted in real time.

New funding will increase the availability of monitoring instrumentation and real-time transmission. It will also help USGS personnel develop a more robust and functional database and webpage to display the real-time and recovered storm surge and wave data. These improvements in data transmission and display enhance the USGS capacity to monitor water levels, storm surge, and storm waves to meet requirements for improved hazard planning and response.

Oblique aerial photographs of Ocean Bay Park, Fire Island, New York, before and after Hurricane Sandy
Above: Oblique aerial photographs of Ocean Bay Park, Fire Island, New York (site 4 on location map, above), before and after Hurricane Sandy. Photo pair from http://coastal.er.usgs.gov/hurricanes/sandy/photo-comparisons/. [larger version]

Impacts of Environmental Quality and Persisting Contaminant Exposures

Low-elevation coastal areas damaged by storm surge or river floodwater are susceptible to chemical and microbial contaminants. During Hurricane Sandy, multiple wastewater treatment facilities failed for prolonged periods, which allowed the release of raw sewage into the environment. Public health agencies were advised to disinfect the water, but the long-term effect of the releases is undetermined. Debris from the surrounding environment is also a concern. Changes to bays and other water bodies can affect salinity levels, fisheries and shellfish habitats, and contaminant exposures.

First responders focused their efforts on repairing immediate threats. Now, USGS scientists are studying the potential for long-term effects. Scientists are testing environmental samples from affected coastal areas in New York and New Jersey for toxic contaminants, which may still be harmful to the ecosystem.

USGS scientist recovers a storm-surge sensor after Hurricane Sandy
Above: USGS scientist recovers a storm-surge sensor after Hurricane Sandy in Annapolis, Maryland. [larger version]

The USGS is also focused on the potential long-term effects of contaminants on humans. Similar to the ecologically focused study, the human-focused study begins where first responders stopped. Together these strategies will support long-term cleanup efforts along the coasts.

Impacts to Coastal Ecosystems, Habitats, and Fish and Wildlife

Natural coastal ecosystems are valuable because they provide many benefits, such as reducing the force of storms, mitigating pollution from storms, and providing food and shelter to many species, especially coastal birds. USGS expertise will be used to assess Hurricane Sandy’s impact on wetland integrity (ability to recover from disturbance); waterfowl and migratory birds; wetland conditions and food supply for birds; and coastal forests.

New work the USGS will do with the additional supplemental funds includes evaluating ecosystem resiliency and forecasting biological vulnerabilities. This work entails developing a more powerful web-based modeling tool that helps scientists better manage and store their complex data and display it in ways decision makers can use.

Moving Forward

It’s hard to imagine that it has been little more than a year since Hurricane Sandy’s brutal collision with some of the most heavily populated areas in the Nation. The powerful landscape-altering destruction of Hurricane Sandy is a stark reminder of why the Nation must become more resilient to coastal hazards. The storm’s effects will be felt for many years to come. The USGS is committed to producing the science that will help the Nation respond to and mitigate future storm damage.

Watch for “Spotlight on Sandy,” featuring updates on USGS Hurricane Sandy research, in future issues of Sound Waves.

Related Sound Waves Stories
USGS Scientists Predict, Measure Sandy's Impacts on the Coastal Landscape
Nov. / Dec. 2012
Hurricane Sandy Disrupts USGS Study of the Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor Estuary in New Jersey, Provides Additional Research Opportunities
Jan. / Feb. 2013
What's in a Name? Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy
Nov. / Dec. 2012

Related Websites
U.S. Geological Survey
Secretary Jewell Announces $162 Million for 45 Projects to Protect Atlantic Coast Communities from Future Storms
Meeting the Science Needs of the Nation in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy—A U.S. Geological Survey Science Plan for Support of Restoration and Recovery
Hurricane Sandy Science Plan—Coastal Topographic and Bathymetric Data to Support Hurricane Impact Assessment and Response
Hurricane Sandy Science Plan—Coastal Impact Assessments
Hurricane Sandy Science Plan—Impacts of Storm Surge, Including Disturbed Estuarine and Bay Hydrology
Hurricane Sandy Science Plan—Impacts of Environmental Quality and Persisting Contaminant Exposures
Hurricane Sandy Science Plan—Impacts to Coastal Ecosystems, Habitats, and Fish and Wildlife
Hurricane Sandy Science Plan—New York

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Exploring Undersea Terrain Off the Northern U.S. Atlantic Coast

Autonomous Kayak Performs Shallow-Water Surveys

Natural Versus Human Impacts on Marine Ecosystems in Hood Canal

Research Research to Support Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Gets Boost from Supplemental Funds

Unprecedented Rate and Scale of Ocean Acidification in Arctic

Special Issue of Marine Geology Focuses on San Francisco Bay Coastal System

"Native Youth in Science—Preserving Our Homelands" Completes Year Two

Michael E. Field Honored by U.S. Coral Reef Task Force

Barbara Lidz Steps Down as Sound Waves Contributing Editor

Award-Winning Student Intern Experiences Life at the USGS

Coastal and Marine Geology Program Contributes to "Feds Feed Families"

Publications Nov. / Dec. Publications

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