From the Field

Star Spangled Science: Bouncing Back from Hurricane Sandy

October 31, 2013

Flooding from Hurricane Sandy. Photo by David Shankbone.
Flooding from Hurricane Sandy. Photo by David Shankbone.

I got the job because I could win a bar fight. Well, in theory at least. Allow me to explain.

It was a normal interview until the very end. Dr. Gary Machlis, Co-Leader of the Department of Interior Strategic Sciences Group and Science Advisor to the Director of the National Park Service, was on the phone asking me the expected questions regarding scientific publications and credentials. But at the end he asked about something I hadn’t thought to mention.  “We’re also looking ,” he said, “for something a little bit more – we need PhDs who can win a bar fight.”

A bar fight? Well, that was something I’d never thought to put on my resume.

He quickly explained that being a member of his new team would require the mental and physical tenacity to live and work under intense conditions with other scientists, the strength to defend your ideas, and the nimbleness to transcend your own discipline.

Since my occasional nickname is BDC – Bull Dog Chris – I figured I was in.  The next day I was formally invited to join the team.

Fast forward to a Sunday night in March as I sat with 14 other invited scientists in the ballroom of a nondescript Marriott in New Jersey.  We were the Department of the Interior (DOI) Strategic Sciences Group, tasked with supporting the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. On that first night, Dr. Machlis explained that the group we represented was formed to help the DOI “act quickly, decisively and effectively when hurricanes, droughts, oil spills, wildfires or other crises strike.”

Over the next week, we would have the opportunity to help inform the federal, state, and local response to rebuilding and restoring the US East Coast in the aftermath of one of the largest storms to ever impact the region.

Our team of experts included a mix of disciplines including ecology, urban design, oceanography, medical epidemiology, social science, and many other fields. We spent 12-14 hours together each day talking through and diagramming Sandy’s many impacts.  It was fascinating to listen, interact, and sometimes debate with some of our nation’s brightest minds to come up with innovative solutions to reduce risk to our coastal communities.

Among other activities, in my position as a scientist with The Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Team I help decision makers make more informed decisions by developing decision support tools.  For this week in New Jersey, I was the decision support tool. 

One of the major outcomes of our work was the identification of more than a dozen possible “interventions” for coastal communities and ecosystems in the region affected by Sandy that could improve their ability to withstand storms.

Interventions point the way to solutions that reduce impacts of future major storms and help coastal communities bounce back from disturbances more quickly.  One such proposed intervention was to prioritize and implement both nature-based and engineered risk-reduction projects on a regional basis to maximize multiple benefits like improved fisheries or recreational opportunities.

Although we focused on interventions to be taken in the next five years, many of the interventions may have long-term community benefits and may bolster resilience to other hazards and adverse events.

Last week, DOI announced that $162 million will be invested in 45 restoration and research projects that will better protect Atlantic Coast communities from future powerful storms, by restoring marshes, wetlands and beaches, rebuilding shorelines, and researching the impacts and modeling mitigation of storm surge impacts.

To select projects, the review panel based its decisions on those that could best withstand future storms using “a framework developed by the Department of the Interior’s Strategic Sciences Group.” Our group. Projects were selected based on their ability to provide measurable restoration outcomes and resilience benefits and priority was given to projects that will employ youth and veterans.  I was proud to see that our group’s best ideas were used to inform actual decisions but this pride was more patriotic than personal.

The recently ended federal shutdown left many Americans (and scientists) feeling disenchanted with the government, but today I am feeling especially proud to be an American.  This week, we mark the one year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy.  As a nation, we suffered greatly from the storm.

But as a nation, we rose to the occasion and brought together the best available science to learn from Hurricane Sandy and plan for a more resilient future.  This is government and science at its best and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to be on this team of “bar fighting” PhDs.

Strategic Sciences Group pin. Photo by Christine Shepard.
Strategic Sciences Group pin. Photo by Christine Shepard.

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