Rebuilding After Sandy: How Assateague Island National Seashore Officials Are Dealing With Climate Change

The Naturalist's Shack at the Old Ferry Landing in Assateague Island National Seashore was pummeled by Hurricane Sandy, but repairable. NPS photo.

Editor's note: Today, four months after Hurricane Sandy battered and bruised the Eastern Seaboard, the disarray the storm delivered across many units of the National Park System continues to be cleaned up. Some damage remains to be discovered. In a series of stories the Traveler is looking at the impacts of Sandy, how Park Service officials are looking to the future, and what advice outside stakeholders have to offer.

While Hurricane Sandy brought torrential rains and heavy surf to Assateague Island National Seashore, the park located on a 37-mile-long barrier island that extends from Maryland down into Virginia greatly avoided staggering damage thanks to its relative lack of infrastructure when compared to Gateway National Recreation Area farther up the Eastern Seaboard.

What the storm did leave in its wake -- boardwalks tossed into the bushes, fractured parking lots and tilted bike paths, a dislodged naturalist's shack -- is somewhat easily being put back into place. But part of the seashore's "edge," if you will, in dealing with storms such as Sandy is that officials have been working to factor climate change and what it will bring to their shores into their management plans. Part of that already can be seen in the "portable" restrooms in use in some areas of the park. These facilities can literally be picked up and moved out of harm's way.

"Well before Hurricane Sandy we started thinking about our response to climate change. Our entire general management plan has been designed with climate change as the backdrop for decision-making," says Rachelle Daigneault, the seashore's chief of interpretation and education. "The plan is nearing completion. Our challenge with climate change is that we must learn to visualize the varied possibilities and our responses in an uncertain future."

Through studies, work sessions, and brainstorming, Chief Daigeault says the seashore is moving forward with a variety of strategies officials hope will enable Assateague Island to better withstand radical weather by:

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Crews used a crane to move the Naturalist's Shack so it could be repaired before being returned to is the Old Ferry Landing in the seashore's Maryland District. NPS photo.

* Attempting to promote resiliency. Natural habitats can better withstand stress from storms and change if they healthy. An example: the seashore is filling ditches built in the 1930s meant to drain marshes. These actually increased erosion, she said.

* Getting energy smart. New solar panels provide 80 percent of the power at the seashore's Maryland ranger station.

* Developing climate-ready strategies. Movable Romtec toilets, a movable storm shelter for cyclists in the Virginia district, and sustainable parking areas of crushed clam that makes moving parking lots easier.

"We still have a long way to go, but these days we are much more likely to ask ourselves, 'What can we do differently?'" the chief said.

A Different Approach To Planning

Doing things differently not only could help the seashore endure future storms in better shape, but also could save the National Park Service money by reducing reconstruction costs.

While storms in recent years haven't cut Assateague Island National Seashore in two, as has been the case at Fire Island National Seashore in New York and Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, storms in years past just the same have done substantial damage. And as seashore officials work on their GMP, they fully acknowledge that more vigorous storms likely will do much more damage.

Driven by increasing rates of sea level rise, more intense and possibly more frequent storms, the island will experience an increased likelihood for erosion, overwash, inlet breaching, shoreline retreat and island narrowing. Should the highest rates of projected sea level rise occur, the island may exceed stability thresholds, resulting in rapid migration landward, segmentation, and possibly disintegration. ... From a visitor use perspective, the more dynamic barrier island landform expected under most climate change projections will challenge the ability of the NPS to provide recreational access and opportunities in traditional ways. Rapid rates of shore retreat and storm driven overwash will make fixed location infrastructure such as roads, parking lots and visitor use facilities increasingly more difficult and costly to maintain.

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Sandy did considerable damage to the seashore's Bayside Picnic Area in the Maryland District. NPS photo.

As they continue to finetune their GMP, Assateague officials realize that a future storm could knock out the Verrazano Bridge that ties Maryland's mainland to the seashore.

"The bridge on the Maryland end is a state bridge, it's not owned by the National Park Service. So the decision on whether or not the bridge would be put back would be up to the state of Maryland," Superintendent Trish Kicklighter said in a past interview with the Traveler. "However, there's no guarantee that there would be an island for the bridge to connect to. So what we would propose in a couple of the alternatives is to develop a ferry shuttle, a pedestrian ferry shuttle to the island."

The work at Assateague Island has drawn some attention from other parks, specifically Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which also is set on a barrier island.

"We're getting ready to start looking at what Assateague has done," said Thayer Broili, Cape Hatteras' resource management chief. "There's been some lights go off down here, and we're starting to realize that we have to start communicating more with some of the other parks and see what their ideas are.

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The horses that roam Assateague Island National Seashore seemed to take the storm in stride. NPS photo.

"We're aware that Assateague has come up with an overall approach to some of this stuff and has made some inroads. We haven't gotten as far as they have, but we certainly intend on communicating with the, trying to find out what it is that they've done and start working back and forth with them and take some of those things into consideration as we go forward."

Climate-Change Realities

Dealing with the whims of the Atlantic is nothing new for Cape Hatteras. In 1999 crews moved the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse 2,900 feet in 23 days because the ocean had chewed away the barrier island and was encroaching on the light. In more recent years the Bodie Island Coast Guard Station and Life-Saving Station also were moved back away from the beach due to erosion.

These days, with climate change expected to raise sea level and lead to more potent storms, Cape Hatteras officials are reviewing their options in terms of what facilities need to be protected, and whether after storms it makes sense to simply rebuild without regard for the next climatic event.

"I think in the past we tried to save everything we could, but now we realize some of it probably isn't worth saving," said Chief Broili. "For example, we have a couple housing units up in Bodie Island right up close to the beach and we're always running into problems with being short of housing for either required (NPS) occupants or seasonals. But we've got a couple of them we're just about ready to take down because it's not worth trying to rehabilitate them.

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Hurricane Irene breached North Carolina 12 along Cape Hatteras in 2012. NOAA photo.

"They're probably not good enough to have that much value if we moved them. They're going to be a shack if they're left at that site or moved to another site. So in that situation, we're starting to get to the point where we're making decisions just to not try to move them but tear them down and let them go."

To gain additional perspective, officials at Cape Hatteras and neighboring Cape Lookout National Seashore recently put in "a request for projects that are susceptible to storms and storm damage," said the chief. "We're planning on developing a strategic plan that identifies sustainable approaches and actions to storm response and recovery."

Back at Assateague Island, climate change projections paint a portrait of warmer weather year-round, more problems with overwash and flooding due to sea-level rise, and a potential for more potent spring and autumn storm events that lead to flooding.

With those possibilities on the horizon, the evolving GMP that will oversee management at the seashore for the next 15-25 years could call for any breaches storms create to "evolve naturally" rather than be repaired and could contain a plan to acquire land and/or conservation easements within the Chincoteague Bay watershed to protect natural settings important to the seashore. And, facilities could be removed from the barrier island and relocated to park lands on the mainland.

The developing plan reflects the reality that "change is the only constant on Assateague Island as wind and water move and transform the land and its plant and animal communities."

Coming next: How is Gateway National Recreation Area recovering from Hurricane Sandy?

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the reality that "change is the only constant on Assateague Island as wind and water move and transform the land and its plant and animal communities."


As it has been for thousands if not millions of years.