Protecting Our Natural Heritage

Protecting Our Natural Heritage and Our Communities from the Impacts of Hurricanes

Natural hazards, like hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes are part of the natural world. Many people think of coastal storms as being inherently bad, although the forces that can damage communities also play an important role in regulating our climate, providing necessary rainfall, and maintaining the health of our barrier islands. Hurricane induced disasters occur when wind, floodwaters, lightning and storm surge cause physical, emotional and economic impacts.

One of the most effective ways to limit the damaging effects of hurricanes is to recognize the beneficial role that wetlands, floodplains and barrier islands play in protecting our communities. Efforts to maintain them in their natural state (or limit development in these areas) provide multiple benefits as areas prone to natural hazards are often environmentally sensitive and worthy of protection in their own right.

Building communities in known high hazard areas place people and property in harm’s way and damage or destroy the natural features that protect them. Intensive development can worsen a community’s vulnerability to natural hazards over time. The impervious surfaces associated with development, for example, speed rainfall runoff, leading to increased flood risk. Conversely, wetlands provide a natural buffer between land falling hurricanes and their associated storm surge. They also serve as a sponge, absorbing excess rainfall. If encroached upon by development, these natural functions are compromised.

What Can I Do?

There are a number of things you can do to protect your community. In most cases this requires being proactive – taking action before the next hurricane threatens.

One of the most effective ways to affect change is to become an advocate for the protection of natural areas that are also prone to flooding, coastal erosion and storm surge. Building a diverse coalition of support gives you greater political leverage to achieve your goals. First, you should identify partners with whom you share a common interest. Who in your community would want to protect the natural environment? Examples of stakeholders that you may want to contact include:

    •Recreational groups
    •Travel and tourism organizations
    •Environmental groups (including land trusts)
    •Social justice groups
    •Farmland preservation groups
    •The seafood industry, including sport and commercial fishing interests
    •Local government officials
    •State and federal regulatory agencies

The examples presented below are intended to provide a series of actions that you may consider, while stimulating further ideas that best reflect local conditions. Choices may be influenced by the nature of strategic partnerships you are able to form or the unique set of skills and interests you possess. Actions may include:

• Working with elected officials, business leaders, school teachers, environmental groups and others to initiate an educational campaign that describes the connection between the preservation of environmentally sensitive areas and those subject to the damaging effects of natural hazards and disasters. This may involve including educational inserts in utility bills; working with the private sector to fund public service announcements; and incorporating natural hazards-related information into elementary, middle school, and high school curricula.

• Speaking at town council meetings, public hearings, and other gatherings in order to voice your opinion to elected officials about the importance of protecting natural areas prone to hazards.

• Getting involved in the local planning process provides a number of ways to initiate change.

    o Review existing local plans to see if they include policies tied to the protection of natural areas prone to coastal hazards. Local plans worthy of review include:
    •Hazard Mitigation Plan
    •Comprehensive Land Use Plan
    •Coastal Area Management Act Plan
    •Parks and Recreation Plan
    •Green Infrastructure Plan
    o If the plans noted above do not address the protection of natural areas, work to amend them. Be persistent. Agree to serve on subcommittees that address this topic or solicit the involvement of experts in the field.
    Take the Local Hazard Mitigation Plan, for example. All states and local governments are required to develop a hazard mitigation plan in order to remain eligible for federal assistance following a presidentially-declared disaster. Check with your local emergency management official for more information. If the plan does not address this topic, you may consider participating in future plan updates.

    o Check with your community’s land use planner for information on your comprehensive plan and how you can get more involved. The Comprehensive Land Use Plan is intended to guide future development and is therefore an important tool to limit future growth in areas subject to natural hazards.

    o Work with local, regional, state or national land trusts to identify and purchase flood hazard areas. Floodplains provide important wildlife habitat, represent a large percentage of farmland that is increasingly subject to development pressures, and serve as suitable recreational areas in many instances (including greenways, beach access points, parks and athletic fields). Strategic land purchases can achieve multiple purposes, including enhancements to your community’s “green infrastructure” plan, farmland preservation plan, and parks and recreation plan.

    o Coastal counties and their communities are required to develop a Coastal Management Plan per the Coastal Zone Management Act. Coastal management plans are intended to balance the protection of natural resources with economic development. Coastal plans also designate Areas of Environmental Concern that should be protected, if possible. Since much of the coastal economy is tied to tourism, protecting scenic and recreational areas provide multiple environmental, economic, and hazard risk reduction benefits.

Getting involved in your local community’s planning process represents one way to make a difference. There are many others. Figure what works best for you. The ability to affect change is only constrained by your imagination.

Gavin Smith, Ph.D.
Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill