Building Back Better: Integrating Risk Reduction into Recovery with Nature-Based Solutions

Posted Tue, 04/06/2021 - 22:33
By Autumn Lotze, Office of Response and Restoration Disaster Preparedness Program

This week, we’re sharing some of the ways NOAA monitors and predicts, responds to, and prepares for the impacts of climate change. In this blog, learn more about how building back better after disasters can help prevent future impacts. 

Making communities stronger, safer, and more resilient to future hazards has become a central concept in disaster recovery over the past two decades. When disaster impacts force the need for reconstruction and restoration, a “build back better” approach considers how we can do so in a way that reduces the risk of experiencing similar impacts in the future. And critically, how to mitigate against not just today’s risks but tomorrow’s as well. For coastal communities facing sea level rise and higher intensity storms, this is especially pressing. 

Homes and community facilities are often what first come to mind when thinking of building back better—using impact-resistant materials, stronger attachments and roof-to-walls-to-foundation connections, elevating the building above base flood elevation, designing lower levels to prevent water intrusion or to accommodate it without structural damage. Or even building back in another location altogether as communities evaluate land use and development in light of the hazards they face. All of these approaches can contribute to reducing the risk of future damages. Mitigating risk to our homes, and to our communities more broadly, isn’t limited to changes made to the structures themselves however.

Nature-based solutions (NBS) can provide substantial mitigation benefits to communities as part of comprehensive recovery strategies. NBS range from intact natural features such as wetlands and dune systems, to hybrid or engineered systems like living shorelines and bioswales, to measures like rain gardens and community green space. In addition to reducing risks through processes like wave attenuation and water capture, NBS can provide a variety of co-benefits like improved water quality, wildlife habitat, and recreation opportunities.

NOAA, in collaboration with numerous partners, provides a range of resources to support communities’ risk reduction efforts through nature-based solutions. Recent examples of nature-based solutions as part of disaster recovery efforts include:

  • Coral reef restoration: Coral reefs can dissipate as much as 97% of wave energy, providing substantial protective benefits to coastal habitats and communities in their proximity. Catastrophic storm events can take their toll however; Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused widespread damage to local coral populations in Puerto Rico in 2017. NOAA, on a mission assignment from FEMA as part of the Natural and Cultural Resources Recovery Support Function (NCR RSF), worked with partners to conduct coral reef damage assessments and emergency reattachment of more than 16,000 corals. Through the NCR RSF, NOAA continues to support the government of Puerto Rico in coral reef restoration planning efforts. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, NOAA is supporting a coral reef restoration project spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy through an award from the National Coastal Resilience Fund, a collaboration with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. These projects will help to secure, and even enhance, the environmental and societal benefits coral reefs can provide into the future.

  • Sand dunes
    Biomimicry approach to sand trapping using wood matrices on Puerto Rico dunes employed by the Vida Marina team. Image credit: NOAA. 
    Dune restoration: Sand dunes can also provide significant protective benefits to coastal communities grappling with sea level rise, wave and storm events. However, the damaging effects of foot and vehicular traffic and loss of vegetation can make them susceptible to sand displacement during storm events, as was the case along the north coast of Puerto Rico following 2017-2018 storms. Vida Marina, the Center for Conservation and Ecological Restoration at the University of Puerto Rico at Aguadilla, is leading an innovative restoration effort of more than 20 sites using a combination of revegetation, sand trapping, boardwalk installations, and community education. Healthy dune systems will not only help to protect nearby communities but also benefit wildlife, recreation, and tourism activities. NOAA provided funding support to this effort via the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, as well as the National Coastal Resilience Fund.
  • Mangrove forest restoration: The root and canopy structure of mangrove forests help to protect habitats and communities by stabilizing coastlines and serving as barriers to waves, storm surge, and wind velocity. A recent study conducted in coastal Florida found that mangroves averted more than $1.5 billion in flood-related losses and reduced flooding impacts for more than half a million Floridians living behind them during Hurricane Irma. Through another National Coastal Resilience Fund award, NOAA is supporting restoration of hurricane-destroyed mangroves in Puerto Rico, which will help protect communities against future storm impacts.

In addition to their hazard mitigation benefits, post-storm research also demonstrates the potential of NBS to be highly resilient alternatives. As coastal communities are likely to face higher inundation levels and more intense storms due to the impacts of climate change, it is increasingly important that mitigation measures can withstand the test of time. 

  • Living shorelines: Living shorelines use a combination of natural materials such as plants, rocks and oysters to help stabilize shorelines, reduce erosion, and create wildlife habitat. Unlike hard structures such as concrete seawalls, living shorelines also grow over time; this means the benefits they provide can also grow, in contrast to hard structures which are strongest on the first day they are built. Post-storm evaluations of living shorelines in North Carolina after hurricanes Florence and Matthew showed minimal or no visible damage, as compared to extensive damage for hardened shoreline structures.
Before and after images of a beach.
North Carolina Coastal Federation / Before (top) and after (bottom) images of the Durant's Point living shoreline project in Hatteras Village, North Carolina.

As the 2021 hurricane season nears, the Disaster Preparedness Program and offices throughout NOAA will continue to support partners and communities in identifying and planning for nature-based solutions to hazard mitigation challenges and future recovery needs. To learn more about NOAA and partner NBS resources, visit the Digital Coast. And for solutions you might consider in your own backyard, check out these resources from our friends at EPA.