Making Our Coastlines More Resilient

January 4, 2013
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By The American Shore & Beach Preservation Association

Enhancing the survivability of our shorelines is not a new concept. But Super Storm Sandy pushed this idea back into the forefront as soon as its first waves surged against the hard and soft coastal infrastructure along the eastern seaboard and, most particularly, the New York-New Jersey area.

But “survivability” can be a subjective thing, with what works for one person is completely unacceptable to another. So before we can talk about survivability, we need to agree on what it means.

By most accounts, “survival” in the coastal sense is the ability to withstand routine to extreme natural events (mainly storms) with a minimal loss of life and damage to property. One term that’s come into play post-Sandy has been “coastal resiliency” – coastal management that works to ensure structures are safer, infrastructure is more secure and some of the buffers between uplands and waves are restored or preserved.

What might a more resilient coast look like? Well, first off, remember that there is no “one size fits all” solution for any coastal issue – including resilience. Part of the underlying value of seeking coastal resilience is adapting to the coastal conditions of that area, understanding the geological and hydrological, ecological and historical forces impacting the beachfront and making nearshore and upland decisions based on that.

That will help you know how wide a beach needs to be to be effective, and how much of a dune system is really necessary to withstand storm surge. That will guide you as to what might be used to mitigate or manage wave and inlet impacts, or whether a change over here will have a positive or negative impact over there.

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It will help you decide how far back and how high up any structures really need to be to survive the next storm, and whether that hard public infrastructure (think roadway or utility) can be moved back or hardened for its own protection.

Finally, it may help you see what “soft” buffers – wetlands and oyster beds, offshore sea grass areas and the aforementioned dunes – used to be along a coastline to keep the waves at bay – buffers that have disappeared slowly over time, but which need to be restored for their full protective value.

A resilient coastline does not keep people away, it just keeps them safer when storms strike, giving them a better chance of having a home to come back to once the wind stops blowing. A resilient coastline also offers governments a better return on investment, building in science and sense to improve necessary management methods while improving the odds of less storm damage resulting in less disaster recovery costs.

How do we make our coasts more resilient?

First, accept that coasts are dynamic and changing, which means our thinking about them must be equally dynamic.

Second, begin the discussion on the scientific, engineering and regulatory levels as to what specifically coastal resilience means and how that can be achieved over time at coasts around our country.

Third, bring this discussion to coastal communities and owners, so they have input, gain insights and become supporters.

This starts when communities try to recover from disaster, or when they start to prepare for it. This starts when people work to be better stewards for our shorelines, or when they work to strike a better balance among all the competing coastal interests trying to find their place in the sand. But, mostly, it starts when people realize how precious our coastal resources truly are, and how important it is for all of us to work to protect them.

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Founded in 1926, the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA) promotes the integration of science, policies and actions that maintain, protect and enhance the coasts of America. For more information on ASBPA, go to

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