I resist the urge to go to the scene. Having been a first responder in the past - Emergency Medical Technician, firefighter and search-and-rescue worker during my national park ranger days - theres a temptation to pick up and go. But my last attempt at this sort of thing didnt work out so well. Years ago, as the world responded to Iraqs invasion of Kuwait, I noted that the U.S. Navy was taking many vessels out of mothballs in order to deliver supplies and people for what would become the first Gulf War. I called to offer my services as a navigator and, upon providing details, I was politely told that I exceeded the age requirements and that the Navy, regrettably, could not accept my enlistment. I understood, perhaps wryly, that ones time for doing in such situations may be limited.
More than a decade later, it is clear to me that the first-responders in the effort to help Katrinas victims need to be younger and more fit than I. But one can sometimes offer help in other ways -- writing, speaking out and sharing lessons learned over the years.
I see an important - even vital - role for land conservation in rebuilding areas affected by the storm and subsequent floods. If land conservationists are allowed to help with the rebuilding, our contribution can assure that the effects of future hurricanes and floods will be much less dramatic and deadly.
While hurricanes bring high winds, much of the damage attributed to these storms comes from flooding due to heavy rain and storm surges that push ocean waters far inland. The unfolding tragedy on the Gulf Coast demonstrates how catastrophic this flooding can be. If land conservation is incorporated into rebuilding efforts, we can ensure that protected wetlands, coastal marshes, dunes, barrier islands, and other natural features will be in place to absorb the brunt of the next storm, to moderate the flow of flood waters, to buffer people from storm surges and to soften the blow of potentially deadly storms.
Wetlands act as sponges for runoff and reservoirs in times of flood. Coastal marshes act as shock absorbers for storm surge, waves, and high winds. Dunes and barrier islands, known to shift with the winds and tides, provide protection from these same storm surges, waves and winds. Natural areas provide natural protection from the ravages of intense storms - naturally.
As we contemplate the rebuilding of communities, homes, businesses, infrastructure and even the large casinos that once lined the Gulf shore, we should also be thinking about rebuilding the natural landscape. By allowing adequate space for barrier islands, large coastal marshes, and other natural areas, we can reduce the impacts of future storms and save billions in property damage, not to mention untold value to the people whose homes, businesses and very lives would be spared by having better natural storm buffers incorporated into our community.
One of the best features of such a plan is that once we decide to incorporate natural storm barriers into our landscape, Mother Nature does most of the work! By setting aside the proper areas and letting nature go to work, we can watch barrier islands and coastal marshes appear before our eyes.
As she has for millennia, Old Ma Nature will surely rebuild these important coastal features. All we need to do is to give her the space she needs to do it, and with just a little help from us, shell build natural structures that can protect us from the ravages of the next storm.
It is said that there is a time for everything, and here is magnificent opportunity for the Administration, Congress, the states and local governments to unite with the private sector and do some practical, economically sensible land conservation that will pay great dividends as a natural insulation against future disasters. This is not only practical conservation, it is sound economics, good government, and good politics.
Land conservation can play a vital role in ensuring that the tragic lessons of Katrina are not lost. After immediate human needs have been tended to, land conservationists should accompany insurance adjusters, engineers and others into the devastated areas to help with the rebuilding. We need land conservationists boots on the ground to designate areas that can be preserved to soak up torrential rains, deflect storm surges, and absorb the terrible winds of the next hurricane.
It will do little good to make blaming statements about what could have, should have, would have or might have been done to reduce the impact of the last storm and the terrible cost in life, property and human suffering. It is time to be positive. It is time to rebuild.
If were to do it right, land conservation must be part of the rebuilding. We should work with FEMA and the Corps of Engineers, federal flood insurance officials and others to ensure that natural storm buffers are incorporated into what is rebuilt in the devastated region. This will result not only in safer communities, but also more beautiful communities that CONTAIN natural areas, parks, and open spaces - spaces that double as life-saving protection from the fury of the storm.