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Diving Deeper: Coastal Storms

Episode 44 (March 14, 2013)

HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper where we explore important ocean topics with National Ocean Service experts. Iím your host Kate Nielsen.

Today weíll talk about the impacts of storms to our coastal communities and what NOAA is doing to help folks prepare and reduce any negative impacts of these events.

To help us explore this topic, today we will be joined by Audra Luscher. Audra is a coastal management specialist with the NOAA Coastal Services Center. Hi Audra, welcome to our show.

AUDRA LUSCHER: Hi Kate, thanks for inviting me here to talk about coastal storms with your listeners.

HOST: Audra, first letís just set the stage a little bit more for folks. What kinds of threats do coastal communities face?

AUDRA LUSCHER: Sure. Coastal communities face many threats that are natural in nature. These can range from anything from coastal storms, landslides, hurricanes, tsunamis Ė these are very short-term extreme events. But we can also have more long-term events that are associated with climate that cause changes in rainfall patterns that lead to drought. We also have decadal changes in our sea level and lake levels. And what happens with that change is that it increases our erosion rates along our coastlines, which often endangers a lot of our property and critical infrastructure we have placed on our coastlines. The impacts to life and property can be extensive and why they pose such a threat to our coastal communities. Take for instance the 2005 hurricane season. In that season, we had Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast. Just that season cost over $200 billion in damage and was the most costliest hurricane season that weíve had in the United States.

HOST: OK, wow. So thereís definitely quite a few threats to our coastal communities, especially depending just geographically where folks are located.

AUDRA LUSCHER: Yeah, thatís correct.

HOST: And just to get us all on the same page, when you say coastal storms, what fits in that category?

AUDRA LUSCHER: When we talk about coastal storms, those tend to be weather events that are just focused on our ocean and coastal areas. And youíve probably heard of most of them, things like Noríeasters, hurricanes, and tropical storms. When it comes to tropical storms and hurricanes, these tend to be systems that start in the equatorial areas of the United States where itís warm, they tend to gain strength and move up with the Gulf Stream along the Atlantic and the Gulf Coast system and tend to have significant impacts on the communities due to torrential rain as well as high winds. However, most people donít understand that the most costly part and deadly part of a storm is from storm surge. As opposed to the tropical side we also have what I mentioned is Noríeasters. These are events that actually occur in our mid-latitudes and also occur within our winter season. Most of the impacts from those events tend to be focused on cold weather impacts to ice as well as impacts on human life and property.

HOST: So Audra, is it safe to say then that these storms are predicted to increase in magnitude in the future?

AUDRA LUSCHER: I would agree that we can expect these storms to increase especially related to the economic impact. This is because we are placing more and more infrastructure and high value real estate along our coastlines. Hurricanes can occur at a category 3 and higher all the time within an individual storm season. However, they only become a catastrophe once they actually hit a developed piece of land. So as we develop our coastal areas more and more, we are going to run into these impacts more often.

Take for instance what we learned from the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau studies, we now see that we had an increase of 52 percent of the nation's total population living within coastal watersheds. If you want to put that in individual numbers, thatís over 50 million people moved into our coastal watersheds between the period of 1970 to 2010, so youíre talking almost 50 percent increase in our U.S. populations along our coast in just a mere 40 years. So weíve really changed the demography of the way we use our country and where weíre living. Coastlines seem to be where we want to live right now.

HOST: So given that there is that movement to the coast and that there is so much infrastructure and thereís so many people there. What kinds of things can communities do to become more resilient and more prepared before a coastal storm hits their shores?

AUDRA LUSCHER: There are a lot of things that coastal communities can do to prepare for coastal storms. It can range from anything from developing a plan that helps them become more prepared and think about what their evacuation routes are or where their shelters are placed. It can be as small as cutting back your trees or making sure that your storm drains are clear. Those are all activities to become prepared, but it doesnít necessarily mean that your community will be resilient when a storm hits and that is because those efforts really donít address the processes and relationships that affect how you recover from an event.

Coastal resilience tends to focus on the degree to which a community can bounce back and learn lessons from past events. Recovery is often dependent on the strength and capacity of individuals, families, hospitals, schools all working together to organize themselves and respond to those events. The nature in which we build these relationships can really have a strong impact on how quickly we can recover. Past decisions tend to really dictate how an event will affect us. And although they can have devastating effects and we may lose a lot of infrastructure, those are also windows of opportunity in which we can make new decisions and start new paths forward in order to make ourselves more resilient after each storm.

So communities actually need to be more proactive with their planning and understand that itís a continual process in order to enhance resilience. Itís important to recognize that planning is not a single event, but rather an ongoing process that communities need to continually participate in in order to enhance resilience.

HOST: Thanks Audra for explaining that process to us. I think sometimes when I think of resilience itís more that immediate impact to a short event, you know cleaning those storm drains, so thanks for just helping us see that it is this full process and that thereís so many players and people that are involved. I appreciate that. What is NOAA prepared to do?

AUDRA LUSCHER: NOAA is very active in the process of addressing resilience in coastal storms. We have numerous programs across the agency that address various aspects. Take for instance, the NOAA Coastal Storms Program, which Iím here to talk about today. It is one of the mechanisms NOAA has in order to address other resilience aspects at the local community level.

Coastal Storms Program is a cross-NOAA effort to bring together a suite of capabilities within NOAA and apply it into a regional context. Coastal Storms tends to provide increased focus and manpower in a region for five years and this increased focus includes additional manpower, technical assistance, funding, like a small grants program, towards very specific strategic areas where a community wants to enhance their resilience.

HOST: What is the main goal of this program, of NOAAís Coastal Storms Program?

AUDRA LUSCHER: Simply put. I think Coastal Storms is here to address how to help communities better prepare and become more resilient and to recover from these events.

HOST: Audra, what makes this program work? How is it unique or different from other things that might be out there?

AUDRA LUSCHER: Coastal Storms Program may sound a bit like other programs by the mission, but I think what makes it more unique is the model for how it implements within a region. We are, like I said a cross-cutting program that pulls together a wealth of knowledge across NOAA with the sole purpose of making researchers, modelers, and training staff work more coordinated towards a very specific aspect of resilience.

I also think that one of the unique aspects is, although weíre a national program, we always hire a coordinator when weíre working in the region and this is really so essential because it helps us understand the needs up at the national level that are being acknowledged and discussed, but we also are able to get into the networks through this person and make sure that we have a community touch with a person thatís local and engaged with the stakeholders as well as the right partners to make sure that we really are meeting the needs that the community is discussing.

HOST: I imagine that having that person on the ground definitely is so helpful. You mentioned that the Coastal Storms Program funds projects in certain regions of the country. Can you tell us more about how that works?

AUDRA LUSCHER: Coastal Storms started 10 years ago when we were trying to find solutions to how to be more targeted in our regional work. So this model has been pretty successful in being able to produce new models and tools within states and organizations that help predict and prepare and respond to coastal events, but the program shifts focus across different areas within the United States and weíve been in six different regions now with the first being Northeast Florida, we transitioned into the Pacific Northwest and Southern California. After Katrina, we came into the Gulf of Mexico and focused on the Northern Gulf and later expanded more broadly to the entire Gulf and now weíre currently working on the Pacific Islands and Great Lakes.

So each region tends to have a core focus that is specific to that regionís need. For instance in the Pacific Northwest, we were more focused on the ecological resilience of that region and how stormwater impacts salmon. Whereas in the Gulf of Mexico, we came in right after Katrina intended to focus more on the aspects of resilience Ė where people were at that moment Ė in regards to how they could respond to the next event and what they could do to build themselves up and make themselves more resilient in the event of another hurricane.

HOST: So Audra, how do you select new regions for future projects?

AUDRA LUSCHER: Coastal Storms tends to select regions based on a mix of factors. Often itís driven by just the regional needs and opportunities. For example, the recent devastation that happened in the Northeast may provide us an opportunity to come in and help with resilience after Superstorm Sandy. But there really are kind of a set of things we look at or characteristics when we come to selecting an area to focus on and one is just strong political support. Is our Administration in support that we move in the area? Congressional. Local. Thatís very important to us. Also, are communities ready to engage? Are they ready to actually actively work on resilience? So the stakeholders are very important to this process in deciding who we work with and where.

HOST: So, along those same lines, are there any success stories that you can share with us on how the Coastal Storms Program has benefited some of these communities that youíve worked in?

AUDRA LUSCHER: In the Pacific Northwest, let me highlight one that tended to focus on an ecological resilience that I talked about earlier. We funded and supported the Northwest Fisheries Science Center to do some studies on the impacts of stormwater to resources. Stormwater is a phenomenon that happens when you have significant amounts of rain that can carry high levels of pollutants and this can happen anywhere in our country, it doesnít happen just in our coastal areas. So, when the stormwater is moved into sensitive bodies of water, it can actually have significant impacts on the health of the ecosystem as well as the natural resources that live within that ecosystem. When we funded the Northwest Fisheries Science Center to do work, they were looking specifically at the impacts of heavy metals that come off of brake pads in our cars. Every time we brake we put a little bit of these heavy metals onto the road and when the rain comes, it sweeps them into our waterways. They found out that even though they were restoring large parts of sensitive habitat, the salmon werenít coming back, but through this work they identified that it was actually these heavy metals that were stopping olfactory sensory systems from allowing them to come back and migrate into the areas. This became such an important finding that actually the legislators brought together specific meetings to talk about this within the states of California, Oregon, and Washington, and it resulted in legislation that actually requested that manufacturers had to stop utilizing these heavy metals within their brake pads and phase them out over a ten-year period. So this was a huge accomplishment for research to application for this type of program.

HOST: Wow, what an incredible story. That definitely is a nice success story. Audra, what kinds of products then are developed by NOAA and your partners during these projects?

AUDRA LUSCHER: The products that are developed by Coastal Storms are probably as varied as the communities in which we work in. So you can have a product suite that touches on community risk and vulnerability assessments, they can look at weather forecasting and observations, or they can just simply look at integrating processes better and doing better outreach and making sure that people are being trained.

But I think Iíd like to highlight just one specific project that I think is a good example of that. We put on a small grants competition within every regional project area. And we put a million dollars worth of funding to just do very specific local projects. One of the projects that was funded was to an organization called Grassroots, Inc. This group was awarded a grant to develop a video series on flooding and stormwater in the Northern Gulf. This was very successful and it still continues to be broadcast every hurricane season and as well as itís been incorporated into some real estate training and certification courses for people living in the local area.

HOST: Thatís wonderful. Not a product that I would have envisioned coming out of it, but itís fantastic to have such a broad reach and be applicable to so many folks. How do you make people aware of the data and the information that you do produce and create during a project? I guess my question is really, how do you get this information into the hands of the decision-makers especially before a coastal storm happens?

AUDRA LUSCHER: Sure, once a product or project is completed, we really do take a concerted effort in ensuring that weíve done good outreach. It could be a publication, it could be a website that allows you to access a tool or the information or forecast, or it could be very specialized training that we may give to emergency managers or community officials that make decisions.

One effort that helps to supply some of the data and the tools Iíd like to highlight is Digital Coast. This tool allows communities to come in and access information on mapping, data, visualizations, training Ė all the things that you would need to access in order for a community to address some of their resilience activities. This comes out of the Coastal Services Center, I actually work for that Center even though I coordinate the Coastal Storms Program, and they also have a lot of unique partnerships with programs like the Association of State Floodplain Managers or the American Planning Association that helps it be a more robust effort than just a website.

HOST: Can the tools and products then that come out of these regional projects can they ever be applied more nationally so that that benefit goes beyond just the initial area that something was developed for?

AUDRA LUSCHER: Thatís a great question and I think thatís some of the intent of this program. Take for instance in the California project area, we supported a model called SWAN, thatís Simulating Waves Nearshore and that was a huge gap for local mariner and weather forecasters, trying to understand the physics of nearshore waves, there just was no model that addressed that. And it was so successful that it actually started being picked up by different Weather Forecasting Offices just on their own, through the East Coast and Honolulu and what happened is Coastal Storms saw that it just really needed to be shepherded into not just an individual product that was used at each Weather Service, but into an operational framework. And so we helped it get into whatís called our nearshore prediction system.

HOST: So Audra, my last question for you today, is do you have any final, closing words for our listeners?

AUDRA LUSCHER: Definitely. While communities canít change the weather, they can definitely improve their resilience to coastal storms through choices that they make and how they develop along the coast. They also can work on strengthening their community capital, and thatís improving the relationships and social networks between crucial organizations within their communities.

Individuals can also take a concerted effort in order to prepare for an event. They can have a plan within their family, they can understand what hazards are going to impact their area and get more knowledge, and they can gather supplies and be prepared for when those events happen and protect their families.

HOST: Great, thanks Audra. Thank you for joining us today on Diving Deeper and talking more about coastal storms and just giving us some great tips not only for ourselves individually, but things that we can do in our communities to make us all stronger. To learn more about NOAAís efforts to help communities be more resilient, please visit

Thatís all for todayís show. Remember, if you have questions on this episode or the National Ocean Service in general, you can contact us at And if youíre on social media, donít forget you can find us, itís usoceangov, on Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube; and thatís noaaocean on Twitter. Please join us again for our next episode in two weeks.