A year ago, Northeasterners were bracing for the worst. On Oct. 27, with Superstorm Sandy pinwheeling up the East Coast, Gov. Chris Christie declared a state of emergency in all of New Jersey. Mayor Mike Bloomberg ordered 375,000 people to evacuate from low-lying areas of New York City, closing schools and shutting down the subway system. Stretching almost 500 miles across, Sandy had morphed into one of the most powerful storms in history, and it was about to body check greater New York.
For many, the worst came. In the past few weeks, we've seen story after story of residents who are still trying to piece their lives back together. But the storm played out quite differently for the residents of Cape May, N.J., a seaside haven for vacationers and birdwatchers. When they were allowed to return to their homes after the storm had passed, most locals found things largely as they had left them, not counting some minor flooding and truckloads of sand that washed into the streets.
Bill Ulfelder, New York executive director for the Nature Conservancy, credits a unique set of natural defenses for sparing parts of the town. Some of the neighborhoods that fared best were adjacent to the South Cape May Meadows preserve, a 218-acre natural area that the conservancy had worked to restore in 2004, alongside the state and the Army Corps of Engineers. "South Cape May had no wave damage and no flooding. All the water went into the wetland," Ulfelder says.
Ulfelder and his compatriots believe that Cape May holds lessons for other coastal areas as climate change whips up stronger, more damaging storms. Restoring dunes, marshes, and oyster reefs could dampen future storm surges, they say. Give a little back to Mother Nature, and maybe she'll go a little easier on us.