For coastal communities in across the nation (especially those in the Atlantic and Gulf coasts), June 1 holds a special place on the calendar -- the official start of hurricane season.
While hurricanes and coastal storms can strike any time of year, June 1 is the date everyone focuses on -- for good reason. Conditions can be ripe, preparations need to be started and residents (and others) need to start paying attention to the potential risk.
What makes a beach storm-ready? With some exceptions for localized conditions, it means a beach that's sediment-rich and stable, often with high vegetated dunes and elevated structures set back from the wave zone. Now, it may be too late to achieve that this season if your beach doesn't fit that description, but this is a goal you could set for your coast. That's a target that takes time and planning to achieve, but one that pays off in terms of damage reduction and community recovery.
Further, your coastal managers should be looking over the beach with a critical eye -- looking for vulnerable infrastructure such as roads and utilities as well as littoral weaknesses and likely problems such as hot spots that will need to be shored up or low spots prone to overwashing in even the more routine storm events. That will help customize both preparation and recovery efforts, as well as guide future work to make your coast more resilient overall.
Has your community -- meaning residents, visitors and businesses -- planned for a post-storm beach profile and coast? They may be surprised at the sand loss, but may need to be reminded the sediment was just moved offshore due to the scouring nature of storm waves, and it will migrate back onshore once waves and currents return to normal. That's also a good time to educate communities how coastal systems work, and to remind communities of the importance of pre-event mitigation for upland properties and infrastructure.
Do your coastal residents have a emergency preparedness plan -- particularly those most at risk? Are their preparations in place -- securing home and possessions, and the knowledge of local dangers, the expected warnings and local evacuation plans? Do they have a safe place to go or to stay, and the supplies to handle either? Is there a post-storm protocol for restoring services, repatriating residents and returning things to normal?
Remember, there are a number of ways a storm can attack your beach and community, and you need to be ready for each of them:
Waves: The most obvious destructive force on the ground during a storm, scouring away sand and then upland ground, buildings and infrastructure once the protective beach is gone or the storm surge pushed the wave zone landward. Your best defense is to relocate critical infrastructure away from the hazard zone and to have a wide beach and elevated structures, with perhaps some hardening of critical infrastructure such as roadways and bridges in vulnerable areas that cannot be relocated areas.
Winds: Destructive on two fronts: as an assault on structures and infrastructure either directly or by accelerating other wind-borne items as missiles, and as the force which piles up water and waves to push surge shoreward as a storm makes landfall. For the former, good building codes (to enhance building integrity in the face of assault) and removing potential missiles (by cleaning up debris and small items pre-storm) will help. For the latter, locate structures away from the inundation zone and make sure structures and infrastructure are reinforced and elevated with a wide protective beach and high dunes.
Surge and tides: Perhaps the most serious destructive force, especially in slow-moving storms that have a lot of time to build their watery momentum before landfall. As was seen in Sandy (a minimal hurricane for wind, but a monster in terms of size and surge), surge and tidal rises can cause flooding problems on both sides of a barrier island. As before, strong elevated structures and infrastructure behind a wide beach make a real difference, but also look for unsuspected vulnerabilities, such as low-lying bayfronts subject to flooding or evacuation routes with weak links that will wash out or over too quickly.
Rainfall flooding: On top of everything else that's happening, a wet storm wreaks its own special havoc -- both further inland, as creeks and streams turn into some much larger and low-lying areas because instant lakes, and along the coast, where surge and high tides prevent drainage of rainfall flooding. Look at your area's flood risks and drainage systems -- particularly those that rely on tidal outfalls to carry away excess water.
The most important step you can take, however, is to heed local emergency managers when they tell you how to prepare for storm dangers and what to do to survive an approaching storm. They are more aware of local conditions and vulnerabilities, are working with the most up-to-date information and probably have the best handle on the true nature of the storm situation -- so listen to them.
Experts are eyeing a quieter than normal season in the Atlantic and a stronger than normal for the Pacific thanks to an expected strong El Nino -- above-normal water temperatures in the equatorial Pacific that enhances hurricanes in the Pacific but boost wind shear in the Atlantic. However, even a quiet season produces a few storms -- and if one comes calling, things won't be so quiet after all.