I grew up in love with coastal places— spending summers with my family at the Delaware beaches, at my grandparents’ on the Northern Neck of Virginia, eating Old Bay covered crabs and shrimp that set your sunburned lips on fire.
Crabbing and fishing and being out on the water were huge summer treats. I also knew bad storms could rip apart that watery landscape. Most of the time, the natural parts would come back fine. It was the people who suffered.
I lived in Thailand during the 2004 Tsunami. The next year was Hurricane Katrina. They were visceral demonstrations of the awesome, fearsome power of nature, and how ill-equipped our communities are to deal with these events. Since then, I’ve wanted to work on protecting communities most at risk, and figure out what we do at scale for all communities at risk.
In the United States, that’s nearly 30% of us. It’s not just cities like New Orleans, or low-lying islands. Sixty million Americans live in the path of hurricanes. It’s where we live and work, where huge parts of our economy are centered.
I’m proud to be part of a network of people working to rebuild wetlands that protect the coast of Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita laid bare how badly we need those wetlands – and barrier islands and oyster reefs—to be speedbumps for storm surge. The 2010 oil spill added to that damage. We were forced to have big conversations about how to live better with more water in the future.
We have the science and technology to tap back into the power of nature to rebuild wetlands.
The water is coming for all of us. It doesn’t care what you look like. It is surreal to see New Orleans from the air – surrounded by water. It’s incredibly vulnerable. But it’s also alive – with ships carrying goods, helicopters ferrying oil rig crews, fishing boats, communities that have been living on the water for decades.
When I think about how those communities will survive, I take inspiration in the mighty Mississippi River, which has been building up coastal land for centuries. We have the science and technology to tap back into the power of nature to rebuild wetlands. The river gives us a chance.
Fundamentally, the people who care so much about this place make me optimistic. I love to hear stories of residents or visitors who experience the coast’s bounty and understand we must invest in protecting that bounty.
In five years, I hope we have real restoration projects – like sediment diversions – so young people can see them in action and continue the fight. We can show the world what it means to adapt, to manage, and to thrive.