08/26/2011 06:35 pm ET | Updated Oct 26, 2011

Hurricane Watch: Protecting Our Ocean Sentries

As people all along the East Coast experience Hurricane Irene's wind and rain blasting north on one of summer's last weekends, my thoughts are with all of those in the storm's path.

I am thankful once again for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for its role in preparing us for storms of this magnitude.

I am also reminded that while we can't control a hurricane, we can help strengthen our nation's best defense against this force of nature. Coastal and marine habitats such as barrier islands, beaches, oyster reefs and sea grass beds can help buffer shorelines and protect coastal communities from wind and rising water.

But when these natural sentries are weakened by development, pollution, overfishing and other human impacts, our communities find themselves at even greater risk when disaster approaches.

As the East Coast residents prepare for the worst and hope for the best, it is hard to escape the memory of Hurricane Katrina, which wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast at this moment six years ago.

The Gulf of Mexico's natural barriers against these disasters are still suffering -- not only from current stresses like the BP oil disaster, but from many decades of degradation. Acres and acres, including barrier islands and mangrove forests, have been changed by or lost to development. Pollution from agricultural and urban runoff contaminates the water and compromises ecosystem health. Huge quantities of trash in the water choke and smother plants like sea grass. All of this leaves the Gulf of Mexico compromised in its ability to protect people and their livelihoods from a natural disaster.

In the Gulf of Mexico, we have the chance to do it right with a comprehensive plan for restoration. When the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force releases its proposed plan for recovery from the BP oil disaster in October, they have an opportunity to make sure the Gulf has sound strategies for the many ways we use the ocean and how to ensure its long-term restoration. Of course that's just a start. We can improve the health of all of our nation's coastlines so the damage from future disasters is minimized.

All of us can prepare for future storms by supporting the restoration of the ocean's natural defenses. Our health, our homes and our economy are at stake. Katrina's notoriety includes her place as the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. With an investment in restoration of our natural buffers against storms, countless communities along water's edge will find a significant measure of protection in the future.