10/30/2014 09:41 am ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

Strong After Sandy: Healing the Past, Investing in the Future

The eye of Hurricane Sandy came ashore two years ago, devastating communities along the Atlantic Coast with record storm surge, fierce winds and torrential rain. The damage was so extensive that to this day many people are still struggling to rebuild homes and businesses and put their lives back together.

For wildlife resource managers, Sandy was a wake-up call to the vulnerability of the beaches, sand dunes, and coastal marshes that not only provide habitat for fish and wildlife but also protect local communities from flooding. At national wildlife refuges, the surge left miles of debris and hazardous materials littered across fragile wildlife habitat. Rain washed out roads, trails and dikes and destroyed many visitor trails and facilities.

The storm also demonstrated how nature can be a fortress as well as a force.

At Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey, Hurricane Sandy left a 22-mile debris field of boats, fuel tanks, chemical drums, and other hazardous materials in sensitive coastal marshes and wetlands. Further inland, however, the refuge's infrastructure -- including the visitor center and headquarters -- sustained only slight damage because of the protection provided by forests, wetlands and dunes. These natural areas also helped protect nearby development and communities by creating buffer zones to absorb the storm's energy.

In the aftermath of Sandy, we have an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen natural defenses along the Atlantic Coast to protect communities and wildlife against future storms. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and other Department of the Interior agencies are investing $787 million in hundreds of projects to clean up and repair damaged refuges and parks; restore coastal marshes, wetlands and shoreline; connect and open waterways to improve flood control; and increase our scientific understanding of how these natural areas are changing.

These investments support the goal of President Obama's Climate Action Plan to make communities more resilient to increasingly intense future storms that are the result of a changing climate. They also create jobs and provide opportunities for fishing, hiking, wildlife watching and other recreational opportunities that improve the quality of life for local residents and give a boost to the tourist economy that is the lifeline of many coastal communities.

Coastal areas in Cape May County, New Jersey, for example, provide critically important stopover for shorebirds, including red knots that migrate from South America to the Arctic each spring. Red knots rely on these and other Delaware Bay beaches, where they feed on horseshoe crab eggs for the energy needed to complete their journey. In partnership with the American Littoral Society, the Fish and Wildlife Service completed a $1.6 million project to restore 1.5 miles of shoreline, removing more than 800 tons of debris and replenishing eroded beaches with more than 45,000 tons of locally mined sand.

The project is also vital to the area's economy. According to a 2006 report by the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College, eco-tourism generates over $522 million annually in Cape May County alone. In short, we learned that if we re-build it, the shorebirds and crabs will come -- and that means the people will come, too.

More than a half century ago, Rachel Carson, one of our greatest conservation heroes, characterized conservation as "dynamic, changing as conditions change, seeking always to become more effective." In the wake of Sandy's widespread devastation and the uncertainties of a changing climate, communities, government and non-profit organizations are working together to adapt in the face of change. To help guide these efforts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of the Interior are developing science to help us better understand the impacts of storms and sea level rise on coastal ecosystems; inform efforts to restore and strengthen these areas; and help us better manage for -- and respond to -- changing environmental conditions.

Two years into Hurricane Sandy recovery, I know it will take time and careful planning before we see a return on many of these investments. But I am confident the long-term benefits of building a stronger coast will far outweigh initial costs when it comes to protecting communities, sustaining wildlife and lessening the financial impact of damages resulting from future intense storms. To that end, we are establishing systems to carefully monitor and evaluate our progress to ensure this work is effective and lasting. The nature we care about and the public we serve deserve no less.

You can track the status of our projects and investments by visiting the Fish and Wildlife Service's Hurricane Sandy website at