What Gets Wrecked in a Natural Disaster? The Most Vulnerable Areas—and How the SCA Helps Rebuild

Gulf Coast Katrina Recovery Intern

The tragedy of a natural disaster unfolds in multiple ways. First and foremost, there are the irreplaceable lives lost. Then, for survivors, there is the trauma of dealing with damaged or destroyed property, ruined livelihoods, and – in the worst cases – the prospect of having to uproot or relocate. And these are wounds that last long after the camera crews have packed up and moved on.

But while national attention most often focuses on the human drama, our environment suffers no less acutely at the hands of the hurricanes, floods, fires, tornados, and other phenomena that strike with such ferocity. And that environment includes, of course, the parks, reserves, and wilderness areas that conservationists work so hard to maintain and preserve. That’s where the Student Conservation Association (SCA) comes in: thanks to our agreement with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), our volunteers assist in disaster response and preparedness in communities across the country. And that can mean anywhere from world-famous areas of beauty to the lesser-known areas that suffer just as much. Let’s take a look at some of these places left behind and what our volunteers do to help with recovery.

Beaches and Coasts

Beaches around the country, which are the natural habitats of turtles, shore and sea birds, spawning fish, and crustaceans, bear the brunt of hurricanes, floods, and tsunamis. Taking into account the sheer amount of material that can wash ashore and threaten wildlife, prompt cleanup efforts are vital.

When a devastating hurricane struck his native Rockaway peninsula in New York City, Teddy Ojuyenum joined an SCA community team to get to work. “It was such a drastic, unfortunate moment for me and all of Rockaway,” Ojuyenum recalls. “So when we began to tackle the challenges of the aftermath by restoring community beaches, cleaning up debris from destroyed homes/boats, and reconstructing animal habitats, it gave me a sense of importance and urgency that hit home emotionally every day.”


(The SCA Jamaica Bay recovery crew in 2010.)

In situations such as these, as Ojuyenum learned, it is important to dismantle before you can begin to rebuild. “Although we didn’t get to build something, we did manually destroy three contaminated boats which were nuisances to the environment,” he says. “I was happy to be able to clean and restore the habitats of my community, and we did it with pride.”

Urban Gardens

Liberty State Park in New Jersey is the perfect place for walking, kayaking, and drinking in the views of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan Skyline. It is also the home of some sixteen gardens, several of which were damaged by a recent hurricane. “The butterfly garden was severely damaged,” recalls Lily Aycox, an SCA crew member based out of Jersey City. “After removing the dead plants, we then planted new flowers to attract the butterflies back.” The efforts proved successful, leaving Aycox with a deeper appreciation of how conservation can create a deeper bond with the green spaces we frequent. “By the end of our two months, not only had I learned more about the nature of the park, I’d learned how to take care of it as well. This job also helped me develop my work ethic. It was my first ever job and in the end, I was glad to have the experience that I did.”


(Volunteers in Houston planted 200 trees and removed 200 lbs storm debris.)

Wildland

America’s vast wildlands, the awe of explorers Lewis and Clark and the cherished treasure of early conservations such as John Muir, are particularly vulnerable to wildfires in times of drought or excessive heat. Many SCA volunteers and interns train in wildfire prevention and prescribed burns; some, indeed, go on to put that training into practice. One of them is Drew Starkey, who became a wildfire technician during an SCA stint with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Southeast Louisiana.

“Not only was I introduced to the world of wildfire management, I also learned about how these tools are utilized in ecosystems to improve wildlife habitat and protect local communities by reducing fuel loading near residential neighborhoods,” says Starkey. Correctly managed, controlled burns can help prevent catastrophic fires while also creating better conditions for wildlife. “We performed prescription burns to improve the habitats of the red-cockaded woodpecker, gopher tortoise, longleaf pine and Mississippi sandhill crane,” Starkey says. “The woodpeckers and tortoises, for example, both rely on fire to remove the mid-story, shrubby vegetation from their habitats. Both of these species are considered keystone, since their burrows and nesting cavities provide a habitat for many other woodland critters.” Prevention, truly, is the best cure.


(The SCA Angeles National Forest fire recovery crew in 2010.)

Parks and Trails

The SCA’s work began in our national parks, of course, and we take special pride in the work we do to help our national treasures recover from natural disasters. Key among them is Yellowstone, where fires ravaged the park in 1988, bringing together at their height some 10,000 people to fight them – the largest such cooperative effort undertaken in the U.S. to date. A year later, Aaron Bible came on the scene as a member of an SCA park crew.

“Many bridges and trails were destroyed by the fires the previous year and my crew primarily worked on rebuilding trails by reconstructing check dams and water bars, utilizing downed timber in the area,” he recalls. “Learning the skills of bush craft, long-term camping, trail building and tool care, not to mention sheer hard work, had a huge impact on my life.” Such was the impact that Bible decided to make the outdoors his life’s work. “After our summer in Yellowstone, I decided to study forestry at Colorado State University, which started me down the path of ecology, journalism, and outdoor adventure that has shaped my life for the last 28 years.”

We at the SCA are proud of our work both in mitigating and responding to natural disasters, in high-profile parks, neighborhood green spaces, and everything in between. There is, however, much more that needs to be done. You can help SCA be ready to respond when our partners need us. Please make your preparedness gift today.