A tale of two communities – people and fish – recovering from Harvey

Hurricane Harvey in the Gulf of Mexico as seen from the International Space Station on August 25, 2017. Photo by NASA

One year after Hurricane Harvey hammered the Texas coast, divergent pictures of recovery and resilience have emerged. The coastal marine communities of fish, shrimp and crabs that thrive along our Gulf coast, are dynamic, resilient and on the mend. The coastal human communities are also dynamic but their resilience is being challenged.

The coastal marine community has an important advantage over coastal human communities — millions of years of evolution driven by hurricanes. Hundreds of hurricanes have entered the Gulf of Mexico since we started keeping track of them, and the Coastal Bend has seen its share. The plants, animals and even the physical landscape of the coast are shaped by hurricanes. It’s survival of the fittest, as the animals so fundamental to ecosystem health — the shrimps, crabs and fish such as red drum and spotted seatrout — all have life cycles that respond well to hurricane-induced stress.

Hurricanes are the giant cement mixer: nutrients and sediments are resuspended, mixed up and flushed from inland reaches into bays and estuaries. Freshwater mingles with saltwater and vice versa. The physical environment also changes; some habitats, like oyster reefs and seagrass meadows, can be buried. Deep pockets scattered across otherwise shallow coastal flats fill in, new ones form, and as the hurricane passes, barrier island passes open and close.

Figure 1: NOAA provides over 150 years of hurricane tracking data. Shown here: Category 4 and 5 hurricane tracks from 1842 to 2017 in the Gulf of Mexico ocean basin.

Harvey was different from most hurricanes in that it hit the Texas coast twice. It stalled after landfall, hung around Victoria, then went back into the Gulf over San Antonio Bay, where it sucked up more water, heat and power, moved northeast and slammed into Houston, dumping unforeseen amounts of water over the metropolitan and neighboring areas. The result was really two storms: South Texas had to deal with wind, waves and storm surge, especially from the bayside, but northeast Texas had to deal with massive floods.

The combination of winds, storm surge, low salinity, and low dissolved oxygen had devastating effects on coastal habitats up and down the Texas coast. Floods dumped unprecedented freshwater carrying huge quantities of organics into bays, causing extensive hypoxia. Despite the stress, coastal habitats showed signs of recovery by spring 2018, followed by a genuine bloom through summer. We saw a burst of new life, particularly in South Texas, as the bays filled with huge schools of juvenile fish. Spotted seatrout grew fat and lazy with so much bounty. Over the next several years the marine ecosystem, as well as anglers and seafood lovers, will reap that bounty. The renewal is reminiscent of a forest fire, which is initially devastating, but recovery brings back a boom of new life.

Our coastal communities also respond with immediacy to hurricanes. While we have not been around so long as the fish and shrimp, we have learned how to survive on the edge of the sea. Our abilities to predict a hurricane’s course and energy has increased impressively, and the emergency responses of coastal leaders and communities are nothing short of heroic. The rush to aid by all after Harvey was inspiring, renewing faith in our neighbors both near and far.

However, as Texas communities continue to recover, our human systems for social support, economic recovery and governance of public resources have faltered. This is particularly evident in South Texas, where we lack the capacity of large cities like Houston. Even there, some neighborhoods are failing to recover from this unprecedented natural disaster. Our political leadership can muster funding, both short term and for the long haul, but when they leave the coast for their various seats of government and bureaucracy takes over, recovery efforts can break down. Judges, mayors, county commissioners and local leaders have their hands full meeting the immediate needs of their citizens. Adding another “job” to a long list simply does not work.

The sheer complexity of recovery is mind-boggling. There are dozens of federal, state, philanthropic and private programs offering assistance. However, there is no one-stop shop spanning very different recovery issues. Tough issues persist, such as renters who lost housing; individuals struggling with mental health through recovery; communities trying to rebuild schools and bring back families that have moved away; small businesses that need a jumpstart to rebuild local economies on a shrinking tax base; and what to do when critical infrastructure is privately owned and does not qualify for federal assistance.

Acquiring the planning capacity needed to navigate this complexity while making sure communities are building back in a safer, more resilient way adds further burden. Even in a community like Rockport, which has invested in dedicated staff to address these issues, recovery will be hard-fought for years to come. For those communities that could not make such an investment, the road is hard indeed.

To build long-term resilience, we must better understand the complexities of recovery programs and resources; link them with coastal communities through careful planning that addresses future risks; and integrate these efforts with the environment of which we are a part.

Hurricanes are a reality of coastal life, and people are now part of that coastal ecosystem. If we are to live and thrive on our coastal margins we have understand and adapt to that reality and secure the capital needed to plan for our resilient future. We have a lot to learn from the fishes.

Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Larry McKinney

Executive director, Harte Research Institute, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi

Paul Montagna

Endowed chair for Ecosystems and Modeling, Harte Research Institute, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

Katya Wowk

Head of strategic planning, Harte Research Institute, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

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