Hurricane Sandy, the largest Atlantic tropical system on record, seemed to have Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in its sights when it made landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012. Sandy brought winds up to 90 mph and pushed a massive surge onto beaches and shorelines. The hurricane’s eye went directly over Forsythe’s Wildlife Drive.


Even before the storm, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff prepared for the impact. The refuge was closed to visitation, and personnel made sure everyone was safe and accounted for. The hatches were literally battened down, as maintenance staff locked the shutters on the new hurricane–proof visitor information center.


Luckily, damage to refuge buildings was minimal, but on the refuge’s 47,000 acres of land, mostly salt marsh, it was a different story. Immediately after the storm, assessment flights by helicopter and a thorough on–the–ground rapid assessment by a team of Service personnel revealed extensive damage and alteration to the refuge.


Forsythe’s eight–mile Wildlife Drive, a birding destination for 100,000 visitors each year, was breached or washed out in several locations. Repairs have been completed, and the drive has been reopened. However, access to the refuge’s Holgate unit, part of the Brigantine Wilderness Area and a popular surf–fishing destination, was destroyed and remains closed while partners restore access.


A bigger problem than the damage to areas of public access, from an ecological perspective, was debris. Sandy left a 22–mile debris field in the refuge’s sensitive coastal marshes and wetlands. Salvage operations have begun to remove more than 150 boats, fuel oil tanks, chemical drums and other hazardous materials that need to be disposed of properly. Sandy also deposited dozens of docks and piles of debris from destroyed homes on the refuge.


Refuge biologists have been monitoring habitat changes and damage caused by the storm.


“Our freshwater impoundment was inundated with [highly saline] bay water, which caused the elimination of freshwater invertebrates, which will have to recolonize from upstream sources within the watershed,” says biologist Bill Crouch. “Overall, I was surprised how little the habitat seems to be negatively affected. Some marshes appear to have been ‘cleaned’ of trash that had washed up on them over the years. On Holgate, dunes were flattened and pushed westward, covering salt marshes in some cases. Salt marsh species will suffer, but beach nesting species may have more habitat now.”


Disturbance can be beneficial. For example, the storm surge likely deposited a layer of sediment/silt on portions of the salt marsh. This kind of deposition might build up marsh levels, allowing them to keep up with sea–level rise, but that is a subject of ongoing research.


Sandy was a learning process for the refuge. We were reminded that, in vulnerable coastal areas, management plans need to take into account the destructive potential of large storms. Tour roads, beaches and impoundments can be damaged, and buildings must be constructed to resist such storms.


The storm also served as a reminder of the vital role of partners, including the Friends of Forsythe (who have been incredibly supportive), the Barnegat Bay Partnership, the Federal Highway Administration, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


“Due to the large scale of the storm, it has been important for the refuge to work with all of our partners to coordinate,” says refuge manager Virginia Rettig. “That ranges from cleanup of contaminants to habitat restoration projects.”


Donald Freiday is visitor services manager at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey.