Superstorm Sandy left its mark in late October not only on millions of people in densely populated areas along the Eastern seaboard but also on national wildlife refuges from North Carolina to Maine.

Among the public lands hardest hit by gale–force winds, Atlantic Ocean surges and related flooding were Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, NJ; Chincoteague Refuge, VA; Prime Hook Refuge, DE; Long Island Refuge Complex, NY; and Rhode Island Refuge Complex.

Within days of the storm, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists, pilots, maintenance workers and emergency specialists from out of state journeyed to hard–hit areas to help colleagues clean up structural damage, downed trees, washed–out roads and more. Often, they spent nights in sleeping bags in refuge quarters without reliable electricity.

“With power resources and gas resources dwindling, it’s been a little bit of a dire week for us,” Long Island Refuge Complex manager Michelle Potter said seven days after Sandy’s landfall. “We have a crew of 17 people here from Massachusetts and Maine, and we are thrilled to have them here. They’ve been working like crazy cutting trees, repairing roofs and assisting with general refuge cleanup.”

Extensive Damage

The storm dislodged the observation deck from its foundation at Target Rock Refuge, part of the Long Island complex. On the New Jersey shore, much of popular wildlife drive at E.B. Forsythe Refuge was washed out, and an earthen dike between a freshwater pond and the ocean was breached. At Prime Hook Refuge, a 1,500–foot dune break left Delaware Bay saltwater in a freshwater pond, too. Farther south, roads leading to Chincoteague Refuge became impassible, and parts of the refuge’s beach and parking lots were washed away.

As crews cleared debris and made initial repairs to refuge visitor centers, headquarters and other structures, Service responders took to the air by helicopter to document damage.

Potter surveyed the Long Island complex during an aerial damage assessment made possible by the Service’s Southeast Region. “We noticed a lot more debris washed up in storm wreck than we thought we had,” she said. “Numerous kayaks, boats, a refrigerator, a lot of garbage and a lot of trees were blown down [on refuge property]. Thankfully, our beach nesting habitat for plovers and least terns appears intact.”

The long–term ecological impacts on refuges are uncertain. A storm surge broke the barrier between the ocean and 160–acre Trustom Pond, the only undeveloped freshwater coastal pond in Rhode Island, resulting in a surge of saltwater intrusion.

Trustom Pond Refuge supports waterfowl and freshwater fish, including bass and perch. “Assessments will be necessary to monitor the storm’s impacts to the breadth of wildlife diversity here at the refuge in the long term,” said Janis Nepshinsky, a refuge outdoor recreation planner. The influx and receding saltwater flushed out freshwater fish species and dramatically lowered water levels.

Bird Migration Data

Caleb Speigel, a Northeast Region wildlife biologist with the Service’s Division of Migratory Birds, said his program has been using satellite telemetry to document annual migration and winter movement patterns of seabirds like the red–throated loon, northern gannet and surf scoter. Such satellite tracking information is providing valuable data for assessing how migrating birds respond to hurricanes.

Spiegel found evidence that a northern gannet migrating down the New Jersey coast encountered the storm during peak intensity and turned back north to wait it out in place where Sandy’s effects were less severe.

As of early December, all refuges in Sandy’s path had reopened, at least in part, except for Pea Island Refuge, NC, and Sachuest Point Refuge, RI. They are closed indefinitely for repairs.

Ashley Spratt is a public affairs specialist in the Northeast Region office in Hadley, MA.