The wreckage at Forsythe and other Northeast coastal refuges was yet another testament to the destructive power of Sandy, the superstorm that ripped up the New Jersey shore and flooded Manhattan. And it drew attention to the costly plans being considered by the federal agency to protect wildlife refuges from the impact of climate change and sea-level rise.
Sandy’s winds rammed a dirt and gravel dike at Forsythe with seawater, causing it to burst. Bay salt water rushed into a shallow freshwater pond created for birds such as the American black duck and Atlantic brant. The usual foot of water in which the birds dip their heads got saltier, rose to five feet and washed out vegetation, so the birds could no longer reach underwater seeds or pick bugs from leaves.
Dozens of refuges between Maine and Virginia were pummeled. Four were damaged severely, including Forsythe, where about 130 boats in the Atlantic City area were blown into marshes, Kahan said.
At Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, part of the public beach and two parking lots were washed away on Assateague Island. At Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware, a 1,500-foot breach in a dune sent salt water from the Delaware Bay into a freshwater pond where waterfowl eat, nest and give birth, and flooded homes on an island near the refuge. And at the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex in New York, fallen trees blocked the entrance.
Sandy created sea surge powerful enough to reshape portions of the coasts of North Carolina, Delaware and Maryland, and Virginia’s portion of the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes Chincoteague, said the U.S. Geological Survey.
Thirty-five of the region’s 72 refuges were closed after the storm. Six million people per year — many from the District, Virginia and Maryland — visit the refuges, which cover 535,000 acres, and managers acted to protect visitors from “widow-makers,” damaged trees that crash down after storms, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman said.
Forsythe still has not reopened. In addition to the busted dike and ruined pond, the wrecked boats appear to be leaking fuel, Kahan said.
“What is there in addition to debris that wash up? Has there been contamination of the refuge with fuel in the boats?” Kahan said. “We see propane tanks and barrels with unknown substances. Everything that washed out of those communities [on the Jersey shore] found their way onto the refuge.”
Forsythe manager Virginia Rettig said dozens of workers fanned out after the storm and found salt water pouring into freshwater ponds; sheds and other structures needing repairs; and boats piled on the marsh — but few dead animals. The birds are starting to return, but assessing the damage will take weeks, she said.