Hurricane Ike: Impact on Natural Areas

Debris field after Hurricane Ike - Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Anahuac, Texas

With the prospect of a late season hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast later this week, I wanted to post some images from a project I worked on this time last year.  In October 2008, Hurricane Ike slammed into the Texas coast, devastating coastal communities near Houston from Galveston to Sabine Pass and produced significant damage inland as well. The media was inundated with photographs and video of the damage to the coastal towns, but there was very little focus on the natural areas of the coast.  That is where I found my niche…

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Debris pile on preserve border - Hook Woods

The Texas coast, just north and south of Houston, includes some of the top hotspots to witness spring songbird migration in the country.  What makes areas such as High Island, Sabine Pass, and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge so spectacular is the fact that when songbirds are migrating north across the Gulf of Mexico these areas are the first line of trees that birds see when arriving on the coast.  After an extremely long flight, these trees provide both refuge and food sources for scores of warblers, tanagers, and thrushes.

All of these areas share the same topography, known as a salt dome.  This coastal region consists of large expanses of marshes.  These salt domes are small areas where the land is higher than the surrounding marsh, allowing trees to take root and small forest patches to grow.  From a bird’s perspective, these islands show up as islands of dark green in a landscape of light green and brown marsh and if the weather conditions are just right, you can see well over 20 species of warblers in a good spring day.

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Washed out Dunes and Road - McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, Sabine Pass, Texas

However, these areas are rather sensitive, particularly to high storm surge like that associated with Hurricane Ike.  Hurricane Ike delivered rising water well over 15 feet high in some areas completely inundating the marsh, flooding many of the salt domes, and spreading massive debris fields across the region.

I set out to create a series of panoramic images of the impact of the storm on these natural areas while most mainstream media focused on the cities and human tragedy.  In November 2008, when I was photographing these areas, the real damage was unknown.  Unfortunately, now that I have moved out of state, I am unable to return to document what it looks like a year later.

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Defoliated and down trees - Smith Oaks Preserve, High Island, Texas

These panoramas clearly show the destruction and debris fields, but what they don’t show is the long term impact of saltwater inundation.  What happens when a freshwater marsh is inundated by over ten feet of saltwater?  What happens to soil when trees are blown down and everything is flooded by saltwater?  Can plants sprout in an environment with that much salt?  What happens to all the chemicals, gasoline, and pollution washed out of people homes and garages during the flooded?  All of these questions are hard to answer on the short term and it will take several growing seasons before these regions can really expect a full recovery.

The impact of Hurricane Ike on the families that live in the region is hard to fathom as so many families lost everything, including their homes.  However, the reality for natural areas is a bit different.  Yes, the habitat looks different than it did before the storm, but these forests are in an area frequently impacted by hurricanes.  A storm hits this region every few years and the habitat has adapted to this.  It will respond quickly and within several years, new trees will begin to replace those that fell.  The salt will eventually dissipate and the marsh will recover.  It won’t take days or weeks but in years, decades or even centuries, this region will recover, be hit by more storms, and recover once again.

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Storm Surge scoured Visitor Center - McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, Sabine Pass, Texas

Nature functions on a different timeline than us.  We think in days, hours, minutes, and seconds.  A year seems like an eternity for many of us.  However, change in nature can occur in minutes (fire/earthquake), hours (cyclones/hurricanes), years (pollution), or eons (geological shifts).  These different scales of time are one of the biggest challenges of research and conservation.  We struggle to implement policy for the long term but it is a necessity if we want to impact climate change, habitat loss, species extinction, and many other environmental issues.

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  1. Those are some really dramatic shots Drew. Having never been in a hurricane, it looks pretty devastating.

  2. Reminds me of our ret’n home after Katrina (when they let people in for a day or two to get stuff & leave.) Except that I didn’t take pictures. If I could wipe the memories away, I would. Pictures would’ve been like salt in the wound.

  3. I should mention that these images were taken a full month after the storm passed. I have been through several hurricanes having grown up in Florida and then lived in Texas for two years. The most dramatic by far was Charlie in 2005, but the buildup before hand wasn’t as bad as Ike. Charlie intensified in 24 hours to a Category 4 and hit the west coast of Florida. We were prepared for a Category 1 or 2 storm and to be on the edge, instead we were in the middle of a big storm.

    With Ike, we knew it was a massive storm and it was coming at Texas for a long time. The buildup was endless and the disaster was awful. My family and I have been fortunate to escape relatively unscathed through all the storms and I can’t imagine going back to a scene like post Katrina. I specifically waited a month to take these photographs as I didn’t want to get in the way of cleanup and rescue. Unfortunately, in these natural areas, the only efforts for cleanup or rescue early after the storm centered on recovery of individuals who were swept off the barrier islands in the storm surge. Several bodies were recovered in and near Anuhuac National Wildlife Refuge.

    My heart goes out to all those effected and I worry for those along the gulf coast and Florida panhandle as Ida bears down and strengthens over the warm gulf.

  4. Staying out of the way of rescue work while a part of you would want to shoot as close as possible to the event is always a challenge to ones character. You did the right thing and the best part of this is, that your images are as strong as if you did the wrong thing.

    I’m afraid, we will see a lot more of this desasters in the future – if not we, than our children and at places where we have never seen them before like here in Germany. 5-6 years of doors open for climate change restriction to +2°C world average temperature. This means that moderate Berlin will have a climate of hot Milan in this century. Imagine what happens _without_ a world climate agreement. Hurricanes in Hamburg? And what will you call your future hurricanes? I guess you will need new words for them.

    Good luck to all of us – … or good politicians to make a change.



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