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…
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.
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.
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.
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.