Yes, the Everglades protected us from Hurricane Irma

A researcher examines the vegetation in the Florida Everglades.
A researcher examines the vegetation in the Florida Everglades. MIAMI HERALD

Since moving to Miami 15 years ago, I’ve heard the horror stories about Hurricane Andrew and hoped nothing like it would come to our coasts again. That was wishful thinking.

As we band together to rebuild our communities after Hurricane Irma, I can’t help but think what effect this massive storm would have had in Florida if the Everglades weren’t here to protect us.

Yes, the Florida Everglades.

The largest subtropical wetland ecosystem in North America and the largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere. They hug the Florida peninsula acting as South Florida’s first line of defense against incoming storms.

More than ever, restoring the Everglades is what stands between our homes and the next Category 5 storm. Research shows that 2.7 miles of wetlands reduce storm surge by a foot, and one acre of wetlands holds up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwaters.

Looking at Hurricane Irma, the storm was a strong Category 4 when it reached the Florida Keys. Because the Everglades interacted with Irma before hitting Naples, the storm surge was far less than the 15 feet that were anticipated to affect the west coast.

These wetlands are our protection.

The amount of storm energy soaked up by wetlands can’t be matched by either solid land or open water. They are nature’s unmatched shock absorbers. Coastal wetlands protect us from hurricanes by diminishing the amount of open water to interact with wind to form waves, and by slowing down water motion which decreases the range of storm surge.

The more wetlands we preserve, the more sheltered our communities will be from feeling an unbuffered hit from a hurricane.

Coastal wetlands in the U.S. are estimated to provide $23.3 billion per year in storm protection, and because they are maintained by nature they are more cost-effective than constructed levees.

Further studies show that coral reefs, seagrasses and mangroves ecosystems combined provide more protection services than any one individual habitat.

The Everglades is a collection of wetlands, mangroves, seagrasses and coral reefs. All critical components of our natural line of defense against hurricanes and rising seas.

This is why restoring the Everglades is so crucial for South Florida’s future. Only 50% of this ecosystem remains and what little remains is in poor shape. Restoration efforts are well underway, but unless we move faster, the stressed Everglades won’t be able to continue attenuating hurricane winds like the ecosystem does best.

Climate change is increasing the intensity of hurricanes. Today’s policy discussions must not only focus on establishing stronger zoning and building codes. They must also center on the restoration and preservation of coastal wetlands and mangrove ecosystems in Florida.

More than ever, we must be intentional about Everglades restoration. We must invest in wetland and mangroves restoration. Storms won’t stop coming our way. As we strengthen our building codes, we must also account for the restoration of our natural infrastructure as a key part of the equation.

After all, a healthy ecosystem is a resilient ecosystem. And a restored Everglades is a resilient South Florida.

Celeste De Palma is an Everglades Policy Associate for Audubon Florida.