Living Shorelines: A natural defense to storms

TALLAHASSEE – Back in September, as Hurricane Sally battered Florida’s panhandle with a deluge of rain and high winds, some locals said their living shorelines were their best defense against the area’s storm surge.

Instead of a hardened seawall aimed at protecting shores from erosion, living shorelines use vegetation and other natural elements like oyster shells to stabilize estuarine coasts, bays, and tributaries.

Josh Poole built a living shoreline around his property in Gulf Breeze to stop erosion from his beach.

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Despite seeing Hurricane Sally’s waves break as high as 17 feet over his boathouse, he said his shoreline stayed strong.

“I literally thought that the beach would be gone,” Poole maintained. “I thought that the rocks would be gone, I thought the oyster shells would all be just washed away. And I was absolutely amazed to find that a few of the late boulders on top had been moved around maybe a few feet, I mean, literally 18 inches.”

Hurricane Sally was expected to strike Alabama and Mississippi. Instead, it made a slow crawl over land in Florida’s Panhandle with 105-mile-per-hour winds, ripping roofs, snapping trees, and leaving thousands without power.

Poole hopes other homeowners will consider living shorelines as a means of erosion protection.

Matt Posner, interim director of the Pensacola & Perdido Bay Estuary Program, also manages the RESTORE program for Escambia County where he oversees several large-scale public living shorelines.

One of them is Project Greenshores, a multimillion-dollar habitat protection program in downtown Pensacola, which he said was resilient through the storm.

“There is certainly a significant amount of habitat value as well,” Posner contended. “Which of course is critically important for the protection of our estuaries and making sure that we have this nursery habitat to restore and protect productive recreational fishery habitat.”

Posner also manages the Pensacola Bay Living Shoreline Project, which will result in the creation of 205 acres of emergent marsh and submerged aquatic vegetation when it’s complete.

florida coastline

But he wants to see more residential properties convert to the softer nature-based solutions, which he said has the dual benefit of self-maintenance while restoring natural wildlife. 

Jessica Bibza, Florida policy specialist for the National Wildlife Federation said one way to foster this is to educate the public, marine contractors, and policy leaders that living shorelines are a viable and more sustainable option. She added they initially had a training course set for last April, but they had to cancel due to the pandemic. 

“There is really a need to get these marine contractors more familiar with living shorelines and with understanding the process for how to permit them and install them,” Bibza urged.

Bibza noted they are now looking at providing training in a virtual setting.

She hopes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, and local governments will soon see the value of living shorelines and work to streamline the permit process.

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