My holiday to Nayarit, Mexico was mostly mellow. Translucent waves rolling into perfect lines, almost-overwhelmingly-scintillating sunshine, happy people and even happier beach dogs. My stress levels were hovering below zero.
Until the earthquake.
I woke up on the morning of September 8, 2017 to learn that there had been an 8.1 magnitude earthquake in Mexico, killing around 61 people and injuring many more . Despite being far from the epicenter, Nayarit had issued a tsunami warning. My stress levels bounced to their max.
My graduate school is in Corvallis, Oregon with a marine science research center in Newport, OR (also my home surf break). In OR, the threat of an earthquake (“The Next Big One”) and subsequent tsunami is imminent . The fearful chatter surrounding the threat is perpetual, Newport is strewn with tsunami evacuation signs – even the mention of the word tsunami makes my heart skip a beat.
My best friend, an amazingly intelligent and hardworking marine ecologist, spends her summers camping along the piney Pacific Northwest seaside, studying the importance of dunes in preventing coastal erosion. Before starting her study, she was mandated to write a tsunami escape plans for each field site. While in Mexico, I (slightly) assuaged my terror by recalling her informed advice (yes, it had been the topic of multiple brunch conversations): learn your evacuation routes, wear warm layers, have plenty of clean water. Ultimately, the warning passed and my holiday returned to its previous serenity. Yet, the near reality of being caught in a natural disaster forced me to deliberate the suite of destruction Mother Nature inflicted on North America from September – October 2017.
The September 7 earthquake was wedged between Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, another earthquake, and Hurricane Maria. The collective damage across the Caribbean and Central America was unimaginably unprecedented. Countless people were (and still are) left without knowledge of their loved ones’ whereabouts, electricity, food, water, a place to call home, a school for their kids, functioning hospitals; the list of devastations feels endless.
Even during Hurricane Irma, the arguably least destructive hurricane of the three, storm surges, described as water shoved onto land by hurricane winds, were predicted to reach 10 to 15 feet . Such immense increases in water levels can jeopardize human life, contaminate drinking water, and decimate human structures – many of the 1,500 Hurricane Katrina deaths were the direct or indirect result of massive storm surges . Similarly and somewhat obviously, a huge portion of tsunami fatalities and overall damages can be attributed to the force at which water is hurled onto land .
Stabilizing regions affected by recent storms and earthquakes will take months to years. However, we already need to be mitigating the effects of the next natural disasters. Unless (for some bewildering reason) you do not believe the thousands of scientific articles illustrating the reality of human-induced climate change, you know the likelihood of more Hurricane Harveys, Hurricane Irmas, and Hurricane Marias is high.
As it is the foundation of my research, my deliberation wound down the One Health thought path (the health of the environment, non-human animals, and humans are all interconnected) – I considered how taking care of our environment could reduce the amount of damage inflicted by tropical storms and tsunamis. I immediately recalled my favorite non-fiction book: Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea by Dr. Callum Roberts (seriously, a MUST read). In his book, Roberts describes how the best protections are Earth-made: coastal dunes, coral reefs, wetlands and mangroves . These natural structures reduce velocity and volume of seawater, increasing human safety as well as protecting fresh drinking water, agricultural land and buildings from waves and storm surges. Man-made barriers, such as seawalls, are expensive to build and maintain, an especially unrealistic expense in low economic areas. Yet, natural barriers are free (duh; unless destroyed by humans they should already exist in marine areas), self-reproducing and more durable than a human construction. Unlike man-made barriers, these natural buffer zones offer numerous additional advantages such as providing habitat for a plethora of living creatures, including seafood, acting as carbon sinks, and offering undeniably beautiful tourist destinations (once again the environment benefits, non-human animals benefit, and humans benefit).
The recent events around North America have been heartbreaking yet we need to look to the future. Expanding and maintaining natural coastal environments are some of the most effective ways to protect human settlements from tsunamis, hurricanes and similar natural disasters. Support non-for profits that are working to protect these areas. Inform your government representatives that you prioritize preservation of natural buffer zones and urge them to direct funds towards the appropriate government agencies and scientific research groups. The best way to take care of humankind is to take care of the environment; we are only one part of a greater ecosystem.
Picture of OR, USA dunes taken by Vanessa Constant (my amazing marine ecologist friend).
 Mostafizi, A et al (2017) Agent-based tsunami evacuation modeling of unplanned network disruptions for evidence-driven resource allocation and retrofitting strategies. Natural Hazards 88(3), 1347-1372. doi: 10.1007/s11069-017-2927-y
 Callum, Roberts (2013) Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea. London: Penguin.