Restoration of wetlands and barrier islands for storm protection in the Northern Gulf of Mexico

Mark A Ford, National Park Service, US
Published: 06 February 2017
Last edited: 05 October 2020
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The northern Gulf of Mexico coast frequently experiences tropical weather systems and rising sea level impacts. Communities are at risk. Restoration of two US National Parks play a role in the protection of the coastal communities. Disaster risk reduction is enhanced through restoration of their wetlands and barrier islands. These ecosystems reduce wind and storm surge intensities, and protect risk reduction levees.


North America
Scale of implementation
Coastal forest
Marine and coastal ecosystems
Salt marsh
Ecosystem services
Local actors
Sea level rise
Storm surges
Tropical cyclones / Typhoons
Infrastructure development


Northern Gulf of Mexico USA | Jean Lafitte National Historic Park, Louisiana; Gulf Islands National Seashore, Mississippi and Florida


Rising sea level and increased major storm frequency and intensity mean that the need for restoration of coastal ecosystems is greater than in the past. Increased inundation, salt water intrusion and encroachment by human development are resulting in lost coastal habitats in non-protected places. Additionally, lack of necessary funding for large-scaled restoration projects is limiting our ability to conducted planned projects.


The people and businesses of coastal communities are the beneficiaries of restoration projects.

How do the building blocks interact?

These restoration techniques and their outcomes work together to provide a set of multiple lines of defense for coastal communities against the impacts of climate change, sea level rise and surges from storms. Alone each is useful, but combined they create a stronger and more resilient coastal risk reduction. There is no particular order to which these blocks should be completed. As an analogy, they are like members of a team, each of which has a role to play in the overall goal of coastal protection and the reduction of disaster risk.


Wetlands and barrier islands provide disaster risk reduction in the form of storm surge and sea level rise attenuation and the protection of the hurricane protection levees that border the metropolitan New Orleans in Louisiana. Restoration of the Gulf of Mexico islands at Gulf Islands National Seashore also contributes to disaster risk reduction and the attenuation of storm surge. These ecosystems serve to protect people, homes, businesses and critical infrastructure such as roads, bridges and railroads. Disaster risk reduction levees have been documented to have been protected by swamps in recent hurricanes. Coastal marsh has lowered impacts from storm surge and sea level rise by being able to absorb rising water. Barrier islands decrease storm surge. In mainland areas closest to barrier islands, damage from storms such as Hurricane Katrina was less than areas which were more exposed. Restoration through the replacement of lost sands have protected structures such as Fort Massachusetts on West Ship Island. Wetlands and barrier islands also are a critical component of the local tourist economy.


The city and metropolitan area of New Orleans in Louisiana, USA is divided by the Mississippi River. The central business district, the historic French Quarter and some of the suburban communities lie to the east side, known as the East Bank. Remaining communities of the area are on the West Bank. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall just east of the city of New Orleans. Loss of life, mostly from failure of the storm protection system, was nearly 1,600 people in metro New Orleans alone. This loss of life occurred primarily on the East Bank side. The West Bank side of New Orleans did not flood. The biggest difference is the storm protection system for the West Bank communities are providing additional protection from healthy swamp and marsh ecosystems. Research indicated that levees with marsh and swamp protection did not fail during Hurricane Katrina. Later, in the year 2012, Hurricane Issac, a category 2 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale, also hit the metropolitan New Orleans area. Now, 7 years post Katrina with restoration projects in place throughout the New Orleans area, similar to what has been done in Jean Lafitte NHPP, there were no levee failures. Healthier restored marshes, filled canals, restored swamps all provided sufficient protection to the storm protection system to spare all of theses communities from floods.

Contributed by

Mark Ford US National Park Service

Other contributors

US National Park Service